Northwest String Summit bids farewell to Oregon
Adam Aijala leaned over a yellow notepad to craft a setlist ahead of one more Saturday night at Horning's Hideout.
"Usually I can do this right before the show, but we're going to have a bunch of guests, so I'm trying to get ahead of it. I want to make sure we get some friends up. It's a two-hour set. Last night the 90 minutes flew by. I couldn't believe how fast it went by," Aijala, guitarist for the Yonder Mountain String Band, said inside an RV backstage.
"Tonight is going to be a mix of old and new. I'm not sure yet. We've got to get Greensky up. Whoever is around, really. Maybe on some of the jams, we can just pick random people to come up. That might be fun."
The Northwest String Summit wrapped up its final festival in North Plains July 21-24. For 20 years at 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 known as "jamgrass."
Now that the bands are all packed 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 string summit "not quite a bluegrass festival."
Twenty years ago, Yonder Mountain, which was formed in a Colorado mountain town and released its first album in fall 1999, stood out by plugging its traditional bluegrass instruments — guitar, banjo, stand-up bass and mandolin — into amplifiers instead of playing into a microphone. The band, which has headlined each and every string summit, mixes both tight bluegrass numbers with longer improvisational pieces styled after the Grateful Dead, whose lead guitarist Jerry Garcia was also an accomplished banjo player.
"When we were first starting out, one of the common things people would say to us is, 'I don't like bluegrass, but I like you guys,'" Aijala said. "If we played a bluegrass festival, we were this weird, out-there band that plugs in. If we played like a jam band festival, we were the only band without a drummer. So we had a niche."
After Colorado, where the country's premier bluegrass festival takes place in Telluride, string summit organizers said Oregon was the second market to really embrace the jamgrass scene.
Michigan-born Greensky Bluegrass was still playing open mics when the string summit launched in 2002.
"We were playing in front of crowds then, but real small ones — mostly open mics and bars in Michigan," Greensky Bluegrass mandolinist and songwriter Paul Hoffman said. "There didn't used to be a Thursday night here, and then we started headlining it and it sort of became our night at Yonder's festival. And I remember that was a really important gesture and milestone to us when we got to become a staple at their festival. We missed one year in the last 10. Somebody else did Thursday night, and I didn't like 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 it all to you."
Guitarist Molly Tuttle said when the string summit began 20 years ago, she had just started learning to play. "Grass Valley," the last song on her latest album, pays tribute to a formative bluegrass festival from her childhood in Northern California and contains the lyrics: "It was jamgrass for the hippies, old stuff from the '50s, just about nothing in between."
Tuttle, whose songs are somewhere in between, credits the jamgrass scene spearheaded by Yonder Mountain String Band for widening the appeal of all bluegrass by breaking down the stereotype of a conservative genre.
"I know people I grew up with who are like, 'I don't listen to any bluegrass past 1960,' and then there was the hippy camp, which seems a little bit more like this festival's vibe, where they like jamgrass and wear tie-dye," Tuttle said. "I gravitate somewhere in between. Especially in the live shows, we open up the jams, and people have effect pedals onstage. On my album, it's a little more straightforward. But my songwriting is not just straight-ahead, traditional bluegrass."
Beaver State bluegrass
The festival drew plenty of artists from Colorado, California and Tennessee, as well as Oregon.
Portland-based Fruition were still busking on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard during the early years of the string summit.
"I won't say we were born here, but to say this was formative, that doesn't even do it justice. We were buskers on the streets and all our friends already knew about this fest, so we scraped enough money to get here, and fully inserted ourselves by just playing in a campground in 2009," Fruition mandolinist Mimi Naja said. "It all sounds trite, but we laughed and cried and made lifelong friends here. It has formed relationships that are so strong today. Some of the strongest bonds of our lives. It really feels like a family reunion here."
Even beyond Fruition, Oregon has made its mark on the broad bluegrass and jamgrass scenes.
Billy Failing, banjo player for the genre's most prominent up-and-comer Billy Strings, is from Portland. Jacob Joliff, an accomplished mandolinist and former Yonder Mountain String Band member, is from Newberg.
Organizers said planning the festival for around 5,000 attendees, mostly campers, as well as artist and vendors, has been a year-long exercise, and a 20-year cap felt right.
The tree-lined bowl surrounding the main stage was filled with blankets and chairs all four days. Two smaller stages bookended a row of food and craft vendors. The strains of bluegrass music could be heard from noon until the early morning.
In one tent, Oregon Bluegrass Association volunteer Patrick Connell, based in Portland, gave a guitar workshop on bluegrass techniques.
"My dad brought me here 20 years ago. I didn't know anything about bluegrass at that point. It just knocked me over, like for the first time, I had no idea what I was hearing. 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 is arguably the best bluegrass band ever. Why are they opening for Yonder? Because they know better than anybody that it's about finding ways to grow the audience."
Players carrying cases and young children filled the festival grounds.
The lineup balanced traditional bluegrass like the Del McCoury Band, whose white-haired, 83-year-old namesake came up in the 1960s, with the Rainbow Girls, an electric folk trio who released their first album in 2013. The lineups also included rock acts such as Joe Russo's Almost Dead, a drum-forward interpretation of the Grateful Dead.
"These instruments are something you can carry without you if you're backpacking or driving across the country or at a campfire you can find somebody and you can play together and bring it wherever you go," said festival-goer Anna Kurnizky from Northeast Portland, a guitar slung over her shoulder. "I'm sorry it's over. I'm very sorry it's ending."
Like each string summit, Pastor Tim Christensen, Yonder Mountain String Band's former archivist, served as master of ceremonies, helping locate a few missing kids and announcing the water truck that sprayed down the dusty bowl in front of the main stage between sessions. He broke down a little bit before the band's closing set Sunday night.
"I've scattered ashes up on the hill. We had weddings. We had births. We had deaths. We've shared all of that stuff. In 2002, we didn't know it was going to last. We were hoping we would get to do a second year. The music was really important. The thing that caught us off guard was the community that developed," Christensen said. "I'm going to weep on the stage later."
On Saturday, Yonder Mountain delighted the crowd with some classics before bringing Hoffman on to sing the Rolling Stones. Sunday, the band opened up with a mandolin tune as homage to founding member Jeff Austin, who passed away in 2019. The set closed with dozens of musicians on stage singing about closing down the Grand Ole Opry.
"If you can imagine 20 years ago, this scene here had developed a bit but hadn't really grown yet. It was very, very small, and being in that, you really got the sense there was something special. Because it was newborn, you care for it — if I'm using that metaphor, you're cherishing it and caring for it," Yonder Mountain String Band bassist Ben Kauffman said. "We've slowly seen it grow, and it's all held in this container we were 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 bound for Maine.
The string summit is over, but the music will never stop.
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