Banjo therapy |

Banjo therapy

By Jay Meehan
Park Record columnist

“This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” -Pete Seeger

The timing couldn’t be better. When you add the decibel level currently emanating from the mean streets of Philly to the cacophony of last week’s vitriol-rich televised verbal-MMA bout in Cleveland, you get the sense that, once again, our only hope is to call upon the healing powers of the banjo.

And, thanks to the fine folks at Park City Institute, those of us suffering from acute deer-in-the-headlight syndrome will now have access to a tunnel wherein at the very end shines a wonderfully incandescent, quite visible, beam of light.

Which is to say that superhero instrumental therapists Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn will be bringing their gorgeously appointed rehab shtick to Deer Valley this Thursday evening, July 28.

Thirty years ago next month, when I first underwent banjo therapy at the quite nimble hands of Mr. Fleck and his sidekicks at a hillside gathering then optimistically termed the “1st Annual Deer Valley Bluegrass Festival,” the issue, whatever it was, wasn’t an overdose of political toxicity. But, no worries. The banjo heals all.

The set-up at Deer Valley’s Snow Park Amphitheater venue back on that late August day of 1986 played out on a quite different end of the cultural food chain than does today’s more, shall we say, “elaborate” setting. If memory serves, I believe they may have brought in a few bleachers. Whatever, though, it was perfect!

First, the lineup was off-scale! Besides Béla and his New Grass Revival bandmates (Sam Bush, Pat Flynn, and John Cowan), the festival featured the David Grisman Quintet, John Hartford, and the Tony Rice Unit, all from the pantheon of what pundits had begun to call the “new bluegrass.”

No doubt about it, there was a feeling that for whatever reason Park City had somehow secured what for all intents and purposes could have been called the Telluride All-Stars. Little did we know at the time that the following year’s offering would include Hot Rize, their alter ego Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, fiddler-extraordinaire Mark O’Conner, and Dobro-god Jerry Douglas, among others of equal note.

Those of us hip to the national acoustic music pecking order scratched our heads trying to figure out why we got the same headliners as Telluride but without the long lines. That was before we hooked up with Fred Shellman, the promoter of the D.V. affair and a founder of the Telluride Fest.

Fred gave us the skinny! Running into him connected some dots. Now, with Fred in the mix, most of the founders of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and also three-quarters of the legendary Telluride band Fall Creek, the outfit who started it all, had moseyed through our scene.

Some nine-plus years previous, you see, a somewhat rumpled bunch of “newgrassers” by the name of Possum had rolled into Park City for a gig at the Car-19. Leading the group were two Fall Creek alumni who went by “Kooster” and “Picker.” They had Fred stories back then and, now, almost a decade later, he returned the favor.

To cut to the chase, Fall Creek’s favorite band was New Grass Revival. So, in quick succession, they drove to the National Flat-picking Championships in Winfield, Kansas to catch them in person, hatched the idea for a festival of their own, and now, these many years later, through little expertise and insane happenstance, here we are.

Béla Fleck and his old pickin’ mate Sam Bush have become semi-regulars on the Utah scene and their technical brilliance continues to expand. Whether or not Possum, Kooster, and Picker are still roaming the musical range is anyone’s guess but four years after Fred Shellman first brought this amazing bunch to Deer Valley, the live-music gods would take him from us.

The opportunity to once again undergo banjo therapy, this time at the hands of both Béla and Abby, has got my jaw well-oiled and ready to drop. First of all, I hardly ever get the chance to witness the “clawhammer” banjo technique wrapped in the levels of virtuosity and warmth associated with Abigail Washburn.

Then there’s Béla! What can you say? We are blessed to have such an occasion in our midst. Five-string therapy in the key of “G” available Thursday night, July 28, at Deer Valley’s Snow Park Amphitheater. Let the healing begin.

Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.

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