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Becoming a late-winter trademark: Back Porch Festival brings country music, bluegrass and more to Valley

  • Country music legend Marty Stuart, in foreground, and his Fabulous Superlatives play the Back Porch Festival March 1. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen/courtesy Signature Sounds

  • The Travelin’ McCourys, led by brothers Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (fiddle) McCoury, bring their sizzling bluegrass to the Back Porch Festival Feb. 29. Photo courtesy Signature Sounds

  • Veteran blues pianist Marcia Ball brings her rollicking sound to Gateway City Arts in Holyoke Feb. 26 as part of the Back Porch Festival. Photo by Mary Bruton/courtesy Signature Sounds

  • Singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, who got his start with Signature Sounds almost 20 years ago, will play a stripped-down set at Back Porch Feb. 28 Photo courtesy Signature Sounds

  • Bluegrass band Della Mae, which formed in Boston and is now based in Nashville, plays Feb. 29 at the Back Porch Festival. Photo courtesy Signature Sounds

  • Country singer-songwriter and DJ Laura Cantrell opens for Marty Stuart on March 1 at the Back Porch Festival. Photo by Amy Dickerson/courtesy Signature Sounds



Staff Writer
Thursday, February 20, 2020

For over 30 years, one of the touchstones for summer in the Valley has been the Green River Festival.

Now another touchstone has come to mark late February and early March in our region: the Back Porch Festival, which returns starting Wednesday, Feb. 26.

The roots and country music showcase, begun as a one-day event at Signature Sounds in Northampton in 2014, has steadily expanded its programming, with multiple shows and other events over nearly a week-long stretch. But it’s not a case of musical mission creep so much as an effort to provide a joyful antidote to the late-winter blues.

“We really have a good time putting this together,” said Jim Olsen, president of Signature Sounds and also the director of the Green River Festival. “Compared to all the work we have to do for Green River, [the Back Porch Festival] is just a lot of fun.”

The 2020 version of Back Porch, with four nights of music in Northampton and another in Holyoke, will offer a range of styles, from honky tonk to blues to bluegrass and folk. This year’s lineup includes country music legend Marty Stuart, the bluegrass supergroup Hawktail, rollicking blues pianist Marcia Ball and a number of other performers.

“We’ve been looking to get him up here for awhile,” Olsen said about Stuart, a longtime singer-songwriter, guitarist and mandolin player (and Grammy winner) who gigged with Johnny Cash, Doc Watson and other big country names earlier in his career before moving on to his own music.

“He’s a real repository for country music history, and memorabilia, too,” said Olsen. “He just knows so much about it.” Ken Burns, for one, turned to Stuart as a principle source for his 2019 documentary film series on country music.

Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, will play the festival’s closing show, on Sunday, March 1, at Northampton’s Academy of Music, along with opening act (and Tennessee native) Laura Cantrell and her ensemble; she’s a country songwriter and interpreter based in New York City, where she’s also hosted popular country music radio shows.

“Laura has done some really unusual country covers, and she’s another one with just a really great understanding of country music history,” said Olsen. “I’m guessing she’ll also be joining [Marty Stuart]” for some of the latter’s set.

To get things rolling, Back Porch Festival 2020 will offer a free introductory event on Monday, Feb. 24, at The Parlor Room: the 2004 documentary film “Be Here to Love Me” about the revered Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who died in 1997 after years of substance abuse. Then on Thursday, Feb. 27, also at The Parlor Room, a host of area musicians — Chris Brashear, Tracy Grammer, Jim Henry, Zak Trojano, The Suitcase Junket, Winterpills and others — will play a tribute show of Van Zandt’s music (this event was sold out as of press time).

The festival will also bring the sounds of Texas and Louisiana to the Valley on Wednesday, Feb. 26, at Holyoke’s Gateway City Arts in the form of Marcia Ball and slide guitar master Sonny Landreth. The Texas-born Ball has spent decades “ignit[ing] a full-scale roadhouse rhythm and blues party every time she takes the stage,” as press notes put it, with her mix of Texas boogie, New Orleans barrelhouse piano and other styles. Landreth, meantime, has won two Grammy nominations and a boatload of praise; the Louisiana guitarist has also just released a new album, “Blacktop Run.”

Things will quiet down for the first of the three festival shows at the Academy of Music on Friday, Feb. 28, when singer-songwriter Josh Ritter takes the stage. Ritter got his start with Signature Sounds back in the early 2000s and has long since won wide acclaim for his Americana-styled tunes. Though he usually plays with a band, Olsen said Ritter is beginning a new, primarily solo tour with his Academy show, playing acoustic guitar and piano; he’ll also have a bass player for at least some of his set, Olsen said.

“He’s really reaching back deep into his catalog on this tour, so he wanted to take a different approach on stage,” added Olsen. “He’s actually playing a number of the shows in churches.” In fact, he said, Ritter had contacted Signature about possibly playing a gig in a church in this area, but “We thought he could do the same kind of intimate show at the Academy, because it’s got that vibe, and the sound system is so good.”

Opening up for Ritter — and likely joining him for a few numbers as well — will be singer-songwriter Caitlin Canty, a Vermont native whose music embraces folk, blues and country. Called “dreamy and daring” by Rolling Stone, Canty, who studied biology at Williams College, now lives in Nashville, Tenn.

Saturday, Feb. 29, is hoedown night at the Academy, as three bluegrass bands, all based in Nashville, will complete the festival’s lineup. The Travelin’ McCourys are led by brothers Ronnie (on mandolin) and Rob (on banjo) of the same name, and they have a distinctive family pedigree: Their father, guitarist Del McCoury, is a bluegrass legend now in his early 80s (he also played at Back Porch two years ago). His sons are chips off the old block, said Olsen: “They both can really pick it.”

Rounding out the night are the all-women band Della Mae, which first formed in Boston, and Hawktail, an instrumental foursome that includes fiddler Brittany Haas, who has played with Crooked Still, and bassist Paul Kowert, who’s part of the alt-bluegrass band Punch Brothers.

The Back Porch Festival has another addition this year: two acoustic music workshops on Saturday at The Parlor Room led by fiddler and guitarist Chris Brashear of Amherst and mandolinist Matt Flinner. That arrangement was one of serendipity, Olsen said, as Brashear had contacted him about holding a workshop at The Parlor Room “and we thought ‘Why not? Let’s make it part of [the festival].’ ”

And last but not least, Olsen will broadcast his long-running Back Porch Radio show, heard Sunday mornings on WRSI-FM, live from The Parlor Room from 9 a.m. to noon on Sunday, March 1, with “special guests” joining him for the show. Then Hawktail comes back for a second gig there at 2 p.m.

“We like to think there’s a little something for everybody,” said Olsen.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For more information on the Back Porch Festival 2020, and to buy tickets, visit signaturesoundspresents.com.