The Michaels – Todd, Tracy, Sarah and Katie – are a bluegrass family. The Appalachia-born music - traditionally featuring fiddle, five-string banjo, guitar, mandolin and upright bass – has shaped their lives considerably, serving as director of family trips, mutual hobbies and fond memories. For nearly ten years the Suffield family has shared a love for the vibrant world of bluegrass, a mixed-root genre filled with technical artistry and embracing harmonies. Much like the fingerpicking music can be itself, their launch into the bluegrass world was somewhat spontaneous.
“In the summer of 2009 my sister asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I didn’t have anything I could think of, but for some reason the image of Steve Martin playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the The Gong Show with an arrow through his head came to me,” Todd says laughing. “She gave me a weird look, but for Christmas that year I got a banjo.”
Having no idea how to play and not knowing where to start, he sought instruction from local musicians and attended Music Camp North, a weekend-long workshop of instruction and jams led by a faculty of world class musicians.
“I didn’t even really know what bluegrass music was – I thought it was just country – and that’s not my thing,” says Todd. “I started listening to Earl Scruggs and some of the old-time music and found newer bands by attending bluegrass festivals. I met the Kruger Brothers and The Del McCoury Band – and they sat and talked with me. It wasn’t just about the outstanding music, I fell in love with the atmosphere.”
Todd continued to practice and started to host bi-weekly bluegrass slow jams at his home, an experience enjoyed by his girls as well, who both play the fiddle. Last year, the Michaels attended Podunk Bluegrass Festival, a weekend-long music gathering in Hebron, Connecticut. Each year a band competition is held on the main stage, giving well-deserved attention and acclaim to the extraordinarily talented bands in our region. Featured onstage that evening was Mile Twelve, Five in the Chamber, Damn Tall Buildings and Man About a Horse, among others.
“We just fell in love with all these bands, they are outstanding, genuine and I love their music,” says Todd. “I wanted to bring that same bluegrass to this area and create a place for musicians to play – there’s nothing between Hartford and Northampton where bluegrass bands can come to play. To me it’s the basic form of music, it’s what a lot of other genres are built off of; it’s a pure form of music.”
Paddle Faster Bluegrass Festival lineup is a gathering of greats, featuring noted bluegrass bands Celia Woodsmith with Joe K. Walsh & Friends, Damn Tall Buildings, Mile Twelve, Five in the Chamber, and Man About a Horse. The festival is on Saturday, August 19, taking place on the lawn at Hilltop Farm in Suffield, Connecticut. Continuous throughout the day, music is from 11:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. and will be accompanied by foods vendors, including Donaldo’s Deviled Dogs from Southwick, serving up gourmet hot dogs as well as Chili Brothers Food Co. from Stafford Springs, cooking Cajun food favorites from scratch. Tickets are $25.00 per person, attendees are encouraged to brings blankets and comforts for a day of amazing music.
“Bluegrass is one of the most amazingly entertaining genres of music that a lot of people don’t think or know about,” says Todd. “That’s what I want to do, have people experience bluegrass music – whether they like it or not at the end – at least they’ve gotten the opportunity to sample it.”
While the quality of the musicianship in this ever-emerging genre is nearly magical, bluegrass festivals and concerts aren’t exclusively about the onstage performance. There’s a common thread that serves as a catalyst for a close-knit community – one created from the love of music, storytelling, shared meals, and collective memories. It’s all part of the experience. This festival will be no exception.
“The local bands are unbelievably talented, Five in the Chamber for example. I love listening to Pete Kaufman on the banjo, he has some of the greatest riffs and Dave Sasso on the mandolin…it’s just crazy. Ken McEwen has one of the best voices around; so much soul,” says Todd. “Not a single bluegrass group that I know of is [carried] by one single person, it’s all of the group and everyone is extraordinarily gifted. My love for bluegrass stems from the accessibility of the music and the artists. You would never go to a Top 40 concert and get to meet the artists – they don’t come out in the crowd. One of the highlights is being able to talk and jam with all these musicians – it just makes me smile.”
Paddle Faster Bluegrass Festival is located at Hilltop Farm, 1616 Mapleton Avenue, Suffield, CT. Sat., August 19, 2017, 11:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M., gate opens at 9:00 A.M. For tickets, event information and band bios visit online at paddlefastermusic.com