Learning guitar back in the 1980s, Joe Singleton was torn between rock gods like Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones and a skinny Italian bluegrass picker and singer called Joe Val.

Learning guitar back in the 1980s, Joe Singleton was torn between rock gods like Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones and a skinny Italian bluegrass picker and singer called Joe Val.


Playing in dive bars like the Hillbilly Lounge, Joseph "Val" Valiante sang in a strong high tenor about long hard days, lonely nights and "footsteps in the snow."


In 1985, the typewriter repairman known as "the voice of bluegrass in New England" died of lymphoma. Since then, other musicians like Singleton have been fighting to keep alive his legacy and the music he popularized.


This Saturday at noon, Singleton and his band will offer a musical tribute, "Joe Sings Joe," as one of the highlights of the 25th Joe Val Bluegrass Festival which runs this weekend at the Sheraton Framingham hotel.


"Sad to say, I never met or played with Joe," said the singer and guitarist from Northampton. "I always admired his style. Joe Val was a real New England hero."


Organized by the Boston Bluegrass Union, this year's event runs from Feb. 12 to 14 offering a weekend of top-quality bluegrass entertainment including some of the biggest names and best bands around, said Executive Producer Gerry Katz, who's running his 17th festival.


Twenty bands are scheduled to perform over three days on the Main Stage in the hotel's 1,000-seat ballroom including the Berklee Bluegrass All-Stars and Danny Paisley & Southern Grass on Friday, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper and Sierra Hull and Highway 111 on Saturday and the Bluegrass Gospel Project and Southern Rail on Sunday and lots more.


"The Joe Val Festival has developed into the epicenter of bluegrass music in the whole Northeast," said Katz. "This event is community with a capital C. Bluegrass is alive and breathing."


Spanning the Presidents' Day weekend, it begins with a Friday welcome reception at 5 p.m. and then runs from 7 p.m. to midnight. On Saturday, it runs from 10 a.m. to midnight and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. In addition, there will be more than 40 master classes and workshops for aspiring performers, the BBU's Academy for Kids and lots of vendors offering loads of bluegrass-related CDs, memorabilia and more.


Katz said the Boston Bluegrass Union's 2010 BBU Heritage Award for "substantial contributions to furthering bluegrass in New England" will be presented this year to the founders of Burlington-based Rounder Records, Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy and Bill Nowlin for four decade's efforts "help(ing) to insure the music's survival and continual growth."


This year's Musician Awards winners are Mac and Hazel McGee of White Mountain Bluegrass and bassist Eric Levenson who toured with Joe Val for eight years and who has become "a Boston bluegrass fixture," he said. Katz said the festival began in 1985 as a one-day fundraiser to "honor Joe's legacy and help him financially. He died two days after the inaugural event. Since then, the festival has grown into a three-day extravaganza that attracts scores of musicians and thousands of fans.


"Joe Val was a wonderful fellow, the salt of the earth. He was a great performer and a national presence," said Katz. "Joe had a strong high tenor voice that was edgy and sharp. It was the sort of voice a whole lot of bluegrass performers strive to have."


The 2006 Joe Val Festival was selected as Event of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, he said.


While Boston is often associated with folk music, Katz said the Everett-born Joe Val was well situated to absorb bluegrass and other kinds of Southern music in area clubs and bars like the Hillbilly Lounge or Club 47 in Cambridge that catered in the 1940s and '50s to sailors and servicemen from the South. "Joe Val learned his music at the feet of masters," he said.


After 30 years playing bluegrass, Singleton said "trying to define it can be a can of worms."


"It's difficult to define but it's a mix of old American blues and Celtic fused into one. I know trying to make a living at it can be a hard road," he said.


Singleton, 45, said aficionados agree bluegrass features 3- and 4-part harmonies played "physically and emotionally" on some combination of a banjo, mandolin, upright bass, guitar and fiddle. He said Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys who played in the 1940s are often credited as the founders of the bluegrass style of music, especially after banjo player Earl Scruggs joined them. Now "between bands," Singleton said his new project "Joe Sings Joe" brings together several bluegrass veterans including two who played with Joe Val.


For the Saturday tribute event and their new 12-track CD, "Joe Sings Joe," the band comprises Singleton as lead vocalist; two of Joe Val's original band members, guitarist Dave Dillon and bassist Eric Levenson, who both sing; banjo champ Rich Stillman; fiddler Mike Barnett; and John Roc on mandolin.


"What's bluegrass about? It's a great family environment. It just feels like a real throwback to safer, simpler times," said Singleton. "I think I can speak for all the guys who'll be playing in this tribute. We're very honored to be playing in Joe Val's memory."


THE ESSENTIALS:


The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival runs Friday through Sunday at the Sheraton Framingham, off the Mass. Turnpike at exit 12. The Sheraton is wheelchair accessible.


Tickets: A weekend pass costs $90 for adults, $30 for youths (16 and under). Single day passes on Friday cost $25 for adults, $10 for youths. Single day passes on Saturday cost $50 for adults, $20 for youths. Single day passes on Sunday cost $30 for adults, $15 for youths. Additional discounts for BBU members. Children under 12 and accompanied by an adult are admitted free all weekend.


Advance tickets are available online at www.bbu.org. For information, call 617-782-2251.


To learn about Joe Singleton and "Joe Sings Joe," visit www.Joesings.com.


All rooms are sold out at the Sheraton but rooms are still available at the nearby Marriott Residence Inn (508-370-0001) and Natick Courtyard Marriott (508-655-6100).