IROQUOIS – One of the biggest and best Bluegrass Festivals in Canada is just days away.
The Galop Canal Bluegrass Festival runs this weekend, June 13-15, at the Iroquois Point, with a line up of 11 outstanding bands coming to town.
Two of the bands, The Bluegrass Unit, a group out of Nova Scotia and Carson Peters and Iron Mountain from Tennessee are among those performing over three music-filled days and nights. I had the opportunity to chat with Justin Nauss of The Bluegrass Unit and Carson Peters of Iron Mountain about their sounds and styles.
The Bluegrass Unit is made up of five topnotch, award-winning artists. Waylon Robicheau is a four time Mandolin player of the Year, while Jeff Nauss is a five time Guitar player of the year in the ECBMA. Along with Justin Nauss, Luke Teasdale and Andrew Sneddon, the band has produced two Albums of the Year and was named Most Promising Band by the Eastern Canadian Bluegrass Music Awards.
The Bluegrass Unit has been described as a “modern traditional band.” What that means, Justin Nauss explained, is that “we play old standards with a new flair. We take a traditional bluegrass tune, but when we perform it, it doesn’t sound like Flatt & Scruggs. We really try to keep an old feel to our original pieces.”
The Bluegrass Unit has included the electric bass in some of their pieces (“a kind of heresy to die-hard Bluegrass traditionalists,” Justin laughed) to create “draw and groove. We want to get people to pay attention to Bluegrass music.”
Their approach is definitely striking a chord with music lovers young and older. They have played a lot of festivals across the country, and fans have really responded to their “modern traditional” approach.
“We are bringing back songs that may be from the 70s and 80s, but I think we are bringing a new flair to that 40-year-old sound. Frankly,” Justin laughed, “I believe that, creatively, we’re willing to put the canvas out on the table and see how much paint we can get on it.”
He sees both connections and disconnects between bluegrass and country music. Bluegrass appeared about forty years before electrical amplification, and is essentially acoustically based music. Modern country has, in many cases, developed a kind of pop sound, or as Tom Petty once famously described it: “bad rock with a fiddle.”
In their own original music (much of it composed by Waylon Robicheau), The Blue Grass Unit looks at “heartbreak and murder, the usual bluegrass themes,” Justin said. “Actually I co-wrote a song with Waylon and it was about love and loss. When we get ideas, we wait until the time is right and the music is ready.”
The Galop Canal Bluegrass Festival will be The Bluegrass Unit’s first time touring in Ontario: they are looking forward to meeting and performing for the fans in this part of the world.
“We met Barb (Rabideau, Festival organizer) about two years ago. When she said there was a slot open for us at Galop Canal we jumped at the chance.”
Also eager to come to Iroquois for the Galop Canal Bluegrass Festival is Carson Peters of Carson Peters and Iron Mountain.
Like The Blue Grass Unit, this is a young band from what many would call in the heart of bluegrass country, Tennessee. Carson is just 15, and two other band mates Ben Marshall and Austin Tate are 18 and 19. They are balanced by a banjo player Eric Marshall, with 20 years experience and Carson’s dad, Jamie. Bluegrass is a real family affair in the Peters household since Carson describes his mother, who handles tours and bookings as his “Momanager.”
Carson has been playing bluegrass fiddle since he was barely three years old. He grew up in a home filled with music and proudly says that “Bluegrass and country raised me.”
He’s performed on Jay Leno and Little Big Shots, and even on the floor of the Tennessee State Senate.
He’s fond of country music, but “it’s got a lot of electric guitars now, and is almost soft rock. Bluegrass is all acoustic. You can sit around a campfire and just play without plugging in. It’s comfortable music. I love it.”
The band has released three albums to date, one of them pure gospel. Carson feels that gospel music has had a real influence on the nature of bluegrass “right from the beginning. We are all Christians and we get the message out through our music.”
Eric Marshall writes about half of Iron Mountain’s songs, but the group tends to perform the more traditional bluegrass songs. Carson hasn’t really done much writing himself yet, with a touring schedule that is becoming more and more extensive, but he doesn’t rule out the possibility in the future.
He is looking forward to returning to Canada with Iron Mountain to perform at The Galop Festival. He laughed that there are some “little differences” between American and Canadian approaches to music. “American bluegrass has a strong driving beat. Canadian bluegrass is more folksy in style. I really like that folksy style. Super excited to be coming to Iroquois.”