Pamplin Media Group – Northwest String Summit bids farewell to Oregon

Strictly synchronized strings crossed with improvised electric currents to cultivate a new branch of American music.

Adam Aijala bent over a yellow notepad to create a setlist ahead of another Saturday night at Horning’s Hideout.

“Usually I can do it right before the show, but we’re going to have a bunch of guests, so I try to get ahead of myself. I want to make sure we get some friends together. It’s a time of two hours. Last night the 90 minutes went by. I couldn’t believe how fast it happened,” Yonder Mountain String Band guitarist Aijala said from behind the scenes in an RV.

“Tonight will be a mix of old and new. I’m not sure yet. We have to bring Greensky up. Whoever it is, really. Maybe on some jams we can just pick people at the chance to come It could be fun.

The Northwest String Summit wrapped up its final festival in North Plains July 21-24. For 20 years at the Horning’s Hideout, a wedding venue with pedal boats in the lake and peacocks in the trees, strictly timed strings crossed with improvised electric currents to cultivate a new branch of American music commonly referred to as “jamgrass.”

Now that the bands are all packed up and gone, the festival’s legacy continues as the once-obscure sound has found national appeal over the past two decades.

Between two sounds

Aijala called the summit of the ropes “not quite a bluegrass festival”.

Twenty years ago, Yonder Mountain, who formed in a Colorado mountain town and released their debut album in the fall of 1999, stood out by plugging in their traditional bluegrass instruments – guitar, banjo, double bass and mandolin – into amplifiers instead of playing into a microphone. The band, which has headlined every top of the strings, mixes both tight bluegrass numbers and longer improvisational tracks inspired by the Grateful Dead, whose lead guitarist Jerry Garcia was also a guitar player. banjo accomplished.

“When we started, one of the things people used to tell us was, ‘I don’t like bluegrass, but I like you,'” Aijala said. “If we were playing a bluegrass festival, we were this weird, outlandish band that plugs in. If we were playing like a jam band festival, we were the only band without a drummer. So we had a niche.”

After Colorado, home of the nation’s first bluegrass festival in Telluride, rope summit organizers said Oregon is the second market to truly embrace the jamgrass scene.

Michigan-native Greensky Bluegrass was still playing open mics when String Top was launched in 2002.

“We were playing to crowds then, but very small crowds — mostly open mics and bars in Michigan,” said Paul Hoffman, mandolinist and songwriter for Greensky Bluegrass. “Before, there was no Thursday night here, and then we started headlining it and it kind of became our night at the Yonder festival. And I remember it was a very important gesture and a milestone for us when we became a fixture at their festival. We’ve missed a year in the last 10. Someone else did it on Thursday night, and I didn’t love it.

Hoffman closed Greensky Bluegrass’ set Thursday with a duet with folk singer Lindsay Lou on “The Time of my Life,” telling the crowd, “And I owe you everything.”

Guitarist Molly Tuttle said that when the top of the strings started 20 years ago, she had just started learning to play. “Grass Valley,” the final song from his latest album, pays homage to a formative bluegrass festival from his childhood in Northern California and features the lyrics: “That was jam for the hippies, old stuff from the 50s , almost nothing in between.”

Tuttle, whose songs fall somewhere in between, credits the jamgrass scene led by Yonder Mountain String Band with broadening the appeal of all bluegrass by breaking the stereotype of a conservative genre.

“I know people I grew up with who say to themselves, ‘I haven’t listened to bluegrass since 1960’, and then there was the hippie camp, which is a little more like the vibe of this festival, where they love jamgrass and wear tie-dye,” Tuttle said. “I gravitate somewhere in between. Especially in concerts, we open the jams, and people have effects pedals on stage. On my album, it’s a little simpler. But my songwriting is not just traditional bluegrass.”PHOTO PMG: DILLON MULLAN - The Northwest String Summit says goodbye to Oregon after 20 years.

