Wednesday, October 14, 2009

2009 Grey Fox Memories

Grey Fox is four days of great bluegrass music set on a farm in a rural part of the Catskills in New York. I’ve attended the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival for numerous years and each year I always look forward to attending. After attending last year’s festival and talking to some volunteer workers, I decided I would try volunteering and see what the experience was like. Now that I was retired and had the time, I wanted to give something back to the festival that I have enjoyed for many years. I also wanted to learn what it was like to put on a festival and meet the people who make it happen.

I got accepted for a position in May, after submitting my volunteer application and talking to Brian, who was the Volunteer Coordinator. Brian said I wrote one of the most eloquent submissions. Figured I had one shot so I made it a good one. I was placed on the Traffic & Safety crew, which was my first choice.

As a volunteer, I could arrive early before the throng of attendees. While my part of the work didn’t start until Wednesday, my crew chief asked that everyone try and arrive by Tuesday afternoon for a team meeting. I decided to arrive on Monday pm so I could get a nice camping spot and get settled in.

About a week before I was set to leave, a friend of a friend asked for a ride to the festival. Her name was Candice and she was from Arizona. Candice was a friend of my friend Robin, and she was in New England as part of her summer vacation. She had flown out to visit family and friends and was looking to hitch a ride to the festival. She was a regular attendee and a volunteer and wanted to arrive on Monday afternoon. She was staying nearby and said all she had to lug out was a suit case and string bass. I agreed to give her a ride since I was going solo, would welcome the company on the ride, and had a truck with plenty of extra room. They only worry I had was how big the string bass was and would it fit in the truck bed.

J. Dawg truck with string bass
I met Candice on Monday morning and got all her stuff in the truck. The bass was big but it fit fine in the truck bed. Candice turned out to be a super nice person. A short, pretty woman, with long blond hair, sparkling blue eyes, and a nice pleasant personality. Turned out Candice was a professional musician and had played at the festival in the mid-90’s. This year, she was working on the Hospitality crew and her job was to set up the back stage kitchen. She’d also been attending the festival for over 20 years.  I enjoyed chatting with Candice on the 3 hour drive way out to the festival site south of Albany, NY.

We arrived at the farm in Oak Hill, NY shortly before noon. I got Candice unloaded and she quickly found our friend Robin who had arrived on Sunday evening and was camped with the Site Crew. I found a nice spot in the Staff Camping area and spent the afternoon setting up.

J. Dawg campsite
Arriving before the festival started let me see how things looked without all of the people. The large 25 acre field, which holds all of the camper’s, was empty except for the water trucks and pot-a-johns. The Site Crew was busy setting out the trash bins, getting the roads marked out and smoothed, and getting all the plumbing and water going. The Site Crew had started about 2 weeks prior putting the basic infrastructure in. The Site Crew consisted mostly of retired guys or tradesmen on vacation. All were busy from early morning to well into the night. I happened to meet the head of the crew, who was Ernie. I was eating breakfast late on Tuesday am in the Site Crew kitchen and sat down opposite him. I introduced my self and instead of saying his name, Ernie just looked at me and replied “I’m a f---ing pain in the ass”. He immediately recanted and apologized. I was really impressed with all the work the Site Crew did. They build the site from the ground up and tear it down after the festival is over. I met several of these guys throughout the week and all were nice guys and many were good musicians.

After I got set up on Monday, I walked over to say hi to Robin and check on Candice. I met Robin a few years ago on the dance floor at the Rhythm & Roots festival. She’s a tall statuesque blond with chestnut brown eyes, who is a very naturally beautiful woman. She’s also a great dancer and a fine musician. Robin has been volunteering at this festival for about 5 years and works the breakfast shift in the Site Crew kitchen, which is called the Ghetto. Robin was a great help to me throughout the week. She helped me find my crew chief, introduced me to several people (she seemed to know everyone), and got me a wristband so I could eat in the Ghetto.

She took me in to meet her crew chief Pat, who was head of the Ghetto kitchen. She told Pat she wanted her to give me a wrist ban . I could hear Pat mumble under her breath something about running out of food, but Robin told her “I know, but I want him to have a wristband”. Pat was no contest for Robin and gave me the wristband.

