- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Mark Newton has spent hours on the road, in meetings and on the telephone planning and booking the three-day,14th annual Graves’ Mountain Festival of Musicthat opens at noon today at Graves’ Mountain Lodge in Syria, Va.

It should be time well spent. On Saturday at 10:30 a.m., he is scheduled to kick off the festival’s final day with the Mark Newton Band. At 5:10 p.m., the band has a set with special guest Rhonda Vincent.

In addition to Miss Vincent and her band, the Rage, the festival features the Seldom Scene, Nothin’ Fancy, Mountain Heart, the Peter Rowan & Tony Rice Quartet, Blue Highway, and hot new artists and bands like Alecia Nugent, the Grascals, Uncle Earl, the Infamous Stringdusters and Cherryholmes.

Artists long associated with bluegrass will also be there: Larry Cordle, Jerry Salley, Ronnie Bowman, Little Roy Lewis and the Isaacs. In all, some 20 different bands will appear, including an all-star lineup with two-time Grammy-winner Carl Jackson leading a tribute to the Louvin Brothers.

“It’s been a successful event; we’re real proud of it,” says Mr. Newton, 49, who grew up in the Fredericksburg area but calls Nashville, Tenn., home. “The Graves family are wonderful people to work with.”

Syria, two hours south of Washington on state Route 670 (www.graves mountain.com), is at the foot of the Blue Ridge between Sperryville and Madison. The family-owned rustic retreat has offered legendary home-style meals and hospitality for 135 years.

Among the 5,000 to 6,000 fans expected at the annual festival are many from the Washington area.

“I grew up here,” Mr. Newton says, “so I’m real familiar with bluegrass music in the D.C. area. D.C. has always been one area in the nation — the world, for that matter — that has supported bluegrass music.”

In the 1980s, Mr. Newton earned a name for himself with the Virginia Squires, a band featuring Sammy Shelor on banjo and brothers Rickie and Ronnie Simpkins on fiddle and bass respectively.

Although he has helped organize the Graves’ Mountain festival for many years, Mr. Newton says, “my passion is performing. I never in my wildest dreams when I was younger thought I would be an event planner.”

Mr. Newton doesn’t neglect his passion either: His new CD, titled “Hillbilly Hemingway,” should be out this summer.

His goal for the festival is variety — especially bands that appeal to younger fans.

“You’ve got to bring in another generation,” he says. “The Stringdusters are one band that taps into that movement, and so is Uncle Earl,” with its all-female lineup.

He also is proud of scheduling a performance by Carl Jackson, producer of the 2003 Grammy-winning “Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’ — Songs of the Louvin Brothers.”

Mr. Jackson, 52, who played banjo for Jim and Jesse McReynolds at age 14 — he later backed Glen Campbell — has written hits recorded by such country singers as Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and Pam Tillis, as well as bluegrass songs for Ricky Skaggs, Doyle Lawson and IIIrd Tyme Out.

“I don’t play festivals very often. I rarely do shows, I’m so busy in the studio,” Mr. Jackson says. “It’ll be a blast. There will be a lot of great people there.”

• • •

The Infamous Stringdusters — fresh from signing their first record contract with the Sugar Hill label — will appear at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Jammin’ Java in Vienna.

They are a young bluegrass band, but they aren’t new to music. Two band members are graduates of Berklee College of Music in Boston. Banjo player Chris Pandolfi was the school’s first principal banjo graduate, says band mate and fellow alumnus Andy Hall, who plays resophonic guitar. The Stringdusters’ guitarist, Chris Eldridge, is the son of Seldom Scene banjo player Ben Eldridge.

Their sets are mostly original. Members range in age from 23 to 31. Mr. Hall, the oldest, says the Stringdusters were sidemen for Dolly Parton, Earl Scruggs, Ronnie Bowman and Lee Ann Womack before joining up and moving to Nashville in 2005.

“It has become a necessary thing for us to create our own music and our own destiny,” he says, to “fuse a traditional musical style with people who have some formal musical education.”

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