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Bluegrass smokes for Larry Cordle, Infamous Stringdusters, Cadillac Sky

Pickiní in the Panhandle Bluegrass Festival, Hedgesville, West Va., September 7, 2008

Reviewed by Greg Yost

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The quaint and wooded Lazy A Campground in Hedgesville, West Va. provided an ideal location for a day of barbeque and bluegrass at the annual Pickin' in the Panhandle festival after weather problems on opening day. Officially dubbed the West Virginia State BBQ & Bluegrass Festival, every year this event plays host to competitive barbeque teams from across the country along with some of the hottest national acts in bluegrass music.

The first day of the weekend music festival found the remnants of Tropical Storm Hanna wreaking havoc and drenching the campground's fields. Day two, however, was a much different story. Clouds and rain gave way to a sun-drenched and warm day that found music fans packing the field in front of the stage while sitting on blankets, lawn chairs and hey bales.

The main stage lineup for the day featured both the progressive and traditional sides of bluegrass with three prominent national acts - Cadillac Sky, The Infamous Stringdusters and Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time. All three groups played two separate sets throughout the day and showcased the incredible picking skills that made them some of the hottest acts in bluegrass.

Getting the festivities started for the day was Cadillac Sky. This band, originally from Texas, has been turning heads over the last few years with two albums that stretch the parameters that define bluegrass. Led by the talented singer/mandolin player/songwriter Bryan Simpson, Cadillac Sky entertained the crowd with selections from its first two albums, 2007's "Blind Man Walking" and "Gravity's Our Enemy," the band's new release on the Skaggs Family Records label.

Although the band has some talented pickers, the most striking aspect of Cadillac Sky's music is the group's harmonizing. Songs like the tender ballad Homesick Angel and the franticly calming Insomniac Blues for Matthew were two of best moments from the band's sets. Both highlighted the band's signature harmonies.

Other highlights included the appropriate Sunday morning gospel message of Sinners Welcome, the controlled fervor of The Wreck and the furious picking of Can't Trust the Weatherman.

While Nashville's The Infamous Stringdusters, a talented group of young performers has also earned a reputation for pushing the traditional bluegrass envelope, the band's performance at was a nod to the considerable number of traditional fans in the audience.

Even though the band did showcase some of the best songs from its first two albums on Sugar Hill Records, some of the most memorable songs from the group's two sets come from the traditional Americana canon. Renditions of classics like Dark Hollow, Deep Elem Blues and Cluck Old Hen were very well received by the attentive, but mellow crowd.

It was obvious that the crowd's favorite act of the day was the final featured main stage performer, Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time. Joined by the ace singer/mandolin player Don Rigsby, Cordle and company impressed the sizeable crowd with a set that showcased both the expert musicianship of the group and Cordle's nationally-recognized skills as a songwriter. Throughout the group's two stints on the stage, it put a lot of emphasis on songs from the group's 2007 release "Took Down and Put Up" on the Lonesome Day Records label. Of particular note were spirited performances of the somber miner ballad Hole in the Ground, the up-tempo love song Rough Around the Edges and the radio-friendly Old Cheater's Blues.

By bringing together some of the brightest stars on the bluegrass scene for a full day of entertainment, the organizers behind the 2008 edition of Pickin' in the Panhandle proved that the pork wasn't the only thing smoking in the West Virginia mountains this warm September afternoon.