Eighth annual festival features Crooked Still, Darrell Scott and the Steep Canyon Rangers
By JOHN McCALLUM
With the most new acts in its eight-year run, this weekend's Blue Waters, Bluegrass Festival in Medical Lake could shape up to be one of the best yet to tune the guitars, banjos, fiddles and voices at Waterfront Park.
Three national recording artists headline the 14 bands playing the three-day festival, which kicks off Friday night and ends Sunday afternoon. What has festival music coordinator Kevin Brown excited is that all the acts, including the three headliners, offer a wide range of bluegrass styles, and have something for everyone – even non-officianados of the genre.
Crooked Still headlines Friday night, and plays at 8:15 p.m. Saturday. The Boston quintet began seven years ago, and recently released a live album on July 9.
Crooked Still is one of the up-and-coming young bands who Brown said are somewhere in the middle of bluegrass. They put new spins on older songs while writing new tunes and arrangements, all done with a sound that would appeal to fans of Grammy Award winner Nickel Creek.
“They have a good groove, funky, and the cello – does everything,” Brown said.
If Crooked Still sits in the middle of bluegrass, then Steep Canyon Rangers are on one side as what Brown describes as “hardcore.” The Asheville, N.C. quintet headlines both Saturday and Sunday, 9:15 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. respectively, with styles ranging from traditional bluegrass to country to blues.
Steep Canyon Rangers were nominated for two International Bluegrass Music awards in 2008, including Album of the Year for “Lovin' Pretty Women,” their current release. They were also named IMBA's Emerging Artist of the Year in 2006.
The group regularly performs at the Grand Ole Opry, as well as major bluegrass and Americana music festivals such as Telluride, DelFest and RockyGrass. They have toured worldwide and often play at rock and roll venues on the U.S. jam circuit.
Opposite the Steep Canyon Rangers is Grammy-nominated Darrell Scott, who performs Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. The Kentucky-born Scott has played on the albums of country greats like Steve Earle, Randy Travis and Patty Loveless. He has written songs recorded by Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Kathy Mattea and the Dixie Chicks, earning a 2003 Grammy nomination for Best Country Song “Long Time Gone,” with the latter.
Scott has received numerous awards, including 2007's Americana Award for Song of the Year for “Hank Williams' Ghost,” and 2009's American Songwriter Top-25 Songs from the last 25 years for “It's a Great Day to Be Alive,” which was No. 6. Brown said Scott is a “captivating” performer and showman, delivering something for the entire family.
Several artists return to the festival after a couple years absence. The Wyoming-based husband and wife team of Anne & Pete Sibley were big hits at the festival in 2006 and 2007, but took last year off. They return along with Portland, Ore.-based Jackstraw, who played the first five festivals and bring their high-energy style back to Waterfront
“If there is a punk rock band in bluegrass, it's Jackstraw,” Brown said.
Also performing are Prairie Fire and the Pistol Packin' Mamas, two Spokane bands who Brown said have begun attracting larger followings and recognition.
But there's more that's new than the lineup. Festival coordinator Steve Meltzer said they have more vendors, who this year will be made accessible to everyone by setting up outside the gates. The biggest change though is the workshops, which have expanded to all day Saturday and a half-day Sunday through the addition of a second stage.
“That's pretty exciting because these workshops are led by some of these guys from these national bands,” Meltzer said.
What hasn't changed is the festival's underlying focus on fundraising for local non-profit organizations: Medical Lake's Dollars for Scholars, Friends for Children, and Outreach. That fundraising fell off last year, but Meltzer is optimistic it will swing back up.
Both Meltzer and Brown believe this year's festival shapes up to be exciting and fun for everyone. Bluegrass is a unifying style of music as performers and the audience often end up mixing together on and off stage.
“It's a style of music that blurs the line between the performer and the audience,” Brown said, adding that even when the bands cease playing, the music continues through all-night jam sessions in the campgrounds.
“It's the bluegrass style,” Meltzer added.
John McCallum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org