The Bluegrass Situation


bluegrassA couple of years ago I had the pleasure of attending the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, NY. Though I am a lifelong musician and music fan, I was not terribly familiar with bluegrass music. I approached the festival with eyes wide open, interviewing several musicians and educators, and the festival’s assistant director Mary Burdette. I was not prepared for what I was about to see.

I heard so much music — around 20 bands, instrumental master-classes, impromptu jam sessions in the middle of the road and educational ensembles of young musicians. Headliners were completely accessible, talking and socializing with fans stage-side and throughout the festival grounds. A pirate radio station broadcasted live from the event.  After hours I roamed the landscape, crashed parties and heard large extended families singing and playing together into the wee small hours of the morning.


“People look forward to this festival all year,” says Burdette of Grey Fox. “We’ve had people get married here. People have stated in their wills that they want their ashes to come to Grey Fox. It’s a really amazing community.”

I was instantaneously hooked.

A few months passed. Then late one night I stumbled into a dive bar in Providence and heard the familiar sounds of banjo, guitar, mandolin and acoustic bass. The dive bar was Nick-A-Nee’s and I was at the “Bluegrass Throedown.”

Enter Sal Sauco, the promoter of this weekly event, and the president of the Rhode Island Bluegrass Association (RIBA). Founded in 2013, RIBA is a community of bluegrass lovers, ranging from accomplished performers to beginners and fans who just love to listen. Its mission is to promote the appreciation of bluegrass music, and serve as a resource to educate and coordinate fans, students, teachers, musicians and venues in Rhode Island and the surrounding area. An affiliate of the International Bluegrass Music Association, RIBA is over 1,200 members strong, making it the fourth largest bluegrass affiliate in the US.

“There is a large, active and growing bluegrass community here in southern New England,” says Sauco. “RIBA serves as a connection to anyone even remotely interested in this community, and fosters music education and appreciation.”

A passionate musician and arts advocate, Sauco grew up playing guitar, performing many different styles of music in many different bands. Then in his 40s, after attending a bluegrass jam session at the urging of a friend, he picked up a fiddle and eventually settled on the mandolin. He has been playing it ever since.

Accessibility and education are built in to the tapestry of this music. All are welcome, and anyone can learn to play at any age. RIBA hosts a monthly “slow jam” for learners, open to all skill levels. This summer RIBA will be running two children’s academies at local bluegrass festivals:  The “Podunk Music Festival” in Hebron, Connecticut, and “Bluegrass on the Bogs” in Hanson, Massachusetts.

Back at Grey Fox, the “Bluegrass Academy” is the festival’s educational arm, offering lessons and ensemble curricula for students. Through a partnership with Berklee College of Music in Boston, scholarships are available to Academy students who plan to pursue a career in music.

For local fans, there are several regular events to check out:

For die-hard enthusiasts, there’s certainly nothing like attending a bluegrass festival. Here are a few notables coming up this summer:

To learn more about the Rhode Island Bluegrass Association, visit