Living In The Moment: Fresh Grass festival promises to reach potential

Living In The Moment: Fresh Grass festival promises to reach potential
April Wallace

Fresh Grass, a bluegrass and progressive roots festival, has had challenging beginnings here in Northwest Arkansas, but now it’s ready and raring to go at full speed with more than 30 groups and 120 artists performing May 20-21 at the Momentary in Bentonville.

Emmylou Harris and the Red Dirt Boys and Dispatch will be the festival headliners on May 20, while singer-songwriter Amos Lee headlines May 21.

“We want to provide experiences and music that’s a little out of the ordinary,” says Argeo Ascani, programmer of music and festivals at the Momentary. “It’s not just bluegrass or one type of music. It’s taking this idea of roots, Americana, bluegrass and country and expanding it to get a wider picture.”

Among the unexpected acts is Nigerian singer songwriter and electric guitar player Bonbino. While it may not be the type of thing you’d imagine at a bluegrass festival, Ascani says listening to his music makes clear a similar connection in ways of musical storytelling and communicating with audiences.

“You have to understand that that’s part of the excitement,” says Chris Wadsworth, one of the Fresh Grass organizers. “You may not know everyone (set to play) but can be blown away by a throat singer band or a Mexican mariachi band. The real magical moments have come from unexpected things.”

Artists performing span different generations, too, lending different approaches to some of the same styles of music. While the legendary headliner and 14-time Grammy winner Emmylou Harris is in her 70s, Margo Price is in her 30s.

“I like that idea of … layering together generations,” Ascani says. “With Emmy on Friday and Margo on Saturday we contrast strong female performers.”

Two programs — Fresh Songs and Fresh Scores — make this festival weekend an especially unusual event. Fresh Scores is a project commissioned by Fresh Grass to create live music soundtracks for films shown on site. Fresh Songs debuts performances of new music created by Fresh Grass performers who spend a week and a half living and composing together at the House of Songs.

“It’s not the kind of stuff you’re going to sing along to, so it’s challenging in a different way, but it’s my favorite part because you never know what they’ll come up with,” Wadsworth says. “It’s a cool adventure to see what develops.”

Once the artists create the new songs, they debut them at Fresh Grass — but then they can take them elsewhere into the world, performing or recording wherever they like. Wadsworth says some have taken their work to South by Southwest, for example.

Willi Carlisle participated in House of Songs last year and will again this year. He says he makes some close friends through this experience.

“That kind of collaboration was really interesting,” Carlisle says. “It’s a great way to make friends in the music industry, (to have time and space) not related to ticket sales or management. The most fun thing to do is create together, the thing we do best.”

In a lot of ways, this year’s event is bigger than last year’s. It’s also a lot more representative of what the Momentary and festival organizers wanted to do originally. Ascani says folks can expect more artists, more stages and more things happening.

“It’s taken everyone pitching in,” he says. “It wouldn’t happen without the support of all the staff members and a large number of volunteers to help in various ways, which is really bringing everyone together.”

Fresh Grass relaunched programming at the Momentary following the extended break of in-person events during the pandemic. It was originally planned to take place in Bentonville for the first time in the spring of 2020. By the time it made its debut in October 2021, it had been long enough to have almost completely scrapped the original set list and started again.

“We offered refunds, but people stuck it out,” Wadsworth says. “I think people were eager to get out at the end of a long year and a half in covidland. Everyone was down to gather at that stage. The mood was fantastic.”

Due to covid restrictions last year, none of the music could happen indoors, so the 2021 event had two stages, one main stage and a secondary. This year those restrictions are dropped, so the Momentary can allow indoor performances as well.

“Last year was a lot of trial by fire,” Ascani says. “Jumping into a big festival after lockdown was in some ways difficult … but it was magical to see performances again and reengage with artists and see shows.”

Guests can see music on about four and a half stages, Ascani says, the main stage, the secondary stage, Fermentation Hall (indoors), the Tulip Barn and a courtyard next to the vendors that has some musical activity.

The main stage makes for a more traditional concert, placing the artists up higher and further away from the audiences, but as the stages go down in size, they create more intimate concert experiences, Ascani says. In the Tulip Barn, for instance, there’s a slightly raised stage putting artists an arm’s length away. In the courtyard, musicians are right in front of you, springing up to play.

Fresh Grass was established nearly a dozen years ago in North Adams, Mass. and regularly takes place on the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art campus, a space not unlike the Momentary. Mass MoCA resides in an industrial textile-style mill building and when Fresh Grass happens there, they make use of courtyards, fields and other indoor and outdoor spaces for the live music.

“We found that we had a magical formula, in terms of music and curating the whole weekend,” says Wadsworth. “The combination of elements and people coming was magic. Musically we’re known for a wide variety because I consider roots music real stories from real people and real towns.”



Fresh Grass

WHEN — May 20-21

WHERE — The Momentary in Bentonville

COST — $22-$135; VIP pass $500




Family-Friendly Activities

Last year, kids danced on the lawn and splashed in puddles to the upbeat music. This year, in addition to enjoying all the live music at Fresh Grass, they can have fun in the FreshKids area, where they can engage in music-related arts and crafts activities.

“Families who need a little quiet time can also slip into the galleries to visit two new exhibitions, ‘A Divided Landscape’ and ‘Esteban Cabeza de Baca: Let Earth Breathe.’ The Momentary doesn’t have a ‘quiet’ policy in the galleries, but it tends to be a little calmer and a good place to escape for some inspiration, reflection and a controlled climate to cool down in,” says Angel Horne, spokeswoman for the Momentary.



Market Amid Fresh Grass

Food vendors will be open 4-10 p.m. May 20 and 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. May 21, while makers will have their wares for sale 4-9 p.m. May 20 and 11:30 to 9 p.m. May 21.

Food available:

The Momentary Food Truck: Ozark street food

Onyx Coffee Lab: café and roastery specializing in coffee

Gary’s Concessions

V&A’s Tasty Treats: classic fair food

Food Truck de El Chefe-Mexican Cuisine: known to have some of the best birria in town

Southern Sippin’: lemonade made fresh to order

The Pizza Spot: New York-style pizza slices

Sweet Scoops Blender Bar: ice cream infusions and milkshakes

Baked by Kori: gourmet cookies, brownies, and baked goods

RubItSnout: signature dry rubs, gourmet pork rinds and smoked mixed nuts

Umami Bites: bold flavors in each bite

Yellow Frisbee Bakery: Artisan breads and pastries

Baker’s German Roasted Nuts: gluten free and vegan

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