A good time had by all (an amazingly numerous and enthusiastic all) at the Wolf Trap Bluegrass Festival last weekend. On Sunday afternoon when I dropped in, there were frisbees flying across the rolling Virginia meadows, impromptu square-dancing, a few unpaid banjo-pickers and harmonica (padon me, harp) players in the crowd to keep the music going during the frequent pauses to shift setups from one group to the next, and lots of healthy, suntanned, barefoot enthusiasts vibrating in time to some phenomenal music.
The afternoon's attractions were numerous, varied and, without exception, sterling performers, beginning with Bryan Bowers, who makes and autoharp sound like a steel band and including John Hartford, the Dillards, Doc Watson and the patriarchal Bill Monroe with his Bluegrass Boys. With a warm (perhaps too warm), sunny afternoon to encourage the turnout, they drew a massive crowd - thousands of good country people and one Iranian empress. Practically all of the high-priced seats were filled, and the lawns, where the home folks like to bring a lunch and spread a blanket, were so crowded that you could hardly see any grass.
Unfortunately, perhaps, you could hardly hear any bluegrass, either, for most of the afternoon. In order to accommodate the very diverse and generally excellent performers, the festival had to stretch that name to appoint where its meaning nearly disappears.
If you're going to be a purist about it (and I guess I am), bluegrass is a form as strictly defined as the classical string quartet.
Bill Monroe is bluegrass, and his group performs with precision, though with little of the spontaneity and high spirits I associate with this music. And you can call Doc Watson by any title you want and I will go to hear him, though Merle was not present yesterday and Doc was perhaps a bit under par.
Ultimately, I suppose the name doesn't matter; the music was good and I enjoyed it thoroughly, But I wish they had called their festival something else.