When: Saturday, Jan. 28, 9 a.m.
Where: Pinal Fairgrounds & Event Center, 521 S. Eleven Mile Corner Road, Casa Grande
Cost: $15 (cash only), kids 12 and under free
What to expect
The Agri-Country Bluegrass Festival brings top talent from the genre both locally and nationwide to the fairgrounds for a day of live music.
“Bands this year include local favorites The Arizona Wildflowers, Jam Pak and winter visitors from Alaska, The Alaska Connection,” said Misti Todd, fairgrounds executive director. “We are also welcoming The Blue Canyon Boys, High Plains Tradition and Thunder and Lightnin.’”
The Alaska Connection, The Blue Canyon Boys, High Plains Tradition and Thunder and Lightnin’ are new to the festival this year.
There’s even a youth band called Jam Pak that has won over fans from all over with young musicians of all ages.
“They book great entertainment,” said Joel Dowling, an Arizona musician who emcees the proceedings. “The headliners last year were incredible. You’re getting both local acts right from Casa Grande to national acts who travel all over the world.”
Traditionally the event is a two-day festival, though the 2021 edition had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the festival runs for only one day. However, there is still plenty to keep people entertained outside of the music, including a classic car show with $250 in cash prizes and the Country Comfort Quilt Show that will run until 4 p.m.
For those just there for the music, there have typically been multiple stages to enjoy, with enough variety for bluegrass fans of all types as well as those who don’t yet realize they like the genre. Which is good, because thousands of people come every year.
“It’s a dedicated audience, very much the same as any other festival you’d see in the Southwest,” said Dowling, who also plays upright bass and sings for the Back Porch Bandits at the festival. “The amenities are great.”
How it started
Bluegrass, at its core, is all about bringing people together and jamming. So it’s a suitable origin story that the Agri-Country Bluegrass Festival started in someone’s backyard.
Farmer Nancy Caywood remembers the jam sessions that would form in and around Casa Grande in the 1990s, as friends and strangers alike would form one-day bands to play some tunes. Eventually, the sessions got so big that hundreds of people would start gathering at the fairgrounds every January to play.
“You can learn from someone who’s been playing one minute or someone who’s been playing for years,” Caywood said. “I love the people who share all they know about music because they love it and they want as many people as possible to love it as well.”
Around 2009, Connie Lane took over as the fairgrounds manager and expanded the jam sessions to a more organized festival. Caywood, a self-taught fiddle player, said the festival became a celebration of bluegrass, something that she doesn’t take for granted in Pinal County.
Caywood was introduced to bluegrass when a high school friend asked her to come to a fiddling competition where her boyfriend was playing. She thought she would hate the music but became so enthralled with it that she started teaching herself how to play.
“The music can be very, very unfamiliar,” she said. “But the more you listen to it the more you enjoy it. I could never imagine when I was in high school that I would be listening to it for fun someday.”
Why you should go
Bluegrass has seen a sort of resurgence over the past 20 years or so, particularly with the release of the hit movie “O Brother Where Art Thou,” which featured many songs of the genre and even saw George Clooney’s character form a band in order to stay away from the law.
“Bluegrass is music that everybody can relate to, and it’s music that an awfully high number are able to play,” Dowling said. “So you can go to a big venue with lots of lights and production, or you can go to somebody's backyard and watch four people play. It touches universal themes — often it’s murder. But there’s also the loss of things, the gaining of things, the wonder of things. All those exist in bluegrass music.”
He recommends that those who don’t yet have a relationship with bluegrass listen to the legends like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, but to also check in on the big modern acts who are leaving their mark on the genre. Comedian Steve Martin has famously dedicated himself to his bluegrass band, Steep Canyon Rangers, which has provided many people an entry point to the music.
Caywood said to plan on having lunch there and supporting local vendors while being “absorbed in music,” with weather hopefully cooperating.
“Bring the kids and maybe they’ll be inspired to start playing,” Caywood said. “When you learn to play an instrument and you learn to play with other people, it’s a great way to socialize.”