Grassroots Bluegrass: Tending to a homegrown music fest

Rhode Island is known for iconic music festivals. For decades, Newport has been home to two iconic music festivals: folk and jazz. As time has progressed some festival goers have started to feel that these shows have gotten too big, that the festivals have gotten too commercial and some people just go to them for social media clout with little care for the music itself. 

Sal Sauco, the president of the RI Bluegrass Association, and the rest of its members have an alternative. A newer festival that is still in its infancy; where music is still the focus of it all. This two-day festival dedicated to bluegrass music is called the “Ocean State Bluegrass Festival and Pick-nic,” which takes place on Saturday and Sunday, Sep 17 – 18.

Rhode Island Bluegrass Alliance (RIBA) was established in 2013 and their mission is to promote the appreciation of bluegrass music, and serve as a resource to educate and coordinate with fans, students, teachers and musicians in the surrounding area. Sauco has been a fan of bluegrass for many years and is the mandolin player for his band The Greystone Rail. “I started out strumming guitar with some guys playing 70’s music. They said that I should check the bluegrass music playing at the Maple Glen. I kept telling them that I didn’t like bluegrass. One weekend I went by myself just to say that I went and I ended up realizing that I had met my people.” 


A contingent of the public believes that bluegrass is “hillbilly music” and associated with the Ozarks. “I was down in Nashville last year and they were asking about the scene in New England. (New England) is actually on the forefront of contemporary bluegrass music,” Sauco said. He added that there is a huge influx of youth that is pushing this New England bluegrass movement as well. 

This will be the third annual occurrence of the festival. The first was in 2018 but the last two years were interrupted due to COVID. “The festival allows us to reach out to people in an easy-going environment. Anyone that is just curious about us will find themselves a good time. It also allows us to showcase this great music… so we are grateful to be doing it again.” The event will take place at Frerichs Farm in Warren, RI. “It is a great venue and they love hosting the show. It also allows them to sell their products.”

This year’s festival will feature three bands on Saturday night; The Hosmer Mountain Boys, Poor Monroe and Rock Hearts. Cathy Day, the fiddle player from The Hosmer Mountain Boys, said, about their band being able to play the festival: “Keegan and Simon (the guitar and banjo player) have been going to bluegrass festivals since they were babies, so playing at a festival like this, is like a family reunion. People have mentored them and watched them grow up.  I’m so proud of these boys and super proud as a mom to be fiddling and singing harmony on stage with my son and his best friend.” The talent is all from New England and Rock Hearts have been featured on XM Radio.

One interesting note about the festival is that you can camp overnight at the farm. “It is a tradition of bluegrass festivals to have a camping element to it where people will play late into the night,” Sauco said. When you wake up in the morning, the festival will have a relaxed feel. Though there are no main acts Sunday, visitors will still be entertained by “pickin’ circles,” raffles and workshops for people looking to learn about bluegrass or to hone their own skills in what they call a “slow jam” format.

The second annual Ocean State Bluegrass Festival will take place from Saturday, Sep 17 to Sunday, Sep 18. Gates will be open on Saturday at 3pm and the music will start at 6pm. Tickets are $20 for the show, $30 if you intend to camp. Sunday it is free admission and activities will start at 11am. Parking is $5.