While visiting with Robin and Candice, Robin asked if I wanted to join them up at the Fox Hole for a pot luck dinner and some jamming. The Fox Hole was a farm about 4 miles west of the festival where a few hundred people were camped and staged to come into the festival on Wednesday am when the gates opened. Turns out this has been a tradition, with many regular attendees who want to show up early to party and pick before the actual festival partying and picking starts. Robin and Candice were really looking for a ride up, since I had a truck and could lug their instruments. I agreed figuring, why not, when in Rome……

Turns out the Fox Hole was lots of fun. Set high up on a hill with nice views West and North. Most of the festival staff and Site Crew where there along with about 300 campers.

It was Gumbo night with big pots of Louisiana gumbo and rice being cooked. The food was delicious. I had two bowls.

The picking started just as the sun was setting. First Robin got her guitar out and started singing a Steeldrivers song and then Candice got out the bass and within minutes there were 6-12 people joining in. The group was playing a lot of bluegrass and country standards in G and A. All seemingly played to the same basic bluegrass strum and chord progressions. Candice and Robin kept asking me to get my instrument and join it, but it was cold and I just wanted to observe and see how they all played. Candice was the center of it all laying down a steady beat and rhythm and encouraging them all. One high point was when two young girls with fiddles played and sang Hazel Dicken’s tune “West Virginia”.

Around 9 pm, Robin was looking to leave since she had to be up early the next day. She didn’t want to disrupt the fun that everyone was having so she set up a ride back with some friends. She asked if I would stay with Candice. I said sure even though I was getting cold and would have liked to leave. Robin said “Speak up when you need to leave because she’ll put you in the ground!” meaning that Candice would play all night if I let her. Watching Candice, I could tell by the constant smile and harmony singing that she was having a blast. She was leading the group and encouraging them all. The music sounded all the same with some good leads, fills, and breaks by some of the musicians. At around 10 pm, I was trying to figure out how to plan an exit. The outside temps were in the mid 40’s. I was tired, cold, and ready to go to bed. I felt bad that it was my age kicking in, but I’ve already filled my lifetime quota of late nights. I couldn’t make eye contact with Candice, so I finally had to get up and tap her on the shoulder between songs and tell her I could do one more song and then had to leave. She was all set to go even though the group of players wanted to keep her playing. We got back at around 10:30 pm, but it was a fun night.

I ended up just relaxing Tuesday am. I checked out the festival grounds, took some pics and waited until I could check in on Tuesday pm. I helped Robin set up a canopy and screen house in her camping space.

Grey Fox before the campers
On Tuesday pm, the Traffic and Safety crew all got together for an intro meeting. There were several veterans and several newbie’s like me. Bob J. was the crew chief. Robin has described him as a little overweight, with a pencil mustache, toothy grin, and “he looks a little scary”. Bob turned out to be a really nice guy and a very hard worker, but when he wore his crushed up straw hat, he could look a little scary in a hillbilly kind of way.

