BENTON - Summer is music festival season and bluegrass fans can get their fill at the 13th annual Out Among the Stars (OATS) bluegrass festival today through Sunday at the Benton Rodeo Grounds.
Twenty-five bluegrass bands are slated to perform throughout the weekend, which will begin with a 3 p.m. performance today by Texas Rose and Boulevard Express at 4 p.m. during the potluck-style picnic to kick off the start of the festival.
New this year is the Roots and Branches stage, in addition to performances on the main and tent stages. There also will be a variety of instrument workshops available for anyone who would like to participate, as well as a number of kids' activities.
Bluegrass fans enjoy the 2011 OATS?Bluegrass Festival at Benton Rodeo Grounds. For more information about the festival, visit www.oatsfesti val.com or call 908-464-9495.
"(There will be) lots of kids stuff and a kids academy, so the kids can learn how to play bluegrass music and they will do a performance on stage," said Matthew McBriarty, OATS president. "Lots of kids come and they always want to come back. If the kids are happy, you are doing it right."
McBriarty said festival attendance has grown over the years and they have more than doubled kids' activities and attendance in the past several years.
The house band for the festival is Stained Grass Window, which formed in 1993. Band members include Mark Doncheski, banjo; Bob Knorr, guitar; Rick Marcera, mandolin; Ken Shafranko, resophonic guitar; Doug Ward, upright bass; and all band members contribute vocally, either as lead singer or on harmony.
Shafranko remembers his father listening to country music when he was a young boy, which included a fair amount of bluegrass. "I really hated it," he said.
"One of the sounds I most detested when I was a kid was this really whiny instrument ... called a resophonic guitar," he added.
While he was in college, he heard a recording by Mike Auldmage, who was playing the instrument, and he thought it was the most beautiful thing he has ever heard. He now plays the resophonic guitar for the band.
Stained Grass Window has played the OATS festival every year since it has been held in Benton, and also a few years prior, when it was held in Jerseytown.
Shafranko said the OATS festival is on a smaller scale than other similar festivals of its kind, but it draws an audience from more than just Pennsylvania.
"You'll see festival-goers from New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and even more distant places," he said. "It's a very well-organized event, quite family friendly, and the performers who are featured are not just local talent, but include some of the top draws on the bluegrass circuit ... We always enjoy our time performing at the festival, as we're familiar with those who put it together, as well as having made friends over the years with many who are in attendance."
In addition to the OATS festival, Stained Grass Window has played in Kentucky and on a bluegrass cruise in the Bahamas and have played the Wind Gap Bluegrass Festival. They also play a couple of weddings each year.
Shafranko said the best thing for him about playing live music is interacting with the audience. He likes the immediate feedback they provide about the music he is playing.
He also said the themes of bluegrass are things that the audiences are familiar with - love, homesickness, loneliness - and a lot of bluegrass fans are impressed with the musicianship of the bands.
"The instrumentalists are really high caliber and the harmonies are tight," he said. "While the music sounds rather simple on the surface, it's really very sophisticated music to perform."
According to McBriarty, the most requested band for this year's festival is the Hillbilly Gypsies, who are based out of West Virginia.
The Hillbilly Gypsies are Trae Buckner, guitar; Jamie Lynn Buckner, vocals; Dave Asti, banjo; Ty Jaquay, fiddle; and Ryan Cramer, bass.
The band has recorded two studio albums through their own production company, The Pickin Shack. Their first album is titled "One Foot in the Gravy," and the second is "Come On In." They also have released a live album, "Live at OATS With Extra Gravy."
"As the population ages, those who might have listened to earlier country music will be diminishing in numbers," Shafranko said. "Younger people who come into contact with the music will probably transform it over time, likely adding to the quality of it while retaining something of the purity and simplicity of it ... The OATS festival would be a really good way of getting exposed to the variety of artists who make up bluegrass."
Tickets for the festival are available at the gate and are $80 for a four-day pass. Single-day tickets for Thursday are $20, Friday and Saturday are $30 each and Sunday are $10.
For more information about Stained Grass Window, visit www.stainedgrasswindow.com, and the Hillbilly Gypsies at www.thehillbillygypsies. com.
For more information, visit www.oatsfestival.com or call 908-464-9495.