Handmade Music in the Finger Lakes

by James E. Schwartz

Progressive bluegrass, mountain music, traditional music, old-timey, newgrass.

Call it what you will, handmade American music can be heard ringing throughout the Finger Lakes region. Sometimes called American Roots Music, it encompasses a variety of musical genres that traces its origin to the Appalachian mountain region of our country. And the hills, gorges and rolling farmland of our region have rolled out a welcome mat to the music of the Appalachians. There are concerts, festivals, jams, and a lot of local talent just waiting to be enjoyed in our own backyards.

Concerts are for listening, but festivals and jams are definitely not just spectator events. With this type of music, strangers often sit down together and play the traditional tunes and songs – without prior rehearsal, and usually with no expectation that they will meet again. Improvisation is encouraged, and sometimes the way a tune turns out may be the only time it is played in that exact way. Participants do not need to be great musicians to join in on the fun. The touring bands are entirely professional, however. They are dedicated and award-winning, and experts at their craft.

The various musical styles that fit into this wide net all share some elements in common. They emphasize acoustic stringed instruments – guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo and standup bass. Songs produce a blend of rich vocal harmonies. Many are played at blistering speeds. Drums or other dedicated percussion instruments are almost never part of the traditional bands. The music has a sweet, subtle, homey feel, even when it is pushing traditional boundaries.

In keeping with the great American tradition of innovation, today’s artists are transforming this type of music into new forms and new sounds. If you are thinking only of the music you hear on the soundtrack from the film, “O Brother Where Art Thou?” you may need to broaden your thinking. The music can range from complex instrumental solos to orchestral arrangements that include multipart vocal harmonies. The “twangy” voices that you may have heard in the past were largely a function of early microphones with low-quality technological capabilities. Traditional music today can be sweet, rich and subtle, while progressive styles can be hard-driving, loud and stunning in their impact.

Fiddlers of the Genesee

This group is among a variety of organizations and “organizers” that are helping to connect Finger Lakes visitors and residents to a rich music scene. The Fiddlers of the Genesee exists to promote traditional, old-time fiddling in the form of both performances and participatory events. While members focus primarily on fiddle music, they also welcome musicians who play other traditional, acoustic stringed instruments. The group hosts traditional jam sessions on Friday evenings; for information about the times and locations, visit fiddlersofthegenesee.org. The group also performs at local festivals, public venues, and nursing homes and senior care centers.

Golden Link Folk Singing Society

This organization describes itself as being “dedicated to presenting, promoting and preserving folk music in the Rochester area.” It hosts a weekly, informal “sing-around” on Tuesday evenings, and monthly concerts and/or workshops. It is also the host of the annual Turtle Hill Folk Festival each September at the Rotary Sunshine Campus in Rush.

John Bernunzio

The owner of Bernunzio’s Uptown Music in Rochester is one of the region’s greatest organizers and supporters of traditional music. John offers his store as a venue for old time jams, bluegrass jams, ukulele “hour,” and other events. Touring musicians have been known to offer impromptu, unannounced mini-concerts there. For a schedule, visit bernunzio.com.

The Winter Village Music Festival

This unique and wonderful Finger Lakes musical event is organized each year by its founder, Rick Manning, and hosted by Scott Wiggin, owner of La Tourelle Resort & Spa in Ithaca. The festival features round-the-clock jamming, and performances by highly respected touring professionals, along with workshops that focus on instruments, songwriting, and harmonizing.

Winter Village began in 2011, and owes its origin partly to the friendship between Rick and Scott, who had worked together on other projects. When Rick, a musician, first proposed the idea, Scott was happy to offer La Tourelle as a home for the January event. He would need to completely dedicate his resort to the three-day festival weekend because all the hotel’s space would be needed and the jamming goes on all night. Scott saw little risk, since winter weekends in the Finger Lakes ordinarily see few tourists. He views hospitality as a business that specializes in bringing people together, and believes music is a great way to do that. “To have our house full of beautiful music is a really good vibe,” Scott says.

The event has evolved since its debut. The most recent Winter Village Music Festival filled Scott’s “house” with music from Thursday evening to Sunday evening during the first weekend in March.

Rick’s main interest is in promoting traditional and progressive bluegrass music, but he wanted a broader focus this year. He’s particularly interested in the cross-generational aspect of this evolving form of music, and finds young performers who are full of passion, energy, technical skill, and offer “an interesting approach” to their music. Rick has had been remarkably successful in presenting bands who have later gone on to become well-known, sought-after performers. He looks for young bands who have won awards from the prestigious International Bluegrass Music Association.

Other bluegrass festivals take place outdoors during the summer months. One of the longest-running in the region is Pickin’ in the Pasture each August, hosted for the past 20 years by Andy Alexander at his sheep farm in Lodi. Another annual festival, now in its ninth year, will be held at the Brantling Ski Slopes near Sodus from July 27 through 30 this year. The Turtle Hill Folk Festival in September is not bluegrass, but it has much in common with the bluegrass festivals.

Whether your interests are in listening to or participating in the handmade music scene, there are many ways to pursue your passion in the Finger Lakes region!