J. Dawg with Bob
On Wednesday the work started at 8 am. The T&S crew met early to go over what we had to do. I asked a lot of questions because I wanted to understand what we needed to do and wanted to do things right. I must have sounded like I knew a lot or was responsible because Bob put me in charge of the “rodeo” and gave me a crew of 3 others. My job was to direct the cars into the grounds, line them up so they could check in, and move them out in an orderly fashion. I had all newbie’s, Travis, Ashley, and Kelley. All were young folks in their early 20’s. At 9 am the gates opened and there was a steady stream of cars, trucks, and campers coming into the grounds. A few cars got past Travis at the start and we had to turn them around. We also had some who just wanted to go their own way and not follow our direction. We started making lines of cars in front of the ticket tent. This worked ok until Kelley and some guy helping her started redirecting cars back to the first lines. This created a little chaos as the cars got out of line and didn’t check in to get their wrist bands. I was at the head of all the lines holding cars and trying to move the lines one at a time from left to right. It was just me against all these campers who were chomping at the bit to get in and claim a nice camping spot. I had to take a commanding role and direct the drivers in a firm loud voice. Since it was just me I had to use the driver in the lead of each line to hold their car until I directed them to move. I was real nice to these drivers and kept taking with them so they knew what was going on and would hang with me. It was pretty stressful to keep all of this working otherwise it would have turned into a massive traffic jam. The goal was to keep the cars moving so we could clear them off the road coming into the farm. I had to employ “Fighter Pilot Thinking” that I had learned at my prior job. With this mode of thinking, the fighter pilot is taught to just worry about keeping the plane in the air. They don’t worry about being shot at or if the plane’s on fire or if their gauges are all messed up. For me, it was keep the cars moving in an orderly fashion and ignore everything else. I had one guy come up to me and complain that some other folks were lined up in front of him and he was in front of them at the Foxhole. I just told him, in a nice way, that he needed to go back to his car and wait until I moved him. He was way back in one of the lines and there was no way I could have moved him, but he kept pestering me about it not being fair and that I was doing a lousy job. I just kept telling him to go back to his car and he would move when his line moved. He was being an asshole, but I really didn’t care. I had 12 lines of cars with about 25 cars in each line that I was moving one line at a time. I had others come up to me with questions, but it they all got the same answer; I would move them within 25-20 mins; which turned out to be true. My biggest challenge was judging who was at the end of the line because Kelley and Bob would start to direct cars into a line as soon as I started to move it forward. On one line, I had to asked a driver if he was last and he said no maybe there were two more cars. So I stopped it after two more cars. Turns out the five cars behind him said they were in the original line and shouldn’t be stopped. There as no way I could tell if they were right or not and just apologized and got another line moving. They were pissed and complained to ticket tent. I just ignored them and kept cars moving. Linda, the ticket crew chief, came over and asked me what had happened. I told her I may have screwed up and stopped the line prematurely because I couldn’t tell who was at the end. I told her I knew that I may have pissed off five people, but if I moved them out of sequence now the rest of the 200+ people waiting in line would be pissed. She understood and was nice about it, but she radioed my boss and Bob came up and let the five cars go. After that, Bob got Kelley and me radios so we could communicate and Kelley could tell me who was the last car in line. The cars kept pouring in for the next 2 ½ hrs steady and then it stopped. What a relief. I was really pumped that we have moved maybe 1000 cars thru with only a couple screw ups. Several drivers had thanked me and said I did a good job. I thanked Kelley and Ashley and was on a super adrenalin high. I was still pumped when my shift ended at 1 pm. I had to go for a long walk afterward just to calm down and get my heart rate down. In some personality training I had taken in my prior job, I learned that we all can assume a different personality profile in stressful times, but it requires a lot of physical energy to do so. I had just done this while leading the rodeo. I was the Rodeo Master commanding car drivers versus the soft spoken calm analytical person that I normally am. At about 2:30 pm I came crashing down and had to go back to my camper to take a long nap. That was enough for the first day. I actually liked being the Rodeo Master because I got to meet all the people coming in. 99.4% of them were really really nice people. I didn’t like being understaffed and not having radio’s. The job would have been a lot easier with about 3 more people.

Thursday came and the music would start at 2 pm. I had to work from 1 pm to 5 pm so I would miss much of the afternoon music. Bob had me run the main intersection within the festival. It was a 4 way intersection where all the traffic in the festival needed to cross. I gave myself the title of Traffic Master. I took charge as I needed to and was out in the intersection moving the cars along. Being the Traffic Master was fun. I again got to meet all the people coming into the festival and about 90% of them stopped and asked me for some type of help or directions.

J. Dawg Traffic Master
By the time my shift ended I was really dirty from all the sweat and road dust that had baked on with the sunscreen I was wearing. I couldn’t wait for a shower. I ran back to my camper to get my soap, towel, and clean clothes so I could get to the hot showers before they closed at 6 pm. I made it back with a couple of minutes to spare before they closed. I got in the shower and started the water only to find I had forgotten my towel. Oh well, the shower felt good, but I had to dry off with my dirty clothes.

With the music going, I went up to the stage and was able to go backstage to the hospitality tent to eat. It was so cool to be back stage seeing the artists hanging around and the food in the Hospitality tent was great. I watched a few bands perform (Crooked Still, The Kruger Bros, and Peter Rowan). Candice had recommended the Kruger Bros and they were great. I joined Robin to watch Peter Rowan and then wandered down to the Dance tent to hear the Red Stick Ramblers. I caught a few dances but my feet were really tired from being on them all day so I left at around 11 pm and turned in early.

