A Grammy-winning bluegrass musician and a stalwart teacher in the Maryland gospel community will headline the 22nd annual Common Ground on the Hill Roots Music & Arts Festival.
The festival is Saturday, July 13 from 10:00 a.m.-3 p.m. held at the largest outdoor venue in Carroll, the Carroll County Farm Museum, 500 S. Center Street, Westminster.
Tickets are $30 for adults and $25 for teens and seniors 65 and over. Children 6-12 are $10 and children 5 and under are free with a ticketed adult. Carroll County Public School teachers, staff, and students receive free admission. Purchase tickets online at www.commongroundonthehill.org/tix_fest.
Shelley Ensor and Tim O’Brien will be awarded the Robert H. Chambers Award for Excellence in the Traditional Arts, the most prestigious award given by Common Ground annually. Past winners include Pete Seeger, Odetta, Richie Havens, John Hammond, Hot Tuna and Jose Feliciano.
Neither O’Brien nor Ensor is a stranger to Common Ground’s Traditions Weeks, three separate weeks of classes, concerts, dances and more held at McDaniel College annually in the summer. Both are teaching this year prior to playing the festival Saturday.
Common Ground Founder Walt Michael said the award can recognize the work recipients are doing in their communities.
“Sometimes it's very lonely and challenging work. But when you come here, we get to celebrate it,” he said.
Ensor has been on board with Common Ground since the beginning, bringing her performance talent as a singer and leadership as a director of multiple choirs including the McDaniel College Gospel Choir.
Michael first saw Ensor sing when she performed a solo with the Union Street Jubileers the first time they performed at a Common Ground event where her solo voice blew him away.
Today, “She's the most revered instructor here. There's no doubt about it,” Michael said. “She's a great singer and director and comes out of a major tradition of that, and, and a family that does that. Which is really important. That's how all that happens. It's like, you know, Aretha Franklin came up with family of singers and preachers.”
Ensor said her first memory is performing on stage with her family, and she still performs to this day with them as The Sisters of Harmony.
For 23 years, she taught the gospel choir class at Common Ground. It took place at a time when no other classes were happening so students, instructors and faculty members could all take part.
Now she passed on the teaching baton, but still finds joy in joining in and watching the tradition continue.
At the Roots Festival, she will be performing “a little bit of folk, a little bit of gospel and a little bit of blues,” she said.
This mix carries over to her classes during the Tradition’s Weeks, where “We try to give everyone an opportunity, if you have a certain genre of music that appeals to you, you’ll be able to sing that in the class,” she said.
One song that’s not gospel, but has been a hit with her choirs is “O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps.
“It's just not a gospel song,” she said. “But I do it with my gospel choir, because the message is the same. You know, the message of gospel music is a message of love and the message of hope.”
The Tim O’Brien Band
O’Brien is known for his “newgrass” sound, and his latest album combines covers of traditional songs with original works.
During traditions weeks, one of the classes he teaches is mandolin, an instrument that he has become well known in his decades performing solo and with the band Hot Rize.
Teaching feels like a way to give back to the music.
“I get my feet wet and dig the community a little bit, sort of see what’s happening,” he said. “And I learn as much as they do, I hope.”
Common Ground describes his style as “as an important bridge between the traditional sounds of the hill country and the modern style of bluegrass.”
Playing traditional songs, he finds connections with the people who did this before him.
“When you sing a song old song, you sing it because it’s still applicable today,” he said.
When choosing a song like “Nine Pound Hammer” or “The Ballad of John Henry,” he can find himself returning to the classics in different ways at different points of his life.
At first blush, John Henry was about the steam engine and the strongman contest. " And he won, but he died doing it. I suppose there’s a little moral story there, but it maybe escaped me when I was singing it early on," he said.
He sees the human nature and human stories in the songs.
“They may enable us to deal with current events, because we can go back and say, ‘Oh, well, this happened before. And here’s how it got resolved.' We survived that, so we can we can lay that lesson over top of this now.”
“Tradition’s kind of inescapable, but you can draw strength from it. And I think that’s kind of what we do, and what the aim of Common Ground is, to bring it forward,” he said.
Skilled performers in a variety of traditional arts will be featured throughout the day including the well-traveled Latin and American roots music fusion group Che Apalache and dancers Junious ‘House’ Brickhouse & Ryan ‘Future’ Webb from Urban Artistry. Grammy-winner and 2017 Recipient of the Robert H. Chambers Award for Excellence in the Traditional Arts Guy Davis also returns.