Johnny Goss seems to know everybody.
The guitarist and singer from local bluegrass band Valley Road steps into the Jack’s in Alexandria and jokes around with the staff behind the counter. He greets a cluster of guys who have taken over the corner of the restaurant – he’s on a first-name basis with the lot of them. People know him around here; he’s a part of the community.
On Saturday, Goss and the rest of the five-man band are kicking off the first Valley Road Community Bluegrass Festival to give everyone who attends that same sense of community, a chance to know everybody.
“Get something to eat and sit with 1,500 of your closest friends you haven’t met yet,” said Goss.
The festival will also feature performances by Alabama bluegrass bands Backwoods Revival and Crossing Grass, as well entertainment for kids. Just Wing It will sell barbecue and wings to benefit the American Cancer Society, and an Alvarez guitar will be raffled off to benefit the Alexandria Volunteer Fire Department. Visitors are encouraged to bring along an instrument for impromptu jams in the festival area in between shows.
“We met the other members of the band at festivals,” said Luke Ford, Valley Road’s banjo player. “You can get in a circle with people and play music and everyone will just gather around.”
There’s no alcohol allowed at the festival, a decision Goss says will encourage families to bring their kids along. Many bluegrass musicians start playing their instruments at a very early age, as was the case with Ford. Mainstream names like mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile and bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs, who recently performed in Oxford, also got their start at early ages.
“I came into it at 5 years old, and I’ll be 60 in July,” said Skaggs, who credits artists like Thile and Sierra Hull, who started performing at age 8, with drawing young people to the genre. “I’m seeing it more and more at our shows, young kids coming up in the autograph line and bringing mandolins and banjos and fiddles.”
It’s the infusion of young blood into the genre that allows bluegrass to grow and expand beyond simple stereotypes, spawning new bluegrass stars like Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, which fuse unexpected musical influences into bluegrass.
“If all you’ve ever heard is ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ or ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ you think that’s all there is to it,” said Goss. “It’s so much more complex, complicated but pure.”
Complexity is fine, but according to Ford and Goss, the most important part of bluegrass is the lifestyle — the people, the music and the fun.
“Our festival is about including everybody; we don’t care if you go to church or not, we don’t care if you work at a bar, if you’re a CEO or dig ditches — this is a time where everyone can come together,” said Goss.
Even those who aren’t fans.
“If you don’t like bluegrass?” he continued, laughing. “Fine, come anyway.”