This past Sunday evening, I returned home filthy, smelly, and exceedingly contented. In the humid night air, sweat dripped off my nose as I schlepped camping gear up the stairs to my new apartment, unpacking my car from a weekend trip to paradise—Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival.
The first time I went to Grey Fox three years ago, I arrived with a nervous jitter stoked by several cups of gas station coffee and rave reviews from my friends, with little knowledge of bluegrass beyond the Alison Krauss and Union Station CD I had lifted off my older sister a decade earlier. The trip to get there—through rolling hills, past cattle fields and the Irish bungalow colonies of Greene County—felt like a pilgrimage.
In the weeks leading up, I remember being regaled with feel-good stories of idyllic fields, cool brooks, happy faces, and dueling fiddles, but when I first pulled up that muggy day in July 2017, past the chill county cops and over a small bridge, the first thing I saw was a sea of camper vans and RVs spreading out as far as the eye could see. The buzz of generators filled the air like the roar of a million gas-powered cicadas. My heart sank. Where was my promised Eden of twang? (I later learned this area is redeemingly called Generatorville.)
My partner and I rolled up to the check-in booth and reluctantly purchased our festival passes from the cherub-cheeked volunteer, who cheerfully told us to continue driving up the hill to reach the High Meadow camping area, where our friends awaited. "Happy Grey Fox!" he wished us as we rolled away.
We drove on, past school buses and happy, muddy, barefooted revelers, reaching a rise where suddenly the whole festival was visible below us. A pole tent stage faced a makeshift amphitheater made up of camping chairs surrounded by a halo of sunshades. Beyond that, a Hooverville grid of tents of all sizes and shapes. Tents rigged in trees, tents made out of massive old billboard banners, tents with fully stocked prep kitchens, tents with kiddie pools out front and hammocks out back. Unloading, we were aided by helpful strangers, who departed when the work was done with a wave and a smile. On our way to the woods, people offered us cold beers out of their coolers and squealing kids criss-crossed our path with bubble wands. What was this magical place? In the forest, we found our friends clustered around a stone table playing cards and twiddling on the guitar. Tents, laundry lines, coolers, and fairy lights dotted the sylvan hillside. We had made it.
Later that night, after setting up camp and getting a ceremonial creek baptism, I saw baby-faced Billy Strings on stage for the first time, and in that moment it felt like he was picking the tune to my soul. I watched in awe as 70-year-old women danced with skirts hitched high and dads bounced piggy-backing kids to the rhythm. After the show ended, the crowd cleared out leaving an arena of empty seats. "What's the deal with the lawn chairs," I asked a friend. "Everyone sets them up on the first day, and anyone can use them all weekend. The only rule is that if the owner comes back, you have to give it up," I was told—my first hint to the unwritten code of Grey Fox.
All weekend, I observed the scene unfolding before me, gleaning an understanding of the heart of the festival. I saw lost items tied up on tent poles. Groups of children playing on the hillside for tips and a chance at fame. Neighbors loaning a hand to tie down a fly-away tent or sending over plates of food unprompted. Established groups adopting solo festival-goers. Families combining forces to tackle childcare. I paid for a blooming onion in Funny Money (no dollars at Grey Fox). I listened as the Ice Man toured the fields in his truck, droning over the megaphone—the clarion call of survival in the hot summer sun. And I quickly decided this was utopia—a multigenerational, modern-day, trust-based community founded on the ever-wholesome principle of good ol' fashioned Appalachian mountain music.
This year, pulling up to Walsh Farm, I felt like I was coming home. A vortex of positivity swirled around me as I drove in. My friends happened to be dancing right by the road as I drove in and gleefully unloaded my gear. I moved through the temporary landscape as if in a dream, joyfully reencountering Grey Fox friends from years past, whose names I may have forgotten but whose faces were burned forever in my mind, forged in a fire of good times and good intentions.
With a couple of festivals under my belt, it was my turn to be the ambassador inviting newbies into the culture of Grey Fox as they flocked to our ever-growing ranks. I spent the weekend striving to model the ethos of inclusivity, trust, and fun that sets the festival apart.
I've come to think of Grey Fox as an alternative model to our current world—a sweet, self-contained social experiment (punctuated by world-class performances). Packing up camp on Sunday in the bittersweet come-down, it dawned on me that I had an open invitation to carry this state back with me into my "real life" and to create a small microcosm of paradise wherever I go. It won't be easy amidst the stress and isolating mundanity of daily life—paying bills with decidedly un-funny money, stressful phone meetings, and ever-growing to-do lists—but bolstered by a big dose of bluegrass and the support of few fellow Foxers, I'm feeling up to the task.