WinterWonderGrass musicians look to the past and future of bluegrass
February 24, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Colorado’s natural beauty beats within the heart of bluegrass.
But what is it about this genre that's created its own culture, a community of people who travel and gather together all in the name of bluegrass.
"I think when you're from somewhere so beautiful you have a greater capacity to appreciate beauty whether it's a sunset over the mountains or a three-part harmony," said Andy Dunnigan, a member of The Lil Smokies, who sings and plays dobro. "I think what resonates with people the most is the authenticity of the music. It's real music written and performed by real people playing handcrafted and sculpted trees."
The Lil Smokies were one of groups that performed this weekend during WinterWonderGrass in Steamboat Springs. Other artists included Greensky Bluegrass, Yonder Mountain String Band, Elephant Revival, Leftover Salmon, Fruition, Travelin McCourys, Lil’ Smokies, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, Jon Stickley Trio, Billy Strings and Trout Steak Revival.
Several members of the headlining bands took time out of their schedule to reflect on the bluegrass genre and its progression.
Kellen Asebroek, of Fruition, explained that bands like Greensky Bluegrass, the Infamous Stringdusters and Billy Strings speak to a younger generation than the popularly perceived "banjo pickin' on the porch" type of bluegrass.
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The first bluegrass festival Asebroek ever attended was the Northwest String Summit in 2007.
"Every set obliterated my mind and pre-existing idea of music," said Asebroek. "Riding the rail and seeing Béla Fleck and the Flecktones play as the sun was setting was a sonic milestone in my life."
He also remembers in high school when he first learned how to play guitar, stumbling upon the "Deliverance" soundtrack, which contained "Dueling Banjos."
"I thought it was the greatest noise I had ever heard," he said. "It was the sound of unbridled joy. The smile never faded, and I never looked back."
But WinterWonderGrass is not just about the onstage performances.
Throughout the weekend, fans had a chance to jam with the pros at the Public Pick shows at The Steamboat Grand and pop-up shows on the mountain.
"Walking around the town and seeing your heroes comfortable and candid amidst the people and fans was something that struck me and still is one of the greatest parts about the scene, community and this genre," Dunnigan said.
According to Anders Beck of Greensky Bluegrass, the genre has been popular in Colorado for awhile.
"The traditional side of the music will always be there, but it seems to me that the real musical growth is occurring with the bands that are breaking out of the bluegrass cage and taking over the zoo," said Beck.
"These dudes are taking elements from and showing respect for the roots of the genre and then elevating it to new exciting heights," explained Asebroek. "There's also a growing trend of fans coming from electronic/dance scenes into the grass and jam scene as people continue to discover that a danceable groove is a danceable groove, particular genre or instrumentation be damned."
Asebroek said he remembered a quote from well-known bluegrass musician Tim O'Brien, who said, "Music resonates with our cultural memories."
"It's in our blood," Asebroek said. "I think the extended, wide-open nature of the improvisations by some of the bands in our scene and the willingness to always mix things up and create unique shows and experiences lines up really well with the in-the-moment lifestyle so many of us enjoy in Colorado."
"We talk about this in the van a lot, and it still is a bit bemusing on certain levels," Dunnigan added. “I think it (the growth of the genre) has to do with a mountain-mindedness that is indicative of Colorado. It's hard to completely define, but coming from Montana, we feel a closeness and connection to it."