If you’ve ever gone strolling through downtown Hood River the first Friday of the month, you may have seen bands of local folks strummin’ on the strings.
Or if you’ve happened by the Elliot Glacier Public House in Parkdale the second Sunday of every month, you’ve likely heard them pickin’ a tune or three.
Perhaps you’ve rolled past the River City Saloon on a Tuesday or Thursday evening for open mic. If any of these gatherings strike a chord with you, you’ve probably caught a glimpse of the growing list of talented bluegrass musicians who call the Gorge home.
“The bottom line for most of us is playing music with each other,” said Chuck Haynie, a banjo player in local bands Crazy Heart and Pacific Crest. “Bluegrass music offers a direct tickle on the brain that just needs to be shared.”
Haynie and Crazy Heart band members Lorri Kuatt, Susan Crowley, Pam McNamara, Emily Krager and Donna Reuter have been playing together for a year-and-a-half, and formed the band around a common love for mountain music.
Kuatt and McNamara started playing together in late 2000, and met up with the remaining band members at the monthly jam sessions at Elliot Glacier. Since then, the fun has just continued to multiply.
“We try to play whenever we can,” said Haynie, who also plays with Tim McLaughlin and Mike Robarge in Pacific Crest. “We (Crazy Heart) all come from different musical backgrounds and it’s been fun to watch the band develop.”
Haynie is a veteran on the bluegrass music scene, playing his first banjo licks in the late 1960s in Bethesda, Md., during one of the most influential bluegrass epochs in United States history.
McNamara, a guitarist, shares Haynie’s rich musical background, tracing her roots back to childhood in West Virginia — one of the country’s true bluegrass meccas.
Kuatt, a native of Hood River, has been playing fiddle for 10 years and picked up the mandolin about two years ago. She also plays in another recently formed band, the Red-Haired Boys, along with Paul Blackburn and Rod Krehbiel.
Krager, a resident of White Salmon, has been playing bass for 10 years, while Crowley is the band’s relative newcomer with just under two years’ guitar-playing experience.
Like Crowley, Reuter is also somewhat new to bluegrass music, but by no means is she new to playing the fiddle.
“I never really learned bluegrass fiddling until recently,” said the 1998 Oregon Adult Fiddle Champion, 1976 Washington Junior Fiddle Champ, and perennial contestant at the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest in Weiser, Idaho. “Part of the reason I got involved is that there’s such a growing community of musicians here. This music is so much more fun when it’s shared,” she said.
That aspect of sharing seems to be the biggest draw for bluegrass musicians everywhere, whether in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Hills of Old Kentucky or at the base of Mt. Hood.
Providing much of the “bass” around Mt. Hood is Wild River bassist and vocalist Kathy Sneider.
“I’m always looking for a good song,” said the former percussionist and current owner of IKOTE. “Since I’ve been playing music a lot lately, it has become an avenue for performing. The most fun of all is being able to project the feeling of a song to people.”
Sneider and fellow Wild River band members Glen Holmberg, Kent Olson, Jim Drake and Susie Sinclair have been playing together for three years, and like Crazy Heart and the Red-Haired Boys, are consistently a part of the First Friday lineup.
The downtown music and art celebration is set to kick off another evening of outdoor entertainment this Friday, and continues to enjoy more and more success with every month that passes.
“Some people are starting to feel overwhelmed because it’s getting so big,” said First Friday organizer Blue Ackerman, who coordinated the event along with Joanie Thomson and Larry West in 2001 to give the local art community a larger voice.
“We wanted to help bring the locals back downtown, and thought that if we could get people from Portland to come here for the weekend, it would help
reenergize downtown,” she said.
And, according to Sneider and other local artists, First Friday has already accomplished its goal in less than one year’s time.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for downtown merchants to open their doors to the community,” she said. “It helps promote the local artists while giving us an avenue to perform for people who may not otherwise hear our music. Best of all, it just has a nice neighborhood feel.”
Sneider and Wild River will perform at Sage’s Cafe this Friday from 5-8 p.m. Crazy Heart will play outside Big Winds, while the Red-Haired Boys will play outside Hood River Nutrition with special guest Paul Lestock, who owns Arrow Guitars and Mandolins in Mosier.
Other local bands that can be regularly seen and heard around the Gorge include Spring Creek, Swing Crew, Gipsy Ale, Cascade Trio and No Depression.
While not all fall into the traditional bluegrass genre, each band is contributing to a burgeoning local music scene — one that has people talking from The Dalles to Portland and all stops in between.
“For such a small area, we have a really diverse range of music,” Sneider said. “Some of it has been growing on the heels of O’Brother (Where Art Thou), but the commonality that I see is that it’s all fun, good-time music.”
Each of these local bands makes occasional appearances at local bars such as the River City Saloon, Horsefeathers Brewery and Full Sail, as well as at parties, fundraisers, weddings and local music festivals.
One such festival that is already drawing quite a clamor is the Mt. Hood Bluegrass Festival, which will make its return to the Hood River County Fairgrounds in Odell Aug. 16-18.
Already slated to perform are top Northwest bluegrass acts such as the Knott Brothers, Lonesome Ridge, Jackstraw, Great Northern Planes, Frontline and Crazy Heart. Nationally renowned singer/songwriter Laurie Lewis will also appear this year.
Preceding the Mt. Hood festival will be the Columbia Gorge Bluegrass Festival, July 25-28 in Stevenson, Wash., which will be highlighted by performances from Sam Hill, Rural Delivery and others.
But while the local bluegrass music scene continues to evolve, many of the musicians still travel far and wide to jam at festivals such as Wintergrass (Feb. 21-24 in Tacoma, Wash.), the Darrington Bluegrass Festival (July 19-21 in north-central Washington), the Northwest String Summit (June 28-30 in North Plains, Ore.), and the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest (June 15-22 in Weiser, Idaho).
To prepare for these larger gatherings, musicians continue to hone their skills at monthly jam sessions held at the Ramsay Grange in Dufur (first Sunday of the month), Chenowith Grange in The Dalles (third Sunday), and every Monday evening at the Public Utilities District building in Carson, Wash.
“I think the growth of the local scene has a lot to do with the individuals,” Haynie said. “People from all over the country have wound up here and just like sharing music with one another.
“Guys like Charlie Johnson (White Salmon) and Kent Olson have played with everyone, and I just feel fortunate to have been connected with them,” he said.
And on that note, it’s becoming obvious that most everyone in the Gorge-area music scene is feeling just as lucky.
For more information about First Friday, contact Joanie Thomson, Hood River Downtown Business Association Coordinator, at 541-308-6738. For an updated lineup for the Mt. Hood Bluegrass Festival, click on: