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Musicians playing guitar and bass

The Milan Bluegrass Festival

A rare constellation of talent

by James M. Manheim

From the August, 2015 issue

Bluegrass music in its traditional form, with some combination of banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and bass, is about as grassroots as you can get in today's centralized cultural environment, where even the categories of "indie" and "alternative" are carefully curated and channeled through the machinery of electronic media. Its practitioners make a living at venues like the Milan Bluegrass Festival, happening this year on August 6, 7, and 8. Take 23 south to Plank Rd., go west, turn left on Sherman, and go down that dirt road through the cornfields until you come to a stand of trees with a lawn parking lot next to it.

Bring low lawn chairs or sit on the ground. (If it rains, the music moves into a big shed.) Take a break and eat beans and cornbread, or patronize one of the small merchandise tents. If there are CDs, you might want to pick some up--this music still intersects only inconsistently with the digital universe, although it's becoming more common there as young people drawn by folk-rock and Americana seek it out.

As the festival guide advises, "Bluegrass as a music genre is more interacted with than listened to. It says, 'Hey, let's pick.'" It's certainly true in Milan--among the rows of RVs at the KC Campground you'll hear the so-called "parking-lot pickers" doing their thing. But this year, a rare constellation of talent is an equally strong draw.

On Thursday or Saturday you can go in the afternoon, the evening, or both: the music gets underway at 12:30, and the full cycle of performers repeats starting at 6 p.m. Thursday's sets include up-and-comers: Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road, Feller & Hill, the Spinney Brothers. Saturday brings a pair of powerhouses: Rhonda Vincent, who's been on stage since she was five, with her band The Rage, and the edgy Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice.

But on Friday there's just one set, at 9 p.m., by probably the hottest act in bluegrass today: Dailey &

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Vincent, fronted by guitarist Jamie Dailey and mandolinist Darrin Vincent (brother of Rhonda). This pair offers brilliant high harmonies, wrapped at blazing speed around intricate instrumental work. Both musicians are veterans of top bands, and when they joined forces in 2007 they found a productive arena of mutual challenge that's brought them to a point nobody else can touch on the music's virtuoso side. You haven't read about them on TMZ, but you'll marvel that music so skilled and sophisticated could spring from institutional origins so modest, even more so than those of jazz. It's a rare chance to hear musicians who are occupying the spots Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley filled a generation ago.text     (end of article)

[Originally published in August, 2015.]


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