At the Santa Fe Traditional Music Festival, you can call it what you want: folk (traditional folk, folk-style, or contemporary folk), old-time, bluegrass, blues, R&B, country (country blues, country and Western, alternative country, or just country), or Americana.
Because in the end, it’s all music.
TradFest, which runs Friday through Sunday, Aug. 23 to 25, returns to Camp Stoney, at the edge of the Santa Fe National Forest. Now in its third consecutive year, headliners include Chris Jones and the Night Drivers, the South Carolina Broadcasters, and Cedric Watson.
“The festival itself hasn’t really changed since the first one, the Santa Fe Banjo and Fiddle Contest, back in 1974,” says Ron Hale, the festival’s president. “It’s mostly traditional music, which is kind of hard to define.”
The original festival evolved into the Santa Fe Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Festival, which moved out of Santa Fe in 2016. The organizers thought they could do better elsewhere, so they uprooted the festival, eventually landing in Red River, where it currently resides as the Bluegrass and Traditional Music Festival, which happens concurrently with TradFest.
Back in Santa Fe, “we decided to change the name to expand it from a bluegrass and old-time music festival,” Hale explains, “so that we could have a good, healthy mix and still have the major focus be on bluegrass and folk music.”
This is evidenced in the array of performers who will be playing at Camp Stoney’s three stages. Among the 18 acts, bluegrass and traditional music is certainly on offer, but there’s also a mariachi band (for the third year), a bagpipe player, a Balkan choir, a Native American drummer, and several performers of Mexican and New Mexican music.
Most of what Hale calls the festival’s “dyed-in-the-wool bluegrass fans” come from New Mexico, but many also come from Colorado. Last year’s festival drew approximately 1,000 people over the three-day weekend. This year Hale expects around 1,200 to attend the event, which includes workshops, food vendors, kids’ activities, and camping. “But the first year started out with a mariachi band, and they loved it. And even though people might have certain preferences, nobody seems to mind.”
The musicians perhaps least of all. “I definitely embrace the range of music,” says Chris Jones, lead singer and lead guitarist of Chris Jones and the Night Drivers. “We like the lineup there, and in many ways, it’s the future of acoustic festivals — that kind of diversity.
“After all,” Jones continues, “I’d define our music as only kind of original bluegrass. It’s traditional in nature, but not so traditional in presentation. Bluegrass is known for being extremely serious, especially onstage. We’re a little more humorous, and we write the majority of our material and play in as original a manner as possible. So while we’re not irreverent toward the music, our onstage approach is a little different. We do bluegrass music that’s accessible to a range of people. It appeals to a broader cross-section.”
To the uninitiated, bluegrass might sound indistinguishable from old-time music. But the style evolved out of old-time music, which is happier, more danceable, and more about the instruments; whereas bluegrass, which has been described as a “celebration of pain,” is more improvisational and centered around the vocals.
Jones and his Night Drivers are at the forefront of the bluegrass scene (whether it’s old-time or new wave). “We were lucky to get him,” Hale says of the award-winning bluegrass player and host of SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Junction. “But it was also kind of destiny.”
It turns out Jones, a longtime Nashville resident who currently lives in Canada, used to spend his summers in Albuquerque visiting his father (while living the rest of the year with his mom in Brooklyn, New York). At 15, he started taking lessons with Tricia Ann Eaves, an accomplished bluegrass musician, law professor, and erstwhile TradFest board member. “Tricia gave me a month’s worth of lessons and mentored me to festivals throughout the Southwest,” recalls Jones. “I hadn’t seen her in about 30 years. Then, out of the blue, I saw her in Nashville, where she’d moved to.”
“And that’s how we got Chris and his band,” says Hale. “Through Tricia.”
Another bit of kismet: Camp Stoney turned out to be “the perfect place,” Hale says. “It puts people in a reunion frame of mind, being able to see each other and play together. It’s a summer camp with cabins. It’s like a gathering of the clan of people who love these kinds of music.”
That reunion vibe also comes from the workshops, a songwriters’ showcase, and impromptu jam sessions. “We do a lot of education, in groups, individually,” says Jones, whose latest album with the band is The Choosing Road. “It’s a big part of what we do — the curricular part. Which is why music has a personal connection for us.”
And for Jones, it’s even more personal. “New Mexico had such a big impact on my musical life. I never lived there full-time, but it’s where I learned to drive, where I started playing bluegrass music seriously,” Jones says. “It means a lot to me.” ◀
▼ Santa Fe Traditional Music Festival
▼ Camp Stoney, 7855 Old Santa Fe Trail
▼ 7-9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23; 9:45 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24; 9:45 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 25
▼ Weekend pass $50 in advance, $60 at the gate, 12 and under no charge; day tickets $10-30; 505-989-7543, santafetradfest.org