We were bouncing and rattling up an unpaved logging road in the Cohutta Wilderness in northern Georgia. The truck we were following up the fourteen-mile road to a lakeside camping site high in the mountains was creating a dense fog of dust making driving on the narrow track demanding. The driver was worried that she might miss a bend and our truck would slide down the steep wooded slope on our right. Within a half hour we were at the top where we spent the weekend taking a break from everything familiar, hiking, kayaking and canoeing, eating meals cooked over an open fire. You’ve probably done something similar yourself recently. It’s one of the reasons we all live within the nexus of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. It’s the reason for River Rocks.
The fourteen-day celebration of the wild world around us opens on Friday (October 5th) with Fletcher Bright’s celebration of the music he’s played all his life, The Three Sisters Bluegrass Festival. Beginning on Friday evening at 6, and continuing throughout the day and evening on Saturday, the free festival will bring a host of great musicians to its stage on the lip of the greenspace on the riverfront.
In 1945, after listening to Bill Monroe play, Fletcher, along with several of his buddies at McCallie School, began playing bluegrass. They’re still at it, albeit with a couple of newer
members, 67 years later. They’ll be playing a short set to open the festival at 6 on Friday evening, and another slightly longer set on Saturday afternoon at 2.
This is the 6th year for the festival featuring a broad swath of talented musicians reflecting Fletcher’s eclectic taste. Along with some of the best traditional bluegrass bands, in past years the festival has featured Solas, the Greencards, Uncle Earl, Peter Rowan and The Emmitt-Nershi Band.
This year’s line-up includes Keller and The Keels, and The Travelin’ McCourys, a band led by Del McCoury’s two sons, Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo). Like their father (and Fletcher) they don’t think music should sit still. They still play the music they heard growing up, but they’re always stretching to keep it fresh. Talking about their approach on their website, Ronnie said, “If we need to plug in, we’ll plug in. We’re open to anything.”
Last year they jammed with The Allman Brothers at Florida’s Wanee Festival, and later with Warren Haynes at his annual Christmas concert in Asheville. They also released Meeting In the Middle, a six song EP capping a series of shows with the sacred steel band The Lee Boys with whom they’ve been creating a heady fusion of gospel, blues and bluegrass as each group of musicians pushes the other closer to the stratosphere.
The Travelin’ McCourys will be closing the festival on Saturday evening with a set starting at 8:30. A couple of hours earlier, guitarist Keller Williams will be playing a set with The Keels. But Williams also played a series of shows with The McCourys this past Summer
following the release of Pick, an album they made together in Nashville late last year, it could be that they’ll play a few tunes together on Saturday night.
Another band known for pushing the boundaries of bluegrass, Colorado’s Yonder Mountain String Band, are the closing act on Friday evening. Recent sets have included their take on everything from The Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog” to The Allman Brothers’ “Whippin’ Post” and the Grateful Dead’s “Reuben and Cherise.” From those choices alone it’s clear their listening has been as deep as it’s been disparate, and their energized takes on those vintage songs as well as a range of others not only served to energize their sets and breathe new life into those venerable classics, it almost certainly introduced a new generation (as well as many in older generations) to songs they might never otherwise have heard.
That is the beauty of Fletcher’s free festival. It’s a celebration of a rich tradition while at the same time keeping the music alive and well with an annual infusion of Bill Monroe’s rebel spirit, the same spirit that drew Fletcher and his friends to the music all those years ago.
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.