It’s difficult to discuss music at length without eventually resulting to analogies or anecdotes, as is evidenced weekly on this very page. Art criticism is at its best philosophical and at its worst passive, but music’s ethereal je ne sais quoi makes it particularly hard to articulate and thus we result to the substitutive language of a bystander; talk can be pretty cheap when juxtaposed to experience.
In July, I extolled the natural beauty afforded by Grand Targhee’s resort base as a festival venue for the 15th Targhee Fest; this past weekend at the 32nd Grand Targhee Bluegrass Fest only reaffirmed that belief. From the zenith of the resort where an impromptu performance lead by Justin Eubanks (mandolin/guitar/fiddle), Elliot Khulman (upright bass) and a rotating cast of other musicians who found their way to the top of the hill — including Greensky Bluegrass’s Mike Duval — foregrounding the Grand Teton, to the festival’s campgrounds, bluegrass brought the verdant beauty of the mountains to a near consummate bliss.
Of course, there were poignant moments as well with the Targhee Allstar’s and many of the festival’s other performers paying tribute to the late Jeff Austin being the emotional high-water-mark of the weekend. Austin was a fixture in the bluegrass scene and the communal celebration of his life was truly moving and an unforgettable display of the humanity that gives birth to the music that has drawn thousands to the resort over the past 32 years in the first place.
And that music is invigorating, even electrifying — ironic, for a genre whose hallmark is that of raw and unplugged acoustic instrumentation — in a live setting. The virtuosic mastery each musician brings to the stage is sublime. Whether that be Tommy Emmanuel and Jerry Douglas histrionically scorching their way through a cover of Chuck Berry’s bonafide classic “Johnny B. Goode” or Sam Bush being seemingly incapable of leaving the stage for longer than a set or two, the musicianship on display was absolutely spellbinding.
To some, the bluegrass community may seem esoteric. The fervor to which its members have shown in their repeated pilgrimages to all corners of the country is both enviable and admirable. But after a weekend surrounded by jovial, amicable individuals it’s not hard to see how this lifestyle inspires such piety. The sense of community soundtracked by the earthy timbre of grassroots folk and bluegrass is borderline intoxicating, and a thrill and experience worth indulging.