Made Possible: FreshGrass Builds A Web Of Roots Music Support
In May of this year, folk star Sarah Jarosz released the album Blue Heron Suite, a song cycle inspired by emotional family connections to a beach on the Texas Gulf Coast. It’s one the year’s most fully-realized and sophisticated Americana records, with thematic through lines and recurring motifs. And that’s by design. In the notes to the album, Jarosz observes that taking time to write a complete work rather than the usual collection of discrete songs, was made possible by a 2017 grant from the Fresh Grass Foundation.
The non-profit launched its annual commission program the prior year with a grant to guitarist Bill Frisell. Since then, it’s provided support for Jarosz, songwriter/historian Rhiannon Giddens and cutting-edge ensemble the Kronos Quartet. And they’re substantial contributions; Jarosz received $25,000 for the composition and premiere performance and the same amount again a few years later to make and release the recorded version. This Composition Commission’s stated aim is to support “a new long-form piece of music for an ensemble that includes some elements of traditional string band instrumentation.” And that’s but one of a number of FreshGrass initiatives that are transforming roots music patronage.
“Blue Heron Suite might not exist at all, if they hadn't given me this opportunity,” Jarosz says. “The creativity and the artistry that comes out of the generosity, and the thinking behind the FreshGrass Foundation, is unparalleled. And to me, when creative freedoms are given to some artists, I think that that sort of lifts the entire community up.”
Jarosz was surprised by the commission; she didn’t apply. The assignment was to create a cohesive work, 30-40 minutes in length, that would be premiered live at the 2017 FreshGrass festival. She says she tailored the song cycle to the trio she was then touring with and approached the date with even more excitement and focus than usual. “So that was kind of a cool challenge in and of itself,” she says of the premiere. “It affected the writing process, because I (knew) I have to be able to do this in real time.”
Commissions and creative support grants, commonplace career-builders in classical and jazz, are relatively rare in bluegrass, old-time and folk music, but FreshGrass is changing that. It gives grants to artists who solicit help completing albums. It selects three or four artists each year for commissions under its FreshScores program, through which musicians (so far including Dom Flemons, The Mammals, The Lost Bayou Ramblers and Alison Brown) compose mid-length, innovative scores to short films. They’re performed live at its signature festival, which is coming around again Sept. 24-26 on the grounds of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). It has recently launched FreshGrass Concertos with a gift that’s allowing North Carolina’s Steep Canyon Rangers to develop a full orchestral work.
“Part of the main mission of the FreshGrass Foundation is to get artists to push the limits in a way that maybe they wouldn't otherwise,” says its founder, president and director Chris Wadsworth from his home in San Francisco. “I love the mix between roots music and classical music forms, and I think that there's just so much to be done there.”
Like the wandering galleries at MASS MoCA (a massive place with 28 buildings on 16 acres), there seems to always be more to find under the FreshGrass umbrella. It acquired No Depression magazine in 2016 and began publishing the print journal format of the venerable roots publication. Folk Alley, the online radio station founded in 2003 and endorsed by NPR, became part of the FreshGrass consortium in 2019, the same year that the longstanding Steve Martin Banjo Prize was merged into the organization. FreshGrass maintains a high-tech recording and performance space near the MASS MoCA grounds called Studio 9. It's partners with the experimental Artists-At-Work.org, “a workforce resilience program inspired by the WPA.” It grants annual cash awards to emerging artists “who offer innovative interpretations of bluegrass and roots music traditions.” And it’s even expanding its festival footprint this year with a new FreshGrass gathering in Bentonville, AR launching October 1-2.
“I like the different formats that we offer,” says Wadsworth, “With live music, with covering roots music from a journalistic standpoint, (with) streaming music on a 24-hour basis, our thesis is to support roots music. And I feel like these different channels are very important for the community.”
Wadsworth was a bluegrass musician as a young man and studied classical guitar as a music major at Williams College. He did part of a composing master’s degree before shifting gears toward an MBA and embarking on years in the private equity investing business. That career left him with the means to launch and support FreshGrass, though the 501(c)(3) has a variety of income streams as well, including festival revenue and arts grants. No Depression supports itself with subscriptions, or at least that’s the ideal.
As a full arts support ecosystem, there’s nothing like it in folk, bluegrass or country music, and at a time when recordings offer less return than they used to and live performance has shown that it can be disrupted, patronage may be playing a more important role sustaining certain careers and emboldening the cutting edges of creativity. Certainly, some key venues and shows are run as non-profits, but the only real precedent for Wadsworth’s arts patronage in roots music is the late Warren Hellman, who spent millions launching and endowing the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco, which has run for 20 years.
FreshGrass is a more flexible and diversified program than that annual public gathering with its year-round, hybrid model of patronage and support. “It's grown in a very organic and natural way to be what it is today, Wadsworth says. “And, you know, we're going to continue to grow. We're hoping to do more festivals. And if there are organizations that feel like it makes sense to be under the FreshGrass family tent, we're open to that as well.”