“Everyone likes bluegrass once they hear it.” So says Rick Snell, guitarist and singer with the Brooklyn band Six Deadly Venoms, talking about the music that he makes. This year, the Venoms – Snell, Elio Schiavo on mandolin and vocals, Jared Engel on bass, Todd Livingston on Dobro, Bennett Sullivan on banjo and Nick Reeb on fiddle – will bring their take on this fundamentally American genre to the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival from Thursday, July 18 through Sunday, July 21 on the Walsh Farm in Oak Hill in Greene County. The band, as well as the festival itself, promises moments at once heartfelt and adventurous, fiery and classic.
The guys met at picking sessions around New York City. “We first got together as a bunch of young players who dug each other’s playing and wanted to do all the great old tunes together,” explains Snell. “We quickly discovered, however, that we were all busy writing some pretty unique original music. Once we started writing and arranging together and putting it all on record, we knew we were on to something new and special. We’re involved in all these different kinds of music, and these other influences are coming up in the stuff that we write.”
Something that showcases the band’s talents, not only for writing but also for playing, is their 2012 release The Lucky and the Losers. The album features seven tracks: one traditional, one by Johnny Cash, one instrumental by Snell and the rest by Schiavo. “It’s definitely more modern…ish,” says Schiavo, and laughs, when asked where the group falls in the landscape between the traditional and the newer incarnations of the high, lonesome sound. “It’s a 50/50 blend of the real traditional ethic and a more modern, poppier approach.”
True to his word, both styles are present on the album. Schiavo’s fluid, plaintive vocals lead the way through his originals, including “The Sky Is Falling,” from which the album’s title is drawn, giving just a bit of grit, courtesy of his Brooklyn home and Philadelphia upbringing. The instruments make a lush and supportive backdrop to the vocals, with each one taking the spotlight in turn. The players’ prowess is evident throughout, with some particularly pleasing moments in Snell’s “Six Deadly Venoms Do the Ninja Walk,” when bassist Engel switches briefly over to a bow and the players trade phrases back and forth.
Though each of the Venoms has his own history with the festival, Engel’s goes back the furthest. After volunteering for three summers in a row, in 2003 he won the Bill Vernon Memorial Scholarship (awarded annually by the festival to talented young players in need of college assistance) and went on to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Grey Fox was also the place where he first heard Tony Trischka and Abigail Washburn, with both of whom he subsequently worked.
Nick Reeb has performed several times at Grey Fox with King Wilkie, and Todd Livingston has performed there with the Dixie Bee-Liners. Schiavo, Snell and Bennett Sullivan have been attending as bluegrass enthusiasts and campers for a number of years. The thing that they all have in common is a love for the festival: the people it brings together, the campsite jams and the eclectic shows and workshops put on across different stages.
At last year’s festival, Engel found Grey Fox assistant director Mary Burdette and gave her a just-barely-released copy of The Lucky and the Losers. She listened. And she liked it. She reached out to Schiavo for more copies, and then passed them on to the festival’s producer, Mary Doub, and others. The Venoms quickly made the top of the short list for the Emerging Artist Showcase.
Burdette, along with her colleagues, takes an “ear-to-the-ground” approach when scouting bands. Much of that happens at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) conference, where she’ll go listen to a new band on anything from word-of-mouth to an agent’s recommendation. Following the model that was developed last year, Grey Fox 2013 will feature five different stages where artists can play, featuring side projects and offshoots of some of the more familiar bands, as well as their traditional incarnations. Andy Falco and Chris Pandolfi of the Infamous Stringdusters will get a chance to play as a duo called Founding Fathers, and Kimber Ludiker of Della Mae will play with her brother Dennis under the name Ludipalooza, just to mention a couple.
As always, Grey Fox holds a number of workshops in the Grass Roots Tent – this year with everyone from Michael Daves to Woodstock’s own Bill Keith – and provides opportunities for players of all levels to join in at the Slow Jam Tent. The Catskill Stage starts the day with meditation and yoga, and continues until late at night with usually rollicking dance music.
The Creekside Stage is where Six Deadly Venoms will play, alongside other Emerging Artists and more well-known names. The High Meadow Stage will play host to bluegrass greats like the Del McCoury Band, Lonesome River Band, Jerry Douglas Band and more.
Preparations at the Walsh Farm are well underway; so are those of Six Deadly Venoms, and all the other pickers and singers talented enough to have earned a spot on one of Grey Fox’s stages this year. The festival kicks off on Thursday, July 18 (though the gates open to campers on Wednesday, July 17) and runs through Sunday, July 21. Six Deadly Venoms can be heard on Saturday, July 20 at 1 p.m. on the Creekside Stage.