Northern bluegrass festival generates ‘old-tyme’ harmonies and new camaraderie

Scott Roos

Special to the Herald

The Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Festival went down this Friday, August 19th through Sunday, August 21st at the Ness Creek site near Big River, Saskatchewan.

For several of the artists, though, the week leading up to the festivities began with stints as instructors at the Bluegrass and Old Tyme music camp on the same grounds. 

“We’ve had some wonderful instructors this year. We’ve been really pleased,” Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Society executive director Tanya Wagner told the Herald.

The Local Group bassist Ethan Peters was one of the instructions. He said the festival was a fun social music scene that allowed musicians to jam and learn.

“I like being in an atmosphere where everyone appreciates music, treats each other with respect, and understands how to treat the instruments with respect,” Peters explained.

Clayton Linthicum teahces a class in intermediate finger-style guitar during a Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Festival workshop. — Photo by Deanna Roos.

The camp gave budding bluegrass musicians the chance to take classes in mandolin, guitar, banjo, stand up bass, songwriting, and vocal harmony. In turn, it created a camaraderie and inclusivity among both students and artists as the festival drew near.

“The students get to know (their instructors) as people first and then the music becomes more accessible,” Wagner said. “You’re able to ask questions (during classes), and there’s a bit of ‘I rubbed shoulders with this person all week and look now they’re on stage at the festival.’”

The festival itself featured a potpourri of talented bluegrass and old-time music performers from Saskatchewan like The Local Group (Saskatoon), Raven She Hollers (Birch Lake) on top of talented out of towners Doggone Brothers (B.C.), and the Stanley County Cut-Ups (Manitoba).

The Cut-Ups in particular were a huge hit with the festival crowd. They delighted the audience with their energetic, blazingly fast bluegrass tunes as well as tight “close harmonies” on their slower gospel numbers.

“It’s the harmonies that get me going. Certain harmonies give you goosebumps and make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. I love that so I just try to recreate that in the songs we write I suppose,” said Stanley County Cut-Ups vocalist/guitarist T.J. Blair. “But we love it all. It’s a package deal.”

Capping off the festival lineup were a few acts from south of the border including Five Mile Mountain Road (Virginia) and The Price Sisters (Kentucky). Five Mile Mountain Road delighted the audience with their eclectic mix of old-time, bluegrass, western swing and ragtime songs. The lively and exuberant fiddling of bandleader Billy Hurt was truly a sight to behold.

On the flip side, the Price Sisters led by Lauren Price-Napier on mandolin/vocals and twin sister Leanna Price on fiddle/vocals demonstrated technical virtuosity. With a band capped off by Conner Steven Vlietstra (guitar), Trevor Holder (Banjo) and fill-in bassist Danny Knicely, it was hard not to marvel at this group and how easily they made playing bluegrass and old-time music look.

Lauren Price-Napier (left) and Leana Price (right) of the Price Sisters perform during the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Festival. — Photo by Deanna Roos.

For the Price Sisters in particular, the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme music festival, was the first time they had shared the stage together in Canada. The group had played in a Canadian festival in the weeks prior but Leanna had been unable to attend due to getting Covid. At the Ness Creek site, Leanna was able to join Lauren and the magic of the hallowed Ness grounds as well as the warmth and friendliness of the people in attendance seemed to captivate the two women. They got caught up in a vibe that is uniquely “Ness”.

“I think it’s going to be hard to beat this one. Everyone was super nice and accommodating and friendly and it made us have a really great week,” raved Leanna who also taught intermediate/advance bluegrass fiddle at the camp.

“The whole week just felt good,” added Lauren who taught intermediate/advanced Mandolin.

At the end of the day, the experience of the camp gives folks in attendance the chance to encounter the accessibility of the bluegrass and old-time genres first hand whilst the festival allows people to see and hear masters of the genre doing what they do best. The camp and festival are separate entities to be sure but are truly powerful when experienced in conjunction with one another. 

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