I Have Seen the Future of Acoustic Music

This article originally appeared in the Victory Review and is reposted with permission.

I have seen the future of acoustic music and it is bright. Boys and girls, barely tweens to late teens, with shiny smiles, braces, a touch of acne and a predilection for playing well beyond their years on clawhammer banjo, fiddle and other string band instruments. They were sitting on the floor at the foot of the Grand Ballroom mainstage at Wintergrass 2010 as Saturday slipped into Sunday, watching a few of their beloved mentors, Mike Marshall and Darol Anger jamming with the Swedish superstars Väsen. They were bouncing in a nascent line dance and swinging their young brothers and sisters while belting out the lyrics to Ramblin’ Jack’s Railroad Bill at the raucous set of the youth movement’s senior citizens, Boston-based string band Crooked Still.
They are pre-pubescent veterans of Wintergrass Academy and similar education efforts at festivals all around the country, a new generation trained by superstars who are themselves still in their late teens and early 20’s, and they are ready to take over the world, God love ’em! They are making music with neither definition nor boundary, gleefully mashing Lester’s G-runs with world beats and trad sounds from around the globe.

Take for example Tatiana Hargreaves, a 14-year old sprite from Corvallis, OR, who joined Crooked Still for a song during their afternoon set Saturday. She’s the younger sister of Alex Hargreaves, the 19-year old fiddle phenom who recently released an album featuring the omni-present Mike Marshall and was featured this Wintergrass in the band of 18-year old Sarah Jarosz. More about them in a second.

In one song it was Tatiana who embodied the riches to come in acoustic string band music. Jamming twin fiddles with the other worldly 20-something Brittany Haas, and standing next to 5-time national Old Time Fiddle Champion Tristan Clarridge who holds down the cello chair in Crooked Still, Tatiana stole the ears and hearts away from her slightly older peers, yes peers, then walked off the stage to warm hugs from the Still.

Wintergrass is a now legendary gathering of the tribe, and the tribe is getting noticeably younger. Fewer and fewer are the grey hairs with oversize cowboy hats and belt buckles. More and more are the kids who have gone from just showing up for the pre-fest education programs to taking on the lobby jams, rocking the dance floors and ruling the stages.

Oh, the true elder statesman like the Seldom Scene and Kenny and Amanda Smith still play and bring in big crowds, still wow us with their musicianship and smooth approach. And all day Saturday, everywhere you went folks were talking about the set Tim O’Brien and Brian Sutton threw down Friday night. But, mark my words, the next generation is here and the one after them is coming and will be even better.

Maybe we have Nickel Creek to thank for all these superstars in their teens. Acoustic music has always been friendly to hot young pickers, but Chris Thile and the Watkins sibs blazed a trail combining trad instruments with intelligent songwriting to a superstardom that was unimaginable.

We owe a deep bow of gratitude to the wizard Anger and mad professor Marshall for nurturing talent as teachers and band leaders. More about, and from, Darol as I recount a wonderful conversation with him in a future issue of the Review.

And we certainly owe thanks to the parents of these wonderful youth, who nurtured the kids though lessons and camps, exposed them to all sorts of music and oft times brought them to the stage their first time.

Parents like Gary and Mary Jarosz. Dad was once characterized by the incredibly poised 18-year old Sarah as the kind of guy who can’t walk into a record store without bringing home at least 10 cds of various kinds of music. Mom is a guitarist and songwriter whom you can Google to find eternally sharing the stage with her budding superstar daughter at the Old Settlers Music Festival in Austin. See her pride in her progeny radiating out through the pixels.

It is a pride well-deserved. Take in this quote from string god Chris Thile in the liner notes to Sarah’s 2009 cd Songs Up In Her Head:

“I could tell you what a tremendous musician, natural singer and precocious songwriter (Sarah) is, or I could simply tell you that I and everyone in this tight-knit community can’t wait to play some more music with Sarah.”

Her frequent collaborator, the “elder” Hargreaves, draws similar praise from above:

“Alex Hargreaves, in another era, on another continent, would probably have been Mozart. He already has people scratching their heads wondering about reincarnation and old souls….To play music with him is like having a younger, smarter version of yourself supplying all the insanely cool musical ideas you wish you’d thought of,” writes Darol Anger in the liner notes to Alex’s 2010 release Prelude.

