Seven years ago, Scotty Stoughton was driving from Colorado bound for a Los Angeles sailboat, when looking out over the lonesome wilds of Utah he had a vision.
“I think what draws people to it is the structured improvisation. You have this framework and you are given freedom therein to make your own rules and interpretation. It’s paying homage to the tradition
and then seeing what we
can do with that.”
– Matthew Rieger, The Lil’ Smokies
“I wanted to create something deeper than the festivals I was working on,” he remembers. “As the sun was setting through the desert in October, I decided to take a big risk. I was thinking winter. I was thinking bluegrass. Then an epiphany came.”
Stoughton created the iconic winter bluegrass festival WinterWonderGrass. The festival debuted its Tahoe stop in 2015 and returns this year at venues around North Lake Tahoe from April 6 to 8.
“Wonder for me is a feeling of surprise caused by something beautiful and potentially unexpected,” he says. “It’s that unanticipated return on your own commitment to being authentic in the moment.”
Tahoe Weekly asked several festival headliners “What makes bluegrass wonderful?”
It’s all about community
“I think that at the heart of bluegrass there is such a wonderful community,” says vocalist and guitarist Andrew McConathy of Colorado’s The Drunken Hearts. “It all stems from everyone’s different interpretation of what bluegrass is, but at the end of the day, you get this giant melting pot.”
Case in point: Kitchen Dwellers’ frontman Max Davies found it as a way to meet people when he headed west from Chicago for Bozeman, Mont.
“From the first time I played, it was always social,” he says. “It’s how I made friends. One guy had a fiddle, another had a banjo. We would hang out and pass breaks around.”
This spirit of fun-loving cooperation carries over from the amateurs and fans to the professional musicians on stage.
“We’ve been given a lot of love from bands like The Infamous Stringdusters and Greensky Bluegrass,” says flatpicker Jon Stickley of the Asheville, N.C., Jon Stickley Trio. “They had us open up for them at shows when nobody really knew who we were. The scene is all about bringing your friends up and, if you can, helping bands getting on their way.”
There is a communal simplicity at the root of a shared music born in America from the various immigrants who came here over the generations.
“The point is to have fun with other people,” adds Stickley. “It’s designed to be easy to pick up and for everyone to be a part of. That in itself makes it a beautiful thing.”
Over time, the definition of bluegrass has expanded, and while contemporary festivals have evolved to include drums, electric guitars and even horn sections, a collaborative and imaginative soul remains alive at the center of the experience.
Take, for example, Oakland’s The California Honeydrops, who splatter their vintage tapestry of sound with trumpet, trombone, saxophone, clarinet and melodica.
“Even though we have amplified instruments, we listen to each other as if we were on a small acoustic stage,” says percussionist Ben Malament. “A lot of time the question in bluegrass is: ‘How much sound can you produce with one microphone and without all the electronic show stoppers?’”
A musical kinship
“I feel like at every bluegrass festival we play, we end up being friends with all the bands and jamming with them,” says guitarist Ben Morrison of San Francisco’s The Brothers Comatose. “Everyone brings instruments for making music out in the campgrounds. I always felt the rock world was more competitive. People were like, ‘I’m better than you.’ In this genre, people say, ‘Let’s jam!’ l love that aspect of it.”
While bluegrass might not have the cutthroat nature of other genres, there is certainly a place for friendly rivalry, which can culminate in main-stage jam battles between the best musicians in the land.
“It’s all about the slang-dang-dong,” chimes in flatpicker Matthew Rieger from The Lil’ Smokies of Missoula, Mont. “I think what draws people to it is the structured improvisation. You have this framework and you are given freedom therein to make your own rules and interpretation. It’s paying homage to the tradition and then seeing what we can do with that.”
While there are only a few bands in the world that can call themselves progressive rock bluegrass, they tend to stick together as they travel around the country on tour.
“It’s like a club, but the best club,” says bassist Mike Devol of Michigan’s Greensky Bluegrass. “We’re all buddies and it’s sort of fun.”
When all is said and done, perhaps vocalist and percussionist Bonnie Paine of Elephant Revival from Nederland, Colo., puts it most eloquently: “What motivates me is the feeling of being connected to something bigger and for the people receiving the music to feel connected, too. I think the root of a lot of human suffering is feeling isolated and forgetting you are a piece of something bigger.”
April 6-8 | Squaw Valley | Olympic Valley
For more information or for tickets, visit winterwondergrasstahoe.com.