Though the festival is not for the faint of heart, loyal WinterWonderGrass attendees reap its rewards time and time again. Now hosted in the tucked away ski-town of Steamboat Springs, this Colorado-grown festival has taken on new life, and remains one of the greatest events the state has to offer.
The 2018 lineup featured Greensky Bluegrass, Leftover Salmon, Elephant Revival, Yonder Mountain String Band, and many more. Taps of craft beers made all over the state practically flowed like rivers for the duration of the weekend. Snow fell so hard not even wild dancing could keep it from accumulating on the heads and shoulders of die-hard fans. For the weekend, Steamboat Springs was truly just like a sparkly, glittery snow globe with a bluegrass party inside of it.
I’d been to a handful of WinterWonderGrass events before, but this year was my first at the Steamboat Springs edition. Since Mischief, or playful trouble making, is literally the name of my game, I came up with a little round of what I call “Interview Tag.” I chose an artist to start with, Anders Beck in this case, and asked him two questions of my own. I then asked him to choose any artist on the lineup, and had him come up with a question for me to ask that artist. Then I went on my mission to track down the next artist, ask them the question I’d been sent with, ask them two of my own, and so on and so forth. The string of interviews led from Anders to Billy Strings to Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon, to Adam Greuel of Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, to Andy Dunnigan of The Lil’ Smokies, and back to Anders Beck.
It’s a fun game in which everybody wins. I hope it inspires you to join the fun either in Tahoe next month, or next year in Steamboat. If you do…remember to dress like you are taking a quick weekend jaunt to Antarctica. I’m fuckin’ serious.
Tory Pittarelli: Where do you think you’d be right now if you never decided to pick up a dobro?
Anders Beck: Probably like…in Fruition or something.
[Jay Cobb Anderson yells “YEAH!” loudly from the other room]
AB: Is it too late? No, actually. I think I’d be making commercials…like making really funny commercials working for some kind of ad agency. So if someone’s like, here’s this yogurt! Make a good commercial that makes people want to buy and eat this yogurt! And then that’d be my job and I’d make really good commercials that are really funny.
TP: You’ve played WinterWonderGrass a ton of times now. Any good memories stand out to you?
AB: One time, many years ago, I was skiing Vail, and I was in the trees alone and I jumped off this cliff. I didn’t break my back, but I essentially blacked out in pain and had to crawl down the hill…
TP: Good favorite memory…
AB: Well it gets favoriter. So I had to crawl down the hill to get to this emergency phone. Halfway down I passed out in pain, like saw red and passed out, and then got carted down the mountain by ski patrol and then taken to the Emergency Room in an ambulance. And the doctor said to me, something like…well the good news is that you didn’t break your back, but you’re gonna wish you had because this is going to hurt even more.
And then, we had to play a set the next day, so Dave picked me up from the hospital, and I could hardly move. I had total Batman neck. So I’m playing our set and Sam Bush is with us, and every time he would take a solo, I couldn’t turn at all so I’d have to turn my whole body really slowly to look at him. I was in incredible, immense pain on stage, yet it was actually really fun…because of the energy of the crowd, and the whole festival. It should have been a terrible memory, but it was actually really awesome.
TP: Alright! Glad you didn’t break your back, buddy. So if you could ask anyone else on the lineup any question in the world, who would you choose and what would you ask?
AB: I would ask Billy Strings…I’d say well young Billy, you just wrapped up a tour where you were opening for Greensky Bluegrass. Did you enjoy it, and do you have a favorite memory from said tour, and what did you learn?
TP: Well young Billy, you just wrapped up a tour where you were opening for Greensky Bluegrass. Did you enjoy it, and do you have a favorite memory from said tour, and what did you learn?
Billy Strings: God, how do I even start. Um…Greensky is my favorite band. I’ve always wanted to go out on the road and open for them. I used to be a little jealous of Fruition, like man, I wanna go out on the road with those guys. Every night I’d be on Camp Greensky, seeing what they played…I’m a fucking addict. So yes I enjoyed myself, very much. It was amazing. Definitely one of the stand-out moments was Anders’ 2100 [the 2,100th Wednesday of Anders’ life]. The biiiig 2100, Casual Wednesday, where they invited me out to do whatever they do, and I was absolutely terrified to go up there and do the Casual Wednesday thing with Anders.
I thought it sounded like a great idea. It was about 15 minutes before they went on, they were like…”Hey, you’re doing this.” I was like, “Sweet, I got it.” But then right before I went on stage, I was so scared. And we just went out there and I faced a fear, and it turned into fun, and I think that’s what Greensky is really good at. Fun. They just know how to fucking have fun.
And the last part of his question, what did I learn? I mean, what haven’t I learned from Greensky Bluegrass. I look up to those guys. I learned everything from those guys. Last night I was trying to write a setlist, and Anders gave me a little tidbit. And musically too, they taught me how to have fun with music in a way, I always have fun playing bluegrass and traditional songs, but man I did not know you could have these improvised jams and conversations musically until I became a freak over this band. I used to be sort of a grasshole, a purist, ya know. Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs. If it ain’t this, it ain’t that… I hate that mentality now. I think Greensky deserves some credit as to what is Billy Strings Band right now. They’re just one of my biggest inspirations. They’re my good friends too, but even if they weren’t, they’re my inspiration. No band works as hard, night after night, to put on shows for their fans. Every single night, every single day, they pull out something to make that night so special. That’s what it is for me. Not repeating songs, paying attention to what the crowd wants. They just put on the best show out there, of any band.
TP: I think I can safely speak for WinterWonderGrass attendees and bluegrass fans when I say… it has been absolutely amazing to watch you rise up into such a successful and well-deserved career. From what you’re saying, it seems like it’s more about supporting one another than competing against each other.
BS: Absolutely. I just came on the scene a couple years ago, and it’s just unreal. I never thought I’d be out meeting the people who I’ve always looked up to, and becoming friends with the musicians I look up to.
It is all love here, and all support here. I look out in the crowd and I see all the musicians from other bands right up in there, listening to our set. And I’m right up front raging Leftover Salmon, and Greensky. It’s just magic. Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt and all those guys, Dusters, Sam, David Grisman, all these people who I’ve been able to become friends with, I’m so honored and so lucky to be here at all. It’s a welcoming community. It’s crazy.
There’s no intimidation, we’re all just doing our thing. If it was all a competition, that would suck.
TP: So I saw that you’re playing a Jerry Garcia Tribute for The Bluegrass Situation next month. Tell me a bit about how Jerry has influenced you as a player?
BS: Man…I’ve been listening to a lot of Grateful Dead lately, especially over the last couple years. Freedom. That’s how he’s influenced me. I’m a bluegrasser, ya know, there’s a really strict way that traditional bluegrass is. You play your little part, and then the next guy takes his break, and then you’ve got harmony…you sing tenor or baritone, or what have you. Because of Jerry, I’ve learned how to really reach for things in my heart and try to flesh them out through my guitar. I think that’s a huge part of what Jerry was doing. It’s so hard to explain, it’s really magical. And it’s really important. I’ve learned to just let the music go where it wants to go. Sometimes, depending on what the song is, but if you’re in an improvised jam, just serve the song and just let it go…go with it. It’s kind of a metaphor for life.
BS: Freedom, just go with it, let stuff happen.
TP: So as you know, you can ask anyone on the lineup a question. Who do you choose, and what can I ask them?
BS: So I was at Aiken Bluegrass, and I was going to put my guitar away, and I saw Vince Herman. There he was, leading the jam. I had just been on stage for four hours, and so had he! And he’s been doing this for so much longer than I have, and he’s older than me. I was tired, putting my guitar away, and there he was! Leading the jam, leading the charge! Holy shit. This guy is really in it for the right reasons. He’s here for the music, and the fun. We’re never going to be big rich musicians, but we are very rich with our family and this community.
TP: So you wanna know how the fuck he does it?
BS: How the fuck do you do it, man?
TP: Vince….Billy Strings wants to know how the fuck you do it!
[Light director Andrew Lincoln runs into the trailor]
Andrew Lincoln: What do you guys want me to talk about?
Andrew Lincoln: Okay sweet!
TP: Vince Herman, how the fuck do you do it?
Vince Herman: Well Billy, uh, the way I keep doing this thing is to uh…well it’s kind of a secret, but I’ll let it out. I sleep all day. That’s the way to do it. You just sleep all day. And then you can get off stage and you can pick all night. You just disappear, and people figure you’re having a normal person’s day, and what not. But I just sleep.
Now there was a time during my youth when sleep wasn’t as necessary. I do recall having the ability to have 3 or 4 hours of sleep for an entire tour length of shows, ya know, a couple weeks of that. That would kill me if I attempted to do it now. So that’s how you do it! You gotta know when to go to bed.
TP: You’re making me want to go to sleep, sleep’s the best. So word on the street is that you got to jam with Draco Malfoy in Maui recently! How’d that go?
VH: That was really, really fun man. Draco and his friend, Tom…I think it was. We were at Charley’s on Maui in Paia. He’d been hanging in town, I played two nights. He came the first night and I didn’t get to meet him. After the second show, he was hanging out and we got to go upstairs and have a picking session above the bar, which is always a good setup. That after-show pickin’…great things happen, ya know. When musicians are together, they usually can stay up a little while and that’s a fruitful time.
TP: What’d he play?
VH: He played guitar. He wrote some great tunes, played some cool stuff. He actually said me that night…”Man, when I grow up, I wanna be you!” [Vince laughs] He said, “My friends and I were talking during your show and we wanna have a pile of tunes that we all know, and we just go show up somewhere and play for a while.”
[Andy Thorn walks in donned in a gigantic furry white coat with his banjo. Vince laughs uncontrollably.]
VH: That is awesome. So yeah, Draco was a really cool cat, and he’s an actor, and will forever be known as that guy, but he really loves music and wants to do that!
TP: Never would have guessed he wanted to pick.
VH: Yeah! So, look out for more music from him.
TP: So I’ve been looking forward to catching up with you about recording with The Sweet Lillies last month. They are so fortunate to have you as the producer of their upcoming album. How was that?
VH: That was a really rewarding experience. To help [The Sweet Lillies] shape the tunes going into the sessions, and have them come out as well as they did, was just a really really exciting and fulfilling process for me, to help them realize that. It was great to get Jack Cloonan involved in the band, he went on tour with them after it, that was a good development after the recording.
TP: I hear you give him all his haircuts.
VH: I’m his stylist. Song stylist and hair stylist, I like to think of myself as. Yeah, the mullet is coming back! There’s even talk about Salmon re-growing mullets for our 30th anniversary coming up here. We might get old school with it. Keep the party in the back.
TP: Can’t wait. Alright so…I know you want me to go find Adam Greuel of Horseshoes and Hand Grenades. What would you like for us to talk about?
VH: Let’s have you talk to Adam Greuel. One of the ways to be able to keep doing this as long as I have here, is getting to meet these great new young characters on the scene, coming out and doing this stuff. Horseshoes and Hand Grenades crew are awesome. I love their incorporation of old-timey music into what they’re doing…polka, all that good Sconny stuff ya know. [I had to look that one up…it means Wisconsin stuff.] What I am impressed with is that they know all this festival lore from back in the days of this legendary festival called Mole Lake. My question to Adam is…with this band that you’ve got, with such powerful players, digging the old-time thing, and incorporating it into young people music, when are y’all gonna start a festival that can bring all the elements of Mole Lake and all that hilarity into the new scene? I think it’s up to you guys, because y’all got the old-timey connection, which really makes the festival thing happen. So I’m passing this thing off to you buddy…when’s your festival?
TP: Adam, when’s your festival?
Adam Greuel: Well this question is cosmic and multifaceted, as usual. I think that there are so many festivals out there, festivals that I love and that we all love, that carry on various spirits… either conceptually or spatially in terms of where they are in the country. In Wisconsin, there are a ton of small festivals that have taken on the spirit of this festival Mole Lake that occurred back in the day. That vibe has kind of spread itself out and created this multi-dimensional festival situation in Wisconsin. So we don’t have plans to do our own festival. For us, it’s more about bringing that Mole Lake spirit of organic debauchery out to places we play, and just the spirit of remembering to make it fun and make it weird.
TP: The name of Vince’s game.
AG: Right. Organic Debauchery.
TP: Well, pretty sure he just challenged you. And there’s the name of your festival.
AG: Organic Debauchery! So the idea for us is to bring that out with us, and so many people work their butts off to make festivals happen. At this point, I want to focus on bringing that vibe to wherever we naturally flow to.
TP: I’d never heard of this festival before. [It ended in 1993].
AG: It was huge! Ronnie McCoury and I were just talking about this. It was one of the biggest festivals. It was kind of like DelFest or Telluride is today, or Blue Ox. It was that scale, perhaps bigger, in Northern Wisconsin, on an Indian Reservation. So it was super deregulated. Anything went. And so there are absurd stories. So when we grew up and started playing shows in Wisconsin, we started attracting this post-Mole Lake crowd to our shows and our scene, because the vibes sort of matched. So we started hearing these stories, and people would bring us their old t-shirts, and old vinyl that they got from those shows. Then come to find out all these stories, down the road, come from people like Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Sam Bush has talked about it, ya know, these first-hand accounts of what it was like for them. It was really broad, the genre. Bill Monroe was there, but Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and New Grass Revival were also there. It was eclectic, but it laid the foundation for bluegrass festivals in the upper Midwest. Vinny loves the history of bluegrass, and I do too. I went to school for that, I’ve always been curious about it. So whenever we get together, we’re always talking about various stories throughout the years. I’m trying to remember if he was there…I don’t think he was. I think he was at the festivals that were after.
TP: Alright, well Organic Debauchery 2019.
AG: We would get some crazy people coming to that one. It’d be weirder than a Rainbow Gathering!
TP: So I sat with you last night in this amazing pick in just some old conference room of a hotel. That happened. That’s just part of what happens…
AG: Ya know, festivals like WinterWonderGrass…it seems like it all happens so quickly. Three days come and go, but then it takes you three months to process everything that occurred. Particularly moments like last night, where we’re passing a guitar around.
TP: Maybe some whiskey.
AG: Definitely some whiskey. I just remember thinking at one point that I just heard six songs in a row that I just thought were so awesome. It’s a great moment where you feel like…ya know, just shut up and listen. And it was like that last night. So the Salmon guys, Billy Strings showed up, Lil Smokies guys. Dan Rodriguez.
TP: Brad with Wonderwall.
AG: [laughs] Brad with Wonderwalllllllll.
TP: He texted me this morning and said “I played Wonderwall *facepalm emoji*.”
AG: [laughs a lot more] Ya know, I think he might regret it.
TP: I loved it, I forgot how much I love that song.
AG: Brad Parsons and I met each other this weekend. We’ve crossed paths but never had a hang. And there was a point last night where we were laughing so hard that I began to be concerned that I couldn’t stop laughing. It dawned on me, what if I can never stop? Am I stuck? He’s a contagiously goofy person.
TP: That’s the goal, that’s the goal. Speaking of contagious people, I know you want to send me to Andy Dunnigan. What would you like to know from good ole Andy Dunnigan?
AG: So what happened on Jam Cruise, Andy?
TP: Give us a play by play Andy….good…yes….
AG: We talked about how people ask that question when you get off the boat. That’s an impossible question to answer.
TP: So what happened on Jam Cruise, Andy?
Andy Dunnigan: Ohhhhh. What didn’t happen on Jam Cruise. I think I’m still kind of processing that whole experience. It was a lot. We had heard about it, mainly from Anders and the Greensky crew, of just the debauchery. I don’t think there’s really any kind of vernacular or syntax that can describe that or prepare you for the experience. Well first off, it was a fucking honor to be included on that lineup, being one of two of the bluegrass bands. To be around that caliber of musicianship was crazy. And that was my first cruise.
TP: What haaaappened Andy?
AD: [Laughs] We had some late nights. I pulled one of my favorite all-nighters of all time. We stayed up at The Spot with the Horseshoes boys and Nathan Moore. We watched as the boat pulled up in Honduras. Seeing that happen at night just changed the way we started our day. Then we drove through Honduras to go play music for these kids for Positive Legacy. I rode in the back of a van with Vince to go to this abandoned school to do some work on it. I dunno, so many things happened.
TP: It’s six days of just things happening.
AD: Yep, after that I slept through Yellow Night, which I kind of regret, because that seemed like the night. But I needed that sleep. It was kind of overwhelming by the end of it. That was my first cruise, a lot of great music, and just…I dunno, that whole family, the whole interconnectedness of that whole thing really struck me. And they’ve been doing it for so long. I think I’m still processing all that.
TP: Yeah, so there’s some fantastic co-mingling of the bluegrass family and other genres. Jam Cruise loves to facilitate that. Sounds like you experienced that?
AD: You know, you have festivals like this, WinterWonderGrass, where it’s all kind of the similar echelon and similar genre, which is great. But I think that’s why festivals like Telluride thrive, you get another voice or atmosphere to throw in the mix.
TP: Like when they had Janelle Monáe!
AD: Exactly, Janelle Monáe at Telluride. On Jam Cruise, I think it was good for us to give everyone a little breather from the funk beats and the saxophones on the boat. We needed that too, it’s a good reset button for the ears.
TP: So you guys started in Montana. Has Colorado stolen your heart yet? Or are you going to stay true to Montana. Lotta folks moving here…
AD: Ya know…I already had this scare…Jake was living in Lyons when we met him. We actually in these last couple months were talking about moving to Lyons. And then Brad Parsons has been trying to get me to move into his room in Portland. But I don’t know, there’s something about Montana. I’ve left a couple times, lived in California, but I like being from Montana, from this bands perspective. I like toting the Montana flag. There aren’t many touring bands out of Montana.
TP: Kitchen Dwellers are all that come to my mind really…
AD: Yep, you’re totally right! Kitchen Dwellers too. I mean, it seems like a natural progression, but I love touring around coast to coast and then coming back to Montana. My heart truly is there, my home, there are wide open spaces, peace and quiet, the solitude that is such a scarcity on the road, that I crave. I get to go back there tomorrow and I’m so excited.
TP: You guys played “Montana” last night and it made me so happy!
AD: I love that song so much. Brad was supposed to be there. Lil fucker.
TP: I loved the video you made of you covering “Montana” in your kitchen…making a…pot roast?
AD: Oh yeah, yeah, I know I was gonna do a series about that. Andy in the Kitchen. 4 to 9 AM cooking something. Playing songs.
TP: Please do. Alright so if you could ask Anders Beck anything in the entire world, what would you ask him?
AD: Hey Anders, what happened on Jam Cruise?
Anders Beck: Nothing, gotta go bye!
Check out the full gallery below, courtesy of Elliot Siff.