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Splendor in the bluegrass

Grammy-nominated quintet Della Mae headlines this year's Long

Grammy-nominated quintet Della Mae headlines this year's Long Island Bluegrass & Roots Music Festival in Copiague. Credit: Scott Simontacchi

Long Island is an unlikely place for the flowering of bluegrass, a country music genre that originated in the Kentucky hills, but it is where the string-band sound and its driving syncopated rhythms is decidedly growing its audience.

“We filled a need,” says Shawn Cullinane, board president of the Babylon Citizens Council of the Arts, sponsor of the 16th Long Island Bluegrass & Roots Music Festival on Saturday at Tanner Park in Copiague. “There were events for folk music, classical and Broadway, but nobody was doing bluegrass.”

Incorporating elements of country, blues and jazz, bluegrass is distinguished by tight harmonies, higher keys and offbeat phrasing. On-the-spot improvisation also plays a big part, with freewheeling solos alternately performed by one of the group’s instruments — mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo or upright bass. Recently, the festival expanded its scope to include American roots music, intimate songs communicating the everyday hopes and sorrows of ordinary people and their communities. “There are talented people in our township, and it gives people more opportunity to express that talent,” Cullinane says.

Blurring the lines among bluegrass, folk, and soul are this year’s headliners, the Nashville-based all-female group Della Mae. The Grammy-nominated band is among a host of national-touring artists performing on Tanner Park’s main stage giving a modern-day spin to a music form steeped in tradition. Putnam Smith, who lives in a log cabin in Maine and plays his grandpa’s banjo, appears with versatile cellist April Reed-Cox; Michael Daves features with friends including fiddler Darol Anger, and folk icon Woody Guthrie’s grandson Cole Quest demonstrates his love of bluegrass with the high-spirited City Pickers.

There is rootsy homegrown talent too — Fodder Wing, Free Grass Union, The New Students and He-Bird, She-Bird. The Fiddle Kids, young players culled and coached from across Long Island by teacher Bill Ayasse, show off their musical chops for the third year running.

Bluegrass buffs and folk followers who want to get in on the act are welcome to grab their banjos or mandolins and attend instructive workshops, a number of which will be led by featured artists, Cullinane says.

But if you’re one of those so-called parking-lot pickers who would rather have your own gig, check out the festival’s impromptu jam sessions. “They are sporadic, organic and may have as much as 25 to 30 instruments,” Cullinane says. “There is no intimidation, no spotlights. Everyone is just playing together.”

The Long Island Bluegrass & Roots Music Festival

WHEN | WHERE Noon-7 p.m. Saturday, Tanner Park, 400 Baylawn Ave., Copiague

INFO Free-$20; 631-587-3696, babylonarts.org

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