Beaver’s Bluegrass

The festival attracted many artists from Colorado, California and Tennessee, as well as Oregon.

Portland-based Fruition was still playing the street on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard during the early years of the top ropes.

“I won’t say we were born here, but to say it was formative doesn’t even do it justice. We were buskers on the streets and all our friends knew about this festival already, so we picked up enough money to get here, and we completely fit in playing a campground in 2009,” said Fruition mandolinist Mimi Naja. “It all sounds trite, but we laughed and cried and made lifelong friends here. It formed relationships that are so strong today. Some of the strongest bonds in our lives. It really feels like to a family reunion here.”

Even beyond Fruition, Oregon has left its mark on the vast bluegrass and jamgrass scenes.

Billy Failing, banjo player for Billy Strings, the most prominent of the genre, hails from Portland. Jacob Joliff, an accomplished mandolinist and former member of the Yonder Mountain String Band, hails from Newberg.

Organizers said planning the festival for about 5,000 attendees, mostly campers, along with performers and vendors, was a year-long exercise and a 20-year cap seemed fair.

The tree-lined bowl surrounding the main stage was filled with blankets and chairs for all four days. Two smaller stages framed a row of food and craft vendors. The overtones of bluegrass music could be heard from noon until the early hours.

In a tent, Portland-based Oregon Bluegrass Association volunteer Patrick Connell gave a guitar workshop on bluegrass techniques.

“My dad brought me here 20 years ago. I didn’t know anything about bluegrass at the time. It just blew me away, like for the first time, I had no idea what I was doing. I started playing bluegrass guitar that week, and I haven’t missed many days since,” Connell said. “Traditional bluegrass will only survive if there are people like Yonder Mountain bringing people in. The Del McCoury Band are arguably the best bluegrass band ever. Why are they opening for Yonder? Because that they know better than anyone that it’s about finding ways to develop the audience.”

sing goodbye

Players carrying suitcases and young children filled the festival grounds.

The lineup balanced traditional bluegrass like the Del McCoury Band, whose white-haired, 83-year-old namesake emerged in the 1960s, with the Rainbow Girls, an electric folk trio who released their debut album in 2013. lineups also included rock acts such as Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, a drumming rendition of the Grateful Dead.

“These instruments are something you can carry around without you whether you’re backpacking or driving across the country or at a campfire, you can find someone and you can play together and take it wherever you go. you go,” said festival-goer Anna Kurnizky of northeast Portland. , a guitar slung over his shoulder. “I’m sorry it’s over. I’m really sorry it’s over.”

As at every string summit, Pastor Tim Christensen, former archivist for the Yonder Mountain String Band, served as emcee, helping locate a few missing children and announcing the tanker truck that sprayed the dusty bowl in front of the main stage between sessions. He broke down a bit before the band’s closing set on Sunday night.

“I scattered ashes on the hill. We had weddings. We had births. We had deaths. We shared it all. In 2002, we didn’t know it was going to last. we could do a second year. The music was really important. What caught us off guard was the community that grew,” Christensen said. “I’m going to cry on stage later.”

On Saturday, Yonder Mountain delighted the crowd with some classics before bringing Hoffman to sing the Rolling Stones. On Sunday, the band opened with a mandolin tune in tribute to founding member Jeff Austin, who died in 2019. The set ended with dozens of musicians on stage singing about the Grand Ole Opry closing.

“If you can imagine that 20 years ago this scene here had grown a bit but hadn’t really grown yet. It was very, very small, and being in there, you really had the feeling that there was something special about it, you love it – if I use that metaphor, you cherish it and take care of it,” Yonder Mountain String Band bassist Ben Kauffman said. “We’ve slowly seen it grow, and it’s all contained in this container that we’ve been able to establish here.”

From North Plains, Yonder Mountain String Band traveled across the country to play a festival in Virginia. Greensky Bluegrass headed north to play on a lake in British Columbia. Molly Tuttle was leaving for Maine.

The top of the ropes is over, but the music will never stop.


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