It's 4 o'clock on a Saturday in spring. The sky is blue, and the temperature is short-sleeve perfect as members of Ashland's Eight Dollar Mountain bluegrass band drift into Mark Lackey's backyard to pick a few tunes and cook out on the grill.
Lackey, the band's Dobro player, has a little Shangri La scene behind his house — lush lawn, mature shade trees, chickens, dogs, children's toys and the soothing noise of water running through the Talent Irrigation ditch that cuts through the property — that gives it the feel of a country retreat conveniently located in the middle of town.
The band members know the drill. They let themselves in through a gate that leads in from the street with their instruments in hand.
Somewhere inside there is a keg of beer and a cold draft system. Everyone clearly feels at home here.
The band's summer festival circuit is fast approaching, and it's been busy putting the finishing touches on promotional materials and dialing in specific travel arrangements. Bluegrass festivals are the backbone of the larger bluegrass community. Some of them, such as the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado, are huge, multiday affairs that feature the biggest names in acoustic music.
The big festivals are great. Everyone who loves bluegrass music and its various derivatives should make a point of attending one. But for every big-budget extravaganza with Allison Krause or Ricky Scaggs on the bill, there are dozens of smaller, more localized events held all over the country — and it could be argued that these are the ones doing the heavy lifting when it comes to maintaining community ties that make bluegrass music so unique among genres.
Lackey, who grew up in Missouri, and banjo player Stu Green, who hails from Virginia, attended the smaller festivals as children. It was the kind of thing that your grandparents might take you to. Bassist Pete Koelsch was bitten by the bluegrass bug at a festival outside of Salt Lake City, and mandolin player Phil Johnson is from Texas — where the celebration of homegrown local music has long been elevated to an art form.
Last summer, Eight Dollar Mountain traveled farther afield and played more of the smaller festivals than ever. It was hard work but well worth it, the guys feel. Aside from the intangible benefits of teaching themselves how to manage that much booking and travel, their 2012 summer earnings paid for the record they released the previous winter, "Riverboat Gambler."
Last summer's tour also became a trial by fire for them as they learned to use a type of amplification system known as a "hot mic" setup. It has an appeal and pedigree in the bluegrass world because it derives from the amplification technology available in the '40s and '50s, when acts such as Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs were inventing the original bluegrass sound.
Back then, bands had just a single microphone in the middle of the stage and the musicians had to crowd around it to be heard. The one mic was supposed to pick up both the vocals and the individual instruments. When it was time for the banjo to play a solo, the banjo player stepped closer to the mic and everybody else took a little step back. Guitar players would often raise their instruments up to the mic for one little lick at the end of each trip through a chord progression.
Today, the microphones and the sound systems are of a much higher quality, but the intricate dance of band members stepping up to and away from the mic — and the weaving in and around one another that this requires — is still the first choice of bluegrass purists. Last summer, Eight Dollar Mountain entered a hot mic band competition held at the annual Northwest String Summit west of Portland. They spent months learning how to work the single mic setup only to arrive at the String Summit and discover that so few of the other bands had prepared for the contest that the organizers had dropped it. Eight Dollar Mountain worked the hot mic anyway.
Eight Dollar Mountain will perform at 9 p.m. Saturday, May 4, at Alex's, 35 N. Main St., Ashland. The cover costs $5.
The band will perform in July at the Scott Valley Bluegrass Festival in Etna, Calif., and at the Siskiyou Folk and Bluegrass Festival in Selma.