A story about the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival Kids Academy

Bluegrass music is a culture. It’s a community.

This past July one of the biggest bluegrass festivals in America, the Grey Fox bluegrass Festival, took place in a small town about an hour south of Albany.

I’ve been a teacher for the bluegrass academy for kids there for about 20 years. We teach kids ages 8-17 how to sing and play on fiddles, guitars, mandolins, banjos, cellos and basses, with three songs to be performed on the main stage on Sunday at the end of the festival.

I am just one of a team of 12 teachers teaching 60 to 140 kids who come from many different cities and states. This year was a watershed year for me personally. It was the first year that my own grandchildren participated as students. Jack (age 12) and Emma (10) both gave fiddle class a try.

My own children grew up going to bluegrass festivals with my wife and I. But opportunities like the academy for kids didn’t exist back then. I was curious. How would this fit my grandkids?

The kids all met their teachers on Thursday night and got their songs to learn. Some had  learned them beforehand at home thanks to files I shared on the internet. About half of the kids had been there in past years. They recognized old friends and played some songs they knew in common.

For the next two days, we learned solos and vocal parts in two-hour sessions a couple times a day. After the kids played with us for four hours, many of them chose to go out to the walkways leading up to the main stage and “busk.”

To busk is to put out a bucket with “donations for the Bluegrass Academy” written on it and to play music and collect money as people pass by. The money goes to help pay for the operation of the academy and keep it free to families who attend the festival.


Many kids put in two or three hours doing this after they had already played four hours in class each day. Oh, and did I mention, these days were record breaking rainfall days at the festival site? They walked through the mud back and forth from class to their campsites and again out for busking.

My grandkids went out to busk for the first time on Saturday after dinner. They interacted with other kids their same age and had to come up with songs and arrangements on their own.

It was rocky at first, but the kids found their groove, you might say. My 10-year-old granddaughter returned with me to her parent’s trailer at about 8 p.m. She said it was fun but now she was ready to come in.

Her older brother came back to the campsite at about 10:30. He had been busking that whole time with some new friends from the academy. I asked him how it went? Did he have fun? Without hesitation he replied. “I can’t wait to come back next year! I got to meet and play with other kids and we had a ball!”

This Bluegrass Academy has been going on for over 20 years and there are others at Bluegrass festivals all over the country. As I said back at the beginning of this story, “Bluegrass is a community and a culture,” one of the biggest reasons I love it.

 A Review of the Grey Fox Festival

Steep Canyon

I’ve been going to this festival for many years and it never ceases to impress me. As the weather forecast kept evolving, the working staff, volunteers and the talent continued to deliver a safe and enjoyable weekend.

A late-night show on Thursday night was interrupted by a brief rain storm but continued as they dried off the stage, much to the delight of the many fans of the Steep Canyon Rangers, including Scott and Jack Panfil, my son and grandson. The show was high energy and showcased the arrangements and well-written songs that are the heart of the band.

Friday night kicked off with the Del McCoury Band and had the crowd dancing and singing along to the songs that they have introduced to the bluegrass popular song book. We all sang along with “Nashville Cats” and “‘52 Vincent Black Lightning,” among many others.

The Del McCoury Band

After their show, the clouds opened up to drench the mountain and field where the festival goers camped. The experienced traffic safety crew at the festival have developed a flag system to close down all non-essential vehicle travel until the roads have dried out. Daytime rains produced rainbows that seem computer generated but were completely naturally occurring.

Throughout the weekend, bands continued to play even through the rains in the covered dance tent, Creek Side tent and High Meadows covered stage.

A Review: The Probables at the Chautauqua Institute

The Jamestown roots and Americana band, the Probables played an afternoon concert on Sunday, July 23, at the historic Amphitheater in the Chautauqua Institute to an enthusiastic audience of new and old fans.
The songs were beautifully written and executed by the band. The sounds of the excellent fiddler and mandolin players drew me into the beautiful open air amphitheater, and the charm of the songs kept us captivated on this day trip to the glories of earlier times.

Upcoming bluegrass shows – Local

Sunday, Aug. 15: The Mayville Bluegrass Festival, Big Inlet Brewery in Mayville, featuring Gene Johnson of Diamond Rio; a reunion of the band, Night Sun; Knarley Knuckles; Doug Yeomans and Mountain Run;Blue Mule; and Creek Bend. This year, camping is available.

Friday, Aug. 18:   Creek Bend at Slade Park, Erie County Fair, 1-4 p.m.

Sunday, Aug. 20: The Buffalo Bluegrass Youth Ensemble at Slade Park, Erie County Fair, 7-9:30 p.m.

Sunday, Aug. 27: The Panfil Brothers Trio at the Ellicottville Distillery, 2-5 p.m.

