Wintergrass festival: So much to pick from

If you've noticed the local bluegrass contingent grinning from ear to ear the past week, it's no wonder.

They, along with about 5,000 other Northwest bluegrass music fans, were treated to some of the world's finest pickin' and grinnin' Feb. 21-24 at the ninth-annual Wintergrass festival in Tacoma, Wash.

"Outside of going to Nashville, this is the only winter bluegrass festival in the country," said Chuck Haynie, a banjo player in local bands Crazy Heart and Pacific Crest. "It's a great venue and the atmosphere is very friendly."

Haynie and 15-20 other Mid Columbia bluegrass fanatics loaded up their instruments last weekend to take part in the festival, which was held at the Tacoma Convention Center and adjoining Sheraton Hotel.

With iconic musicians like David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements and the Del McCoury Band headlining the bill -- not to mention a slew of hot, up-and-coming bands like Nickel Creek, The Waybacks and Kane's River -- everyone in attendance left Wintergrass tapping their feet and humming a tune.

"It's really an amazing value when you consider the quality of the musicians who performed," said Jim Drake, a mandolin player for local band Wild River. "I also got a lot out of the workshops and jam sessions. It's just one big musical community."

The workshops were held Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings and featured some of the finest musicians in all the land -- from Ronnie McCoury to Chojo Jacques (The Waybacks); Tim O'Brien to Leah Larson (Frontline); Rowan to Grisman, who is widely regarded as the "Dawg Father" of contemporary mandolin playing.

"The workshops offer such a great learning environment," said Drake, who attended Grisman's hour-long Saturday workshop. "You absorb so much by watching and listening. It just made me want to go home and practice."

Fellow Hood River musicians, Lori Kuatt and Donna Reuter of the band Crazy Heart, agreed that the workshops, along with late-night jam sessions at their hotel, were the highlight of their weekend.

"We jammed every night," said Kuatt, a fiddle/mandolin player who was attending her second Wintergrass. "This year was more fun, too, because so many Gorge-area musicians were there."

Kuatt, Haynie, Reuter, Drake, Pam McNamara, Susan Crowley, Emily Krager, Larry Wyatt, Herb Watts, Penny Wallace, Glen Holmberg and Kent Olson could all be seen jamming together in the Ramada Inn lobby until the wee hours -- some nights until 3:30 a.m.

"It was great to see all our friends there this year," said Haynie, who was attending his fifth festival. "The Ramada is the perfect place to jam. It's a smaller, friendlier setting, and it attracted a lot of fun people from all over the Northwest."

To all who attended, Wintergrass 2002 presented new friendships, a variety of learning opportunities, and an eclectic variety of music performed both on stage and in hotel lobbies.

"I tried to experience all I could in my first year," said Reuter, a former junior national champion fiddler. "I went more for the workshops and the jams this year. I didn't even know most of the bands playing. I sort of found out afterward who I was supposed to go see."

Reuter, who teaches fiddle to nearly 20 students in Hood River, still competes on a national level, but she wasn't as interested in who was playing the Convention Stage as much as who was playing the smaller venues.

"I was really impressed with the talent of the Portland bands," she said of northern Oregon representatives Sam Hill, Misty River and Jackstraw.

Kuatt also made a point to watch the Portland bands play, and said she picked up a lot by sitting close to the stage.

"The top bands are in the lounge," she said. "It's a nice, intimate setting and all the seats are good. You learn so much just by watching them play."

On Friday Kuatt and Crazy Heart showed what they had learned when they played outside the Hood River Art Museum as part of First Friday.

Another local band, the Red-Haired Boys, also strummed a few licks Friday. Drake said Wild River will make its return to First Friday in April.

In the meantime, each of these bands will continue to hone its skills at weekly Sunday jam sessions. Jams are held the first Sunday of the month in Dufur, the second Sunday at Elliot Glacier Public House in Parkdale, and the third Sunday at the Chenowith Grange.

Haynie said he is trying to organize an instructional workshop on the fourth Sunday of the month to help aspiring musicians learn and share this beautiful, heart-warming music.

"It just keeps growing," he said.

And the people keep on grinnin'.

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