On Friday, my work schedule was from 5pm – 9pm so I could enjoy a lot of the afternoon music. By now my morning routine was as follows; get up by 7 am, listen to the news on the radio, cook breakfast, clean up, fill the water bags, read, meditate, or play the mandolin and then walk up to the Hospitality tent for an early lunch. I got to sit for the next 4 hrs and soak up some great music from the Farewell Drifters, The Boston Boys, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Sara Jarosz, and Claire Lynch. This was the best part of the festival for me; to just sit without having to be somewhere and just totally focus on listening and watching the performances.

Claire Lynch
During this time, I did take a quick break to get my daily free chair massage. Dawn gave me a quick 10 mins back rub. I had her work on my upper gluets which were bothering me from all the standing. She did a good job with a lot of pressure.

As it got close to 5 pm, I grabbed some more food and headed back down to get ready for work. I was working with the night shift, which was headed by Brian P. Brian had me out on the main road (Rt 22) directing traffic. The road was a little busy with cars coming into the festival. My job was to keep it all flowing and to help direct cars to the right spot. I was all alone except for three police officers who sat in their cars chatting. By 5:30 pm it started to rain; light at first, but within 15 minutes it was pouring. Luckily I had brought my rain jacket and umbrella. I couldn’t use the umbrella because directing the cars took two hands. Within a few minutes it was thundering and lighting out and the rain was coming down like a monsoon. I was stuck out there and it continued raining hard for the next hour and a half. Day attendees started pouring out of the festival, yet we still had new arrivals coming in. One guy arrived from Maine on a BMW touring motorcycle. I asked him if he was camping. He answered; “Yup, just rode down from Maine in the rain”. He was hard core. I waved Tim O’Brien in and later Casey Dreissen. Casey stopped and I said “Hey Casey, I like your music!”. He said, “Thanks, stay dry man”. My rain jacket kept my torso dry. I had on water proof hiking boots and a broad rimmed cowboy hat, but I was soaked everywhere else. The rain let up a little, but it continued raining for my entire shift. Cars parked over in the day parking lot / field were getting stuck. The guy running the lot came down to me and said “there’s cars getting stuck all over the place in the day lot, what do I do”? I told him to radio Brian as he was the crew leader. One mini van came out of the lot covered in mud, like it had been plastered with mud from a fire hose. There was mud all over the windshield and I flagged the driver down. I asked her what had happened, and she just looked at me dejectedly and said “you don’t wanna know”. By 9:15 pm I was looking for my replacement to arrive. The rain had let up a little and one of the cops came over to me to chat. He told me; “You obviously have directed traffic before, because you’re one of the few that seem to know what you’re doing”. I told him this was my first time and he looked pretty surprised. Brian came by in a golf car giving some ladies a ride to the day lot. I asked him, “You’re working on my replacement, right?” He replied “Oh yeah”. By 9:45 pm there was still no replacement. Brian came by again with replacements for the day lot. I asked him again “You haven’t forgotten about me have you?” He just nodded, but the cop who had been standing with me for last 30 mins, yelled at him saying “Hey buddy, this guys been out here 50 mins passed his shift. Get someone out here now!”. I told the cop “Thanks, you can say that; I can’t because he’s my boss”. At 9:55 my replacement came schlepping out. I handed over my baton, thanked the cop again, and walked back to my camper. It was still raining pretty hard and all the roads had become very slippery and thick with mud. Even the grassy areas were soggy and sloppy with water. I didn’t need a shower as the rain had pretty much cleaned me off. I stripped down and put on some dry clothes and decided to just hang out in the camper. I figured the dance tent would be packed and muddy with folks getting out of the rain and I could listen to the live main stage music, which was being broadcast on a local FM station. This worked out pretty good as I listened to Dave Bromberg and the Waybacks. It rained steady all night, but I stayed dry in the camper. The site crew guys camped behind me jammed for several hours under their big car port canopy. They were really good and I played a few numbers with them on my mando.