God bless Stephen Ruffo and Patrice O’Neil for the work they and the hordes of other loyal Wintergrass and WG Academy volunteers have done to create a safe place for this talent to develop, to feel valued, to feel at home.

God bless the internet and digital technology, which allows performers to rehearse together across the country. Bless the MP3 magic that enabled 16-year old cellist Nate Smith and Jarosz to sound, in their first ever gig together, as if they had been rehearsing together for months, instead of just once the night before at the hotel.

God bless the Hyatt Regency, Wintergrass’ new home after 16 years in funky Tacoma. What was a heart-wrenching decision has proved to be a miracle, both for the improvements of the physical environment and for the soaring response of the staff, many sporting Wintergrass t-shirts, universally thrilled to have the festival and showing it through their helpful attitudes and attentive listening.

And God bless the folks like super volunteers Connie Decker and Lew Wallon, who staffed the ticket tables for much of the festival, friendly faces bringing years of service and a dedication to the mission of providing the best and brightest in acoustic music. For full disclosure I’ll remind you that Connie and Lew are also long-time members of the Victory Music board. Their work has been vital to this organization; they are just as important to other festivals across the northwest.

And if the future is as hopeful as a pre-pubescent lad swinging arm in arm with a buxom older teen friend, bowing awkwardly to her following the jubilant dance, then hoisting his fiddle case over his shoulder and running off with his younger sister to jam in the lobby, the present is amazingly rich as well. In upcoming issues of the Review we’ll take a deeper look at and report on conversations with Sarah Jarosz, Darol Anger and Crooked Still. But for now, in no particular order, here are a few observations and highlights from one day in the life of Wintergrass 2010…

~ When asked Saturday morning what was the most outstanding aspect of the first two days of the festival, Co-Producer Patrice O’Neil (a long-time member of Victory Music and former staff member!) reported without missing a beat: the positive attitude of the Hyatt staff. “They have been amazingly supportive and they just GET what we are doing!” This comment from a woman who could have reported on the “late o’clock” jam session featuring Tim O’Brien and Brian Sutton that took place in her hotel room!!

~ The sound in the Grand Ballroom main stage was pristine and powerful. The setting elegant with glass-baubled chandeliers, lush black draping and spot lights on the sponsor logos. The Evergreen Ballroom was noteworthy for its arboreal decorations and Northwest chic. The Regency stage has some feedback issues, but the sound crew diligently worked them out.

~ Aoife O’Donovan, lead singer of Crooked Still saying “The amazing thing about Wintergrass is I get to play with all my favorite musicians.” Moments later her banjo player, Greg Leisz, sat down to tear the cover off the Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed-era tune “You Got the Silver” playing slide banjo.

~ Changing the rules so folks without tickets could still browse the vendor halls and participate in the jams.

~ Thai food on site!!

~ Chris Pandolfi, banjo player for the Infamous Stringdusters, sitting by himself in the Greg Boyd’s House of Instruments room, ripping crazy lines off a precious Prucha banjo.

~ Mountain Heart’s hilarious recalling of their travel nightmares to get to the festival and the funky song “Delta Airline Blues” they wrote to launch their nationwide boycott of Delta! Let me hear you testify, Commando Josh!

~ A 20-something former National Old Time Fiddle champ jamming in the lobby, where it took four older men playing guitars, mando and tenor guitar and a woman on double bass, to adequately back her up.
Whipping Post and Superstition in the same set!

~ The gleeful smiles of Darol Anger and bug-eyed hilarity of Mike Marshall as the two tricksters completed a brief The Duo set before Väsen joined them on stage. Said Marshall: “It’s intimidating playing here. Not only are these guys in Väsen amazing, but the best musicians in the world are in the front row…”

~ The announcement by Co-producer Stephen Ruffo, that Wintergrass had signed an 8-year agreement with the Hyatt to continue holding the festival there, ensuring that Tatiana and the other youngsters Marshall was gazing lovingly at in the first row of the Grand would have a stellar winter home to fully showcase their blossoming talent and musical joy!

photo: Michael G. Stewart

 

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