Audio Slideshow: The Magic of Music; North Branch Bluegrass Festival Founders Keep the Faith
Tori Rosat, of Ipswich, Mass., dances with her daughter, June O'Riordan, 3, to the music of Lulu and the Shoemakers while Acadia Gould, 3, also of Ipswich, Mass., walks over to join on the last day of the North Branch Bluegrass Festival in Bridgewater Corners, Vt., on Sept. 1, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
A participant tunes her guitar during one of sixteen different music workshops at the North Branch Bluegrass Festival in Bridgewater Corners, Vt., on Sept. 1, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Benzy Flynn, of Upton, Mass., practices a fiddle tune at her campsite while her boxer, Lucy, takes a nap during the North Branch Bluegrass Festival in Bridgewater Corners, Vt., on Aug. 30, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Heather Kennedy, center, explains what else needs to be done before lunch is fully ready to be served while her husband and co-founder of the festival, Randy Kennedy, right, listens on the second day of the North Branch Bluegrass Festival in Bridgewater Corners, Vt., on Aug. 30, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Bette Chew, of Berkley, Mass., squirts John Almeda, of Little Compton, R.I., as he fills up a container of water for dishwashing in the north branch of the Ottauquechee River in Bridgewater Corners, Vt., on Aug. 30, 2013. Both Chew and Almeda were spending the weekend at the North Branch Bluegrass Festival and taking advantage of the river adjacent to the festival to cool off. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Framed photographs of Randy and Heather Kennedy's home and the field where the North Branch Bluegrass Festival is held, after Tropical Storm Irene caused flooding of the Ottauquechee River in Bridgewater Corners, Vt., on August 27, 2013. It has taken nearly two years to bring the field back to "normal", with sections still littered by massive trees and rocks.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »
Cindy Weed of Enosburg, Vt., left, and Pat Melvin of Richmond, Vt., examine Melvin’s upright bass at the North Branch Bluegrass Festival in Bridgewater Corners last month. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Bridgewater — Heather Kennedy leaned over to examine the grass. Then she straightened up, shaking her head. “Thought I saw a four-leaf clover,” she said. “There’s been about, I don’t know, 40 found this weekend so far. It’s just a magical place.”
Kennedy stood in the middle of a newly hayed field on her farm. Nearby, on a small stage, a local bluegrass band called the Crunchy Western Boys crooned about mountains and love. On the other end of the field, folks sat in groups by their campers and tents, sharing food and holding impromptu jam sessions on the fiddle, guitar and banjo.
Heather and her husband, Randy, built the North Branch Bluegrass Festival from scratch five years ago, in honor of Randy’s sister, Jane, who was suffering from multiple sclerosis, and Heather’s older sister, Wendy, who died of cancer in 2007. “She could pick up a four-leaf clover every time she looked,” said Heather.
The festival may be magical, but it has a troubled history.
“Seven hundred and thirty-two days ago, the hurricane came,” Heather recalled. She and Randy were setting up the festival stage and tents when their neighbors told them Tropical Storm Irene was expected to drop six inches of rain in their valley. “We just started getting sick to our stomach,” she said.
They dragged everything from the field to higher ground, hoping it wouldn’t get wet. But then the rain and wind came, flooding the river and sweeping away the Kennedys’ bridge and barn.
“It laid waste to this whole thing,” Heather said. “The whole field was underwater. It was basically waist height.”
The festival was off, and the bands on their way northeast from all over the country had to turn around and head home.
But last year, Randy and Heather were able to clear off the field just enough to welcome those bands back for a benefit concert. The musicians played at no charge to the Kennedys, on Labor Day weekend — a big booking weekend for bluegrass bands. The couple used the proceeds to rebuild the festival.
Now the North Branch Bluegrass Festival is back, and though it’s still small, it attracts a fiercely loyal and unfailingly friendly crowd of bluegrass enthusiasts for a weekend of nonstop music workshops and two-dozen stage performances. After the stage shows wrap up, festivities go late into the night. Those who don’t make it till dawn fall asleep to a soundtrack of fiddle music and crackling campfires.
Cat Elwell, a fiddler from Kutztown, Pa., said it’s part of bluegrass culture to help those who are down on their luck.
“Bluegrass people are the best people in the world,” she said. “We may sing the saddest, plumb pitiful songs that were ever written, but we’re a very joyful and fun-loving group, and we support each other.”
“Wild Bill” Young of Sanbornton, N.H., brought his washtub bass.
“It’s a 55 gallon plastic drum I cut down and fancied up and made myself,” he said.
Young grew up on what he calls “hillbilly music” in the Pennsylvania mountains. He says festivals like North Branch help relay a historic musical tradition to the next generation.
“A lot of the older people who play the bluegrass are passing on,” he said.
Younger bands, such as Chasing Blue, a group of recent graduates from Boston’s Berklee College of Music, are an encouragement to old-timers like Young. These twenty-somethings have an infectious passion for bluegrass.
“I love how honest it is,” said Suzanne Oleson, who hails from Austin, Texas, and is one of the band’s lead singers.
Chasing Blue was one of the bands that played for free last year to help the Kennedys get back on their feet. Oleson enjoys the close-knit feel of the weekend.
“I love that you can meet pretty much everyone at the festival,” she said.
Looking from the stage on one end of the field to the busy campsites on the other, Heather Kennedy couldn’t help but smile.
“I am happy on this field,” she said. “It looks good now. Our bank account does not.”
Even after last year’s benefit, the couple had to pour their savings into rebuilding the festival.
“It isn’t paying. It’s painful,” she said. “It’s very hard not to go crazy. We have our tantrums, when no one’s looking, and go, ‘God, this is just too much. What are we, nuts?’ ”
But she holds to her resolute faith in the magic of the place and her love of the music. On her way to the stage to catch the Crunchy Western Boys’ last song, she leaned down again, and this time plucked a four-leaf clover from the ground.
“That’s just what happens here,” she said.
Editor’s note: For more information about the North Branch Bluegrass Festival, visit http://nbbluegrass.com.