In an era of sophisticated entertainment technology, live music locally sometimes feels like a marginalized activity — a niche hobby of an ever-smaller subset of the population.
On some level, audiences and performers alike engage in local, live music as a labor of love. It's certainly not an activity driven by much of a realistic profit motive. It was refreshing, therefore, to attend the indoor Wintergrass Music Festival last week in Bellevue, Wash. There is no place like a bluegrass festival to make you realize that homemade music is still thriving.
Traditionally, bluegrass festival-goers bring their instruments and spend as much time playing music as they do listening to the professional acts on the bill. These events serve as gathering points for musicians from across the country. Informal and impromptu jam sessions break out everywhere from the parking lot to the campgrounds. Wintergrass, however, has no parking lot or campground. The entire four-day event takes place inside the 24-story Hyatt Regency hotel.
Picture an expansive hotel lobby — the kind that has a big, open, common area that looks kind of like an upscale shopping mall with a coffee shop, a couple of restaurants and a nightclub. The hotel's convention wing is an extension of this large, open area — two floors of wide, pedestrian avenues leading to three large ballrooms and several smaller meeting rooms.
The ballrooms are set up as distinct concert halls while the meeting rooms are given over to various musical workshops taught by the performers. Meanwhile, out in the hallways, hundreds of people cluster in little groups and play their own music. Hundreds more walk from group to group listening.
The main festival areas of the hotel are, at times, packed shoulder to shoulder. Amid the throng, every third person or so is packing an instrument: guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles and even large, upright basses. Even when one strays from the organized events, the rest of the hotel is crawling with these wandering minstrels.
And it doesn't stop when the main stages close around midnight. The jamming goes on until all hours. I drifted off to sleep in my room on the 12th floor listening to a particularly good jam session happening in the next room. In the morning, bleary-eyed, banjo-toting attendees rode the elevators back down to the main floor to find coffee and start the whole thing over again.
The thing I love the most about bluegrass-festival culture is the participatory nature of the music. It's as if a baseball fan went to Arizona to attend spring-training games and, in addition to watching the big leaguers do their thing, was able to take part in daily pickup games with other fans. The magic lies in the way that elite-level playing of the headline acts happens right alongside the amateur efforts of their fans.
In fact, the line between amateur and professional can be vague. The headlining acts — which this year included David Grisman, Peter Rowan and The Seldom Scene — have made a living this way for decades, but many of the younger bands are able to tour only because they are young and don't mind living out of a van. Walking the hallways and listening to the jam sessions, one comes across any number of middle-aged musicians who clearly have the talent to play professionally but simply must have chosen different lives.
The point is that music is and always has been something that people make themselves. A small number of people dedicate their lives to it, and these are the professionals. The rest of us make pilgrimages to watch the best of the best.
At the end of the day, music-making is largely a not-for-profit activity. There are far more children out there taking piano lessons, playing in school marching bands, singing in choirs and starting their own garage-rock bands than there are professional musicians in the world. It's nice to be reminded every once in a while that joyful participation isn't just for kids.
Closer to home, bluegrass fans can get a taste of the festival scene at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 12, at Caldera Tap House, 31 Water St., Ashland, when members of Siskiyou Summit host their monthly open-jam session. Siskiyou Summit's Dobro player, Bob Evoniuk, served this past year as president of the board of directors for Wintergrass. His old band, Foxfire, was on the bill at the very first Wintergrass in 1994. Along with Jeff Jones on mandolin and Glenn Freese on guitar, Evoniuk plays around the Rogue Valley as Foxfire Trio.
Jef Fretwell is a bluegrass musician, bandleader and writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.