NORTH ADAMS — The converted brick warehouses and cement courtyards of MASS MoCA, a museum that generally looks to the bleeding edge when it comes to live performance as well as art, may not seem the most obvious home for a bluegrass festival.
But a hurried foray in that direction two years ago has since grown into, well, kind of a big deal. Now in its third year, FreshGrass is set to make a statement as a serious player in the region’s acoustic-music world.
“FreshGrass is an evolving concept,” says Chris Wadsworth, a venture-capital guy with a longtime love of bluegrass who was brought in by the museum to help shape the festival and lead booking efforts. “I think it takes a couple of years to really establish a festival, and we just want to carve out our niche.”
That niche is growing. A few hundred people attended the first go-round in 2011, a two-day affair hatched with fewer than three months of planning — almost a spontaneous improvisation in the world of museum programming. This year, organizers expect at least 3,000 festival-goers, attendance similar to that of Wilco’s first Solid Sound festival at the venue. One stage has expanded to three, plus pop-up shows in the museum galleries.
There’s also a host of hands-on workshops led by students and faculty in Berklee College of Music’s roots music program, and performances by five finalists in competition for an award going to an emerging bluegrass band.
The chief draw is a well-stacked lineup promising to offer a weekend-long musical dialogue between distinguished traditionalists and various waves of innovators. Twenty-five bands will play from Friday evening through Sunday, composing a bill twice as large as the one offered just last year.
The Del McCoury Band, Dr. Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys, local favorite Sarah Jarosz, and the Devil Makes Three represent different generations of musicians leaning toward a more traditional take on the music; Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall, the Infamous Stringdusters, and Alison Brown are among festival performers noted for bringing American roots music to unexpected places.
Organizers say it’s because of this conversation between old and new that a bluegrass festival even makes sense at a museum so focused on the latest developments in fine art that it elects not to keep a permanent collection. When it comes to music, the venue is known for performances by the likes of Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Marc Ribot, as well as the annual summer festival of new-music pioneers Bang on a Can.
“For many years, what people would have thought of when they thought of music here was probably pointedly avant-garde or exploratory music,” admits museum director Joe Thompson. “We see progressive, folk, newgrass, rock-infused roots music as an interesting area of exploration right now in the national music scene.”
It’s not news to craft a bluegrass-oriented festival that interprets the genre broadly; the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco has fun with that notion in its very name, and the scene’s preeminent festival in Telluride, Colo., included Feist and Jackson Browne in its otherwise twang-heavy lineup this year. As FreshGrass finds its voice, its mission seems to be to respect the genre’s traditions but offer no apologies for tossing them off the wagon.
“New England is possibly still the strongest market for folk music in the country — and I mean folk in the big sense of the word. So I think there’s a great population there to be served by an open-minded festival,” says Brown, whose genre-bending quartet (performing Saturday) has played at jazz and classical festivals. “I thought the FreshGrass brand made so much sense for trying to put a tent over what’s happening with bluegrass and bluegrass-related music now.”
In its mix of old, new, and newer, FreshGrass provides almost a capsule history of this music, with performers who’ve played key roles in different stages of its evolution.
While Stanley and McCoury (who play Friday and Sunday, respectively) are nearly peerless purveyors of the old-time sound, Bush’s cred as a reformer is sterling — his band New Grass Revival gave name in the 1970s to the next wave of bluegrass, taking cues from rock and jazz. (He plays Sunday.) Two decades later, Leftover Salmon, who take the stage Saturday, stirred some Cajun flavors into the mix and celebrated the sound’s roots as party music, in more of a jam-band context. The Infamous Stringdusters, who return to the festival for the third time on Sunday, are among the latest wave of bands finding a contemporary context for the music first woven, from different strands of hand-me-down styles, by Bill Monroe and friends some 70 years ago.
“Anytime you do something like this, you’re going to get some backlash from the traditionalists,” says Drew Emmitt, Leftover Salmon’s frontman, of his band, “but even some of the more traditional artists have realized that what we do is good for bluegrass. They see the value of what we do to expand the audience.”
If they have it their way, FreshGrass organizers would like to say the same of their own new festival.