Despite its name, the Charm City Bluegrass Festival will expand its scope to include the entire spectrum of string-band music when it returns to Druid Hill Park this Saturday. The all-day, four-stage event will include everything from traditional bluegrass to new-grass to the new-wave of old-time bands. What all these bands have in common is a hard-driving rhythmic propulsion, but their music usually works best when that energy is balanced by emotional vocals.
Zach Lupetin learned that when he hired Liz Beebe for his band, the Dustbowl Revival, probably the most exciting act in an overall strong lineup. The California octet had built its reputation on a combustible combination of string-band instruments (mandolin, fiddle, and guitar) with trad-jazz instruments (trumpet and trombone) that got audiences out of their chairs and jumping around. But the Dustbowl Revival didn't separate itself from the string-band pack until Beebe added the extra dimension of heartfelt singing.
"Before we were more like a party band trying to get people dancing," Lupetin says over the phone from Florida. "But when Liz joined, I could write songs for her that were more soulful with a deeper sound. Liz is a little more willing to get vulnerable, to show her emotions through the vocals. Now it’s something we’re learning to do together. Stripping yourself bare on stage is not easy. Liz is good at making people shut up and listen."
On the band's previous release, the 2015 live recording "Lampshade On," Dustbowl Revival emphasized their raucous dance-party numbers that made good use of the group's unusual blend of bluegrass and jazz. But the numbers featuring Beebe's voice—a huge folk-blues instrument in the Bonnie Raitt tradition—were what distinguished the disc from the slew of Americana wanna-bes.
The band's male members were smart enough to realize this, and their next album will lean more heavily on original songs that showcase Beebe's complaints about and celebrations of relationships. The new project, overseen by Old Crow Medicine Show producer Ted Hutt and due in June, has already yielded a terrific two-sided single, available on the group's website. 'Busted' is a stomping, horn-fueled, no-good-man blues lament with witty lyrics, while 'Only One' is a romantic ballad sold by Beebe’s yearning soprano and plinking ukulele.
"I joke that I'm the feeling department of the band," Beebe says. "I try to live my life in an open and vulnerable way, and Zach writes lyrics that allows me to inject myself into the songs. The string-band world can be a bit of a boys' club, but most of these bands feature very strong women. I've always been clear that I don't play by anyone else's rules, and as a result my own experience has been very positive."
Representing the more mainstream bluegrass aspect of the Charm City Bluegrass Festival is Valerie Smith. Like Beebe, she grew up on show tunes, jazz standards, and folk music but was totally smitten when she encountered string-band music. When she started out in the late-1990s, a female-led band was still a rarity.
"The role of women has changed greatly over the years I've been playing," Smith says. "There are more women in bluegrass—and more who are instrumentalists and not just singers. It's becoming a norm instead of a rarity. That wasn't the case when I started. I remember doing my first show in Mississippi, and three people came up to me and said, 'We've never seen a woman leading a bluegrass band before.'
"I wasn't the first, but it wasn’t that common. Now people don't look at you like you’re different; it's no longer a novelty. Now it's, 'Oh, she plays music and leads a band. How good is she?' In the past a festival might say, 'Oh, we've already got a band led by a female.' That's not true anymore."
The new wave of female bandleaders such as Smith, Alison Krauss, Claire Lynch, and Lynn Morris has transformed bluegrass by placing less emphasis on speedy virtuosity and more on strong new songs that capture an emotion. That's certainly true of Smith's catalogue, from her breakthrough version of Gillian Welch's 'Red Clay Hello' to Smith's own 'Farmer's Prayer' on last year's "Small Town Heroes" album.
For many years Smith traveled the road in a typical bluegrass bus. But when she realized that most of her work was on the East Coast and in Europe, she decided to sell the bus and fly from her home in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, to the gigs. To make that work, she needed an East Coast band, and she asked Baltimore banjoist Joe Zauner to put a group together for her. Zauner recruited mandolinist Lisa Kay Howard, fiddler Wally Hughes and bassist Tom Gray from the Baltimore-Washington area.
Howard is just the latest in a long string of female instrumentalists and harmony singers who have been in Smith's bands. "They were always talented musicians who could hold their own," Smith insists. "I held them to the same standards as I held anyone else." Smith and Howard will be leading harmony vocal workshops at the Charm City Bluegrass Festival.
Just as revealing is the presence in Smith's band of Gray, who helped launched the new-grass revolution of the 1960s as a member of the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene. "The energy Tom offers and the experience he brings from playing with those bands and Emmylou Harris is phenomenal," Smith says. "I asked my band to help me to get that authentic East Coast, new-grass sound. And we did it: a lot of tradition mixed with an edgier vocal approach."
The current line-up of the Seldom Scene will also be at the festival along with such noted bluegrass acts as the Lonesome River Band and Danny Paisley & Southern Grass. Joining Dustbowl Revival will be such alternative-string-band acts as Lone Bellow, Chris Jacobs, and an all-star group featuring members of the Yonder Mountain String Band and Leftover Salmon.
The Charm City Bluegrass Festival takes place at Druid Hill Park Saturday, April 29, from 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.