Tuesday, Aug. 29:  Creek Bend at Eden Summer Concert Series, 6:30-8:30 PM

National Acts coming to town

Remember the hit song, “Mr. Bojangles”? That was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band doing the Jerry Jeff Walker song, and the band is coming to western New York on Friday, Aug. 4, 7-9:30 p.m. at the Seneca Allegheny Casino, Salamanca.

John Cowan and his Bluegrass All Stars have canceled their November show at the Sportsmen’s  Tavern due to health issues for Cowan.

A Call for future Bluegrass Stars

Do you know any kids who play violin, cello, viola or cello in their middle or high school? Or do you know any kids who play acoustic guitar and don’t really have a place to play with other kids their age?

Well, the Buffalo Bluegrass Youth Ensemble is looking for new kids to join us this fall. We are a bluegrass music club run that I run in Hamburg. We are a club that is open to any  students, grades 5-12, who play violin, viola, cello, bass, guitar, mandolin, 5-string banjo or dobro.

We meet every first, third and fifth Monday on the months October through June, at Wayside Presbyterian Church on the corner of Amsdell Road and Route 5 in Hamburg from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

We play songs by bluegrass pioneers such as Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Ralph Stanley and Jimmy Martin. We will also play music by newer bluegrass-influenced artists such as Nickel Creek, Old Crow Medicine Show and the Grateful Dead. Instrumentally our music choices will include traditional Irish and American Fiddle music that has entered the mainstream of American string music.

Melodies and sometimes harmonies will be given to students in standard notation and/or tablature, but will be expected to be memorized for public performances. These melodies will be kept simple, making them easy to memorize and leaving room for embellishments and improvisation as students get comfortable with them.

Public performances may range from appearances in farmers markets to fairs and appropriate museums.

If you know of someone, please ask them to email me at MarkPanfil@Hotmail.com

A Musical Celebration of the life of Gretchen Banaszak

Wednesday, July 26, at the West Falls Center for the Arts, an emotional and joyous event unfolded celebrating the life of a gentle woman and a friend to all who attended.

(L-r) Jim Whitford, Phil Banaszak, Jean Dickson, Chris Panfil.

Gretchen was a fiddle-playing part of the City Fiddle band and the wife of the band’s founder, Phil Banaszak. She passed away last September. Phil wanted to honor her life with a concert featuring original music that she and Phil performed many times as City Fiddle.

The results were amazing.

Tim Pitcher and Chris Panfil shared the third person spot in City Fiddle through the years and both stepped up to remember a friend and help another one. Every song on the show was written by Phil and Gretchen (in at least one case). Tim and Chris held down the rhythm guitar for these extremely well crafted tunes and songs. They each added solos too, often supplying the melody or harmony fiddle line that Gretchen would have played.

(L-r) Phil Banaszak, Dave Ruch, Titus Stevens, Tim Pitcher.

Phil’s other bandmates in the Canal Street String Band, Dave Ruch and Jim Whitford, showcased some of the compositions they had toured the northeast US with. The version of “Canal Street Slide” based on impressions Phil incorporated into the tune, musically representing a canal sailor finding his way back to the boat after a night of hard drinking told a story with no words needed.

Later Ruch joined Phil and young, outstanding mandolin player Titus Stevens in playing “Mars Chasing the Moon” in a spectacular mandolin trio where each player took turns playing small parts of the solo as if they were also chasing each other. Local cellist Dave Meyer from Kindred played Phil’s tune, “Always Room for Cello” to an enthusiastic reception by the audience.

Doug Yeomans, Sally and Rich Schaefer and I added our Buffalo Bluegrass All Stars’ renditions of Phil’s “Andover Barn Dance”  and “Billy Rubin Reel” in the finale.

Mike Reardon of Reardon & Garvey and Jean Dickson added beautiful vocal harmonies to several of the songs. Mike also presented Phil with an original portrait of Gretchen which was placed in front of the stage to remind us of Gretchen’s presence in spirit throughout this amazing night.

Slim Norris (left) and Dave Ruch.

Other highlights included a return to playing for one of Buffalo’s premiere bluegrass mandolin players, Paul “Slim” Norris. He joined Phil on an incredible tune in G minor, “Shadowlands,” composed by Phil and Dave Ruch.

The evening ended with an encore of the “CMS Special,” named for the Community Music School in Buffalo, where Phil has taught for many years.

Two overall impressions of the night: One, writing and playing original music is also fun to listen to when it is embraced by serious, experienced musicians. Two, Gretchen Banaszak was an exceptional woman and all who played and those who attended loved and respected her and fiddlin’ Phil.

Well, I hope you are having a great summer and also hope you are getting your share of great live music, including some Bluegrass.

The Editor

Author The Editor

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