By DJ Dave Hoffenberg
The best and most affordable festival around is the Basin Bluegrass Festival in Brandon, next weekend July 8-11. It’s back after the pandemic break and now in its 26th year. I attended the 25th in 2019 and was blown away by all it had to offer.
A weekend pass with camping is only $65, add a spaghetti dinner for $10 on Thursday at 5 p.m. with music to follow from Cannonball Express. They offer early bird camping July 4-7 for only $10 a spot.
There’s also daily tickets at the gate. Music on Friday/Saturday runs from 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. with some music workshops for $30. Thursday night ticket is $15 and Sunday is $15 with music from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. You can find more information at basinbluegrassfestival.com.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Linda Berry who runs it and Smokey Greene who closes it. Smokey was one of my favorite interviews to date. Talking to him was a real treat because I wasn’t expecting it. His story is very impressive.
It wasn’t until the governor announced this past March that festivals could happen that Berry started organizing this one — which is late. She usually has the bands booked by fall and starts promoting in January.
She said, “When we decided to have it, I got flyers printed. My friends and I sat down, stuffed envelopes, stamped and got them in the mail. The response has been really good this year. I’m really looking forward to Sunday which kicks off with gospel at 9 a.m. A couple leads it and whoever has instruments, joins in. He does a little preaching and then there’s a gospel sing under the tent.”
Berry encouraged me to speak to Smokey and said, “He’s been a legend around these parts for years. Back in the ‘60s I knew him and he was on the radio doing country. He’s been at this festival every year and he’s closed this festival every year.”
To close, Smokey leads everyone in “God Bless America.” Everyone gathers in a circle, joins hands and sings along.
I had no idea Smokey is 91 and has been playing music for 76 years.
He was a full-time musician for his first 32 years before getting a day job as a school custodian and eventually as head custodian (so he would have a retirement fund). He was also a country radio DJ in Glens Falls, New York, for 20 years. He’s grateful to play with his two sons, Arlin and Scott.
He said, “They’re the only thing that’s keeping me playing.”
He played country music until the ‘70s when it began to go pop. He said, “It lost its country flavor for me so I started exploring in bluegrass. I liked bluegrass even before it was called bluegrass.”
He tried to retire in 2015 but Berry asked him back for Sunday and that last song that everyone loves. He said, “I love to do it. I tried to retire and this summer I have 18 gigs. That’s how retired I am. I played ‘God Bless America’ the first year she ran a festival and it works so good that I just do it every year.”
Smokey grew up in Tinmouth/Danby. His first paid gig was at the Danby Four Corners Town Hall.
“I was 16 years old and I never looked back after that,” he said. “That’s what I always wanted to do. I’ve done other things to survive but I’ve always done music.”
He used to go to square dances when he was 14, not to dance but to watch the music. He said, “I would watch the guitar player, then go home and try and do what he was doing.”
There’s a lot of musicians in his family and whenever there was a family reunion, they would perform. He said, “I’ve heard that music since I could remember. My oldest brother, who is 16 years older than me, played some guitar. I can remember when I was 5, listening to him play and thinking some day I’m going to do that.”
Smokey likes to mix comedy songs in with the old school ballads, like “I don’t look good naked anymore.” He said, “I find if you do too many ballads, you lose the audience so you mix it up.” Smokey calls Don Reno “the best banjo player to come down the pike.” They got to work together for 10 years. Smokey said, “He told me when you’re entertaining the audience, bring them up, bring them down and then bring them back up. Don’t keep them on an even keel. That’s what I’ve always tried to do.”
Smokey and I have both been told the same thing by club owners: “When they’re dancing, they’re not drinking.”
Berry is psyched to have the festival back and said, “I’m so thankful we made it through the 25th year before we had to cancel a year.”
She encourages families to come. There are food vendors including Mexican, stuffed grilled cheese, gluten free, vegan, fried dough, ice cream and chocolate bark candy. Linda does this every year because of the people. She said, “Bluegrass people are the nicest, friendliest, just one big family. I’ve had mornings I’ve looked out my camper window and wondered why I do this? Oh ya, there’s all those people out there, that’s why I do this!”
Bring a chair and get ready to enjoy some awesome music and a fun weekend.