CAMBRIDGE - The Paul Bunyan Bluegrass Festival held this past weekend is more than just another musical event. It's a reunion as well for the Thibodeau family.
"Bluegrass in Maine is a family of musicians who have played with one another through the years," explained organizer Bill Thibodeau of Clifton. Thibodeau, a member of the host Union River Band, plays with not only his figurative family, but also his literal family at festivals. His father, Sam Tidwell, a big name in Maine bluegrass for years, and mother and his two brothers perform as the Tidwell Family.
"My father is living in Florida now, and this is probably his last trip north, so we're combining the festival with a family reunion," Thibodeau said. "We'll record the show and get it on videotape."
Thibodeau will be involved with another reunion as well, as the renowned Bluegrass Supply Company got back together for one night. Others expected were alumni Jeff Budge, Joe Kennedy, Kenny Brooks and Perley Curtis.
Also on the festival bill are North Star, Katahdin Valley Boys, Evergreen, Sweet Grass, The Muellers and the Abbot Hill Ramblers on Saturday and North Star, Katahdin Valley Boys, Guy Stevenson and Bob & Grace French on Sunday. Friday was a showcase of young bands: Penobscot River Ramblers and Never2Late from the Bangor area, Borderline Bluegrass from Aroostook County, Sandy River Ramblers from the Belgrade area and Spring Creek from Gardiner.
One of the most intriguing stories at the Paul Bunyan Bluegrass Festival was the youthful Abbot Hill Ramblers, who have evolved from a fledgling after-school group to a talented ensemble with two albums to its credit in the span of five years.
The Ramblers are the brainchild of Chris Prickitt of Cambridge, a member of the well-known bluegrass quartet Evergreen and an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Dexter Middle School.
Prickitt got it started in the fall of 2000, when he saw a chance to pass on the music he loved. He applied for and received a Century 21 grant - used to support after-school activities - with which he bought an acoustic string bass, a fiddle, a banjo and two mandolins, to go with a few guitars already on hand. About 15 students took part that first year, which was capped by an evening classroom concert.
Eric Keyte, a senior guitarist and vocalist, was one of those first musicians. "I had played guitar for eight years at that point," Keyte said, explaining why he joined. "This was an outlet for us to play music."
Prickitt sees bluegrass as an accessible form of music for novice musicians.
"It's user friendly," he said. "You teach everyone one chord, and they can play a song all together. It gives them another kind of music to appreciate, besides the rock 'n' roll and rap which the culture pushes on them."
Keyte enjoys the opportunity that the Ramblers give him. "Dexter is kind of a small town, and there's not much to do," he said. "The really dedicated [musicians] will go over after school and play music for an hour. It's a good feeling to be able to do that at the end of the day."
The group has grown to the point where there are a dozen students in the Ramblers and another 12-20 in the Abbot Hill Wanderers, a collection of less-experienced musicians. When the Over-the-Hill Ramblers, made up of faculty members, and a fiddle group are added in, there are 45 to 50 people involved overall. The group was helped financially by the Bluegrass Music Association of Maine for three years. Last year, the SAD 46 school board voted to accept the program as an official extracurricular activity and gave some financial backing.
The current Ramblers lineup is Buster Brown, Andy Crane, Keyte, Julie Lockhart, Michael Nokes, Thomas Nokes, Rachel Maynard, Clarissa Maynard, Tyler Poirier and Clarie Wyman, along with Prickitt and his wife, Georgia.
The Ramblers have released two albums, 2004's "Born to Ramble" and "Climbing Higher," which came out in early August. The new album was recorded in two four-hour sessions by Steve Chiasson, Prickitt's Evergreen band partner. How has the band progressed over its short life?
"After a few years, we've become good," Keyte said. "We've really integrated a lot of types of music. We've started playing hard-driving bluegrass. The music got faster and we were able to play faster, and more advanced."
The Abbot Hill Ramblers play at 10 a.m. Saturday. Prickitt said the novice musicians are eager for this opportunity. "This one is a little more exciting for them," he said. "A lot of them haven't watched high-quality bluegrass bands live."
The festival featured the Ramblers and their adult counterparts has been in the works for a couple of years.
"One of the things people [in the bluegrass community] wanted was a bluegrass festival in this area," Thibodeau explained. "And they thought I should be the one to organize it."
Thibodeau has seen a growth in the popularity of bluegrass in recent years, and points to a couple of factors: the rise of Alison Krauss and Union Station, and the popularity of the songs that her band partner, Dan Timinski, provided for the soundtrack of the 2000 hit film "O Brother, Where Are Thou."
"Also, over time, a lot of people have wanted to get back to acoustic music in general," he added. For information, call Bill Thibodeau at 843-5994 or e-mail email@example.com.
The Abbot Hill Ramblers will hold an album release concert at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6, at Dexter Middle School.
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