Muddy feet

Saturday came and the sun was out, but the festival grounds where extremely muddy. All the roads were muddy with big tire ruts, the main stage area was a mud pit covered with hay, and the main walk way thru the food vendors was all mud. Big tractors were out pulling the potta-john trucks thru the mud. Good thing I had stayed in last night. As I was out walking, I was wearing sandals and my feet where all muddy, but I figured it would be easy to hose them off with a shower bag.

I had to work from 1 pm – 5pm and it was my last shift. Bob had me direct cars into the day lot and stationed two other guys in the field to park the cars. My job was pretty easy. The day lot was still muddy, but drying out fast. Bob came by to help the guys line the cars up so they wouldn’t get stuck. We had about 200 cars come in during my shift. One guy came in with a big 4x4 pickup and asked if he could park up front by the road, if he gave me $20. I showed him a spot in the lot about 40 ft from the road that he could use since he had 4 wheel drive. He still wanted to give me the $20, but I refused. I met Jennifer from NJ as she drove into the day lot. I met Jennifer last year. She’s is a real nice lady. She’s tall with auburn hair and looks just like Reba MacEntire. At 5:15 pm my replacement walked up. He a had cigarette in his mouth, had long braided hair, a braided beard, sun glasses, 3 day old dirty clothes, and bare mud caked feet. I told him what to do and told him I was going to catch Marty Stuart’s set after I cleaned up. He told me “just go catch the music dude; screw cleaning up”. Right.

I hustled over to the site crew shower and took a cold shower to clean off. It felt good. I got up to the main stage in time for dinner and to see the end of Crooked Still’s set. I just stayed put and had a great seat for Marty Stuart. Marty put on a great show and he is extremely gifted on the mandolin. For a closing number, he played a bluegrass version of Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream”. He sounded as good playing the leads on the mandolin as Mike Campbell does playing guitar on the original.

Marty Stuart
I decided to go sit in the crowd for Ricky Skagg’s set. I had placed a chair in the main seating area and had not used it yet. It was nice sitting up on the hill listening to Ricky play Bill Monroe standards. Half way thru his set a big hot air balloon came over the hill and coasted over the festival grounds. It was pretty cool.  Ricky stopped the music to see it go by.

After this set, I went down to the dance tent and did some dancing with Jennifer and a few other women. I found Rebecca from NJ. I met Rebecca in 2000, the first year I attended. Rebecca’s now in her mid to late 50’s and works for AT&T. Each year it seems we would always end up camping near each other. Rebecca’s a good dancer, so I always sought her out on the dance floor. Rebecca was with a guy, but I asked her to dance anyway. She was really glad to see me and while we were dancing she whispered to me that “Jim, I’ve finally got myself a guy!”. This was good news. Rebecca’s been single for as long as I’ve known her and it was nice to hear that she finally found Mr. Right. I danced a few more dances and walked up to see a little of Tim O’Brien, but my midnight I’d had enough and was ready to go to sleep.

Sunday came and it was again a nice day. The grounds were drying out nicely from the Friday night rain. Each year, I had always packed up on Sun morning and headed home without seeing any of the music, but this year I decided to take Candice’s advice and stay and see the gospel music. It was really worth it. I got to see the Dry Branch Fire Squad do a gospel set and saw several other acts perform.

Dry Branch Fire Squad
It was nice listening and watching without the crowds. Also, I didn’t feel any pressure to leave. I decided to head down from the Main Stage around 1pm as I had told Candice I wanted to have the wheels rolling home by 3 pm. It took me a good 2 hrs to pack everything up.

After I packed it all up, I linked up Candice, who was all packed and ready to leave. She was lounging near Robin’s camper, very relaxed, and drinking white wine out of a water bottle.

Candice had worked hard during the week and had really enjoyed the festival. We both said our good-byes to Robin and headed out with the steady stream of cars and campers leaving the festival grounds.

After being at the festival for 6 days, leaving it was a little sad. I really felt I had become part of the community that put the festival together. I had met several new people, made some new friends, and enjoyed being in their company. All the veteran volunteers were very helpful and were very nice people. Just as it was all feeling comfortable, it was time to say goodbye to it all. I enjoyed being a volunteer. While the work was demanding, the benefits and people made it very worthwhile.

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