Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival welcomes aficionados, newcomers alike
“The water is blue. The grass is too.”
Since 2002, for one weekend in August, the Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival has filled the banks of Medical Lake’s Waterfront Park with the sound of bluegrass music and the spirit of the bluegrass community.
Now in its 17th year, Blue Waters, Friday through Sunday, will again present artists from across the bluegrass spectrum.
When planning the lineup for each year’s festival, music director Kevin Brown approaches Blue Waters like he approaches his Spokane Public Radio show “Front Porch Bluegrass.”
“There’s people that listen to that (who) are diehard bluegrass fans and then there’s casual Spokane Public Radio listeners who like to have some music on,” he said. “I look at this as an opportunity to create a broad palate of styles within bluegrass.”
One of the bands performing this year, for instance, is the Barefoot Movement, the Nashville-based quartet of bassist/vocalist Katie Blomarz, guitarist/vocalist Alex Conerly, mandolinist Tommy Norris and vocalist/fiddle player Noah Wall.
The Barefoot Movement performs Saturday at 9 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. The quartet released a Christmas album last year.
“They’re a young, progressive band,” Brown said. “They’ve got some YouTube videos, both of their own originals and some really interesting cover songs where they’ve taken songs by rock bands or old Christmas carols… and they create these different versions based on bluegrass instrumentation but always a little more progressive.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, the quartet of Jereme Brown on banjo, C.J. Lewandoski on mandolin, Jasper Lorentzen on bass and Josh Rinkle on guitar.
The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys perform Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 4:30 p.m. The band released a gospel album called “God’s Love Is So Divine” last month.
“They’re very, almost retro, traditional,” Brown said.
Brown doesn’t just consider musical styles though, he also tries to book bands of different sizes to showcase their varying sounds.
Duos and trios, Brown said, have a different sound than a full-size band, “like a freight train.”
“One of my key focuses as music director is creating a lineup that meets a lot of different musical tastes and emotional feeling throughout the weekend, which is very similar to an hour’s worth of music on the radio,” he said.
This year’s festival features the duo of Kenny and Amanda Smith, who will perform Friday at 9 p.m. and Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
“It’s a very stripped-down sound of two guitars and voices versus something that’s a little more big sound,” he said.
The Smiths, together and individually, have won numerous International Bluegrass Music Association awards. They released “Unbound,” their latest album, in 2016.
Blue Waters also includes the Danny Barnes Trio featuring Joe K. Walsh and Grant Gordy (Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m.); Old Growth Quartet (Saturday at 2:30 p.m., Sunday at 1 p.m.); Kevin Pace and the Early Edition (Friday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.); $4 Shoe (Friday at 6 p.m., Saturday at 1:30 p.m.); and Misty Mountain Pony Club (Sunday at noon).
For Blue Waters attendees who want to do more than just listen, the workshop stage offers a variety of classes from this year’s artists on Saturday and Sunday.
Brown said workshops have always been a part of Blue Waters and are a big part of bluegrass festival culture.
“It’s one of the great things about bluegrass is all of these artists who’ve grown up playing this kind of music grew up going to festivals where the walls between the audience and the performer are pretty thin,” he said. “You have access to say ‘Hey, I’m learning this new tune on my mandolin. I like how you do it. Can you show me that little run you do there?’ ”
Jamming, too, is a big part of bluegrass festival culture and is featured prominently at Blue Waters. The Wernick Method Jam Class gives pickers of all levels a chance to improve their skills via a method created by Hot Rize’sCQ Pete Wernick.
Players of all abilities looking for a less formal jam session can head to the campgrounds, where Brown said players often perform late into the night.
“You’ll have a nucleus of the jam that’s people who’ve been playing longer and as you go around the outside of the circle, there’s more casual players there who ‘I may only know three chords on my guitar but I’ll feel comfortable standing on the outside of the circle and playing along’” he said. “That’s totally accepted.”
There will also be an open mic at 4 p.m. on Friday (sign up at the gate after noon), and a Blue Waters Youth Camp, taught by local fiddle icon Jaydean Ludiker that culminates in a performance at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Something special to Blue Waters is its tribute series, which have taken place four of the last five years.
The tradition started with a tribute to Bill Monroe, considered to be the father of bluegrass, and was followed the next year by a tribute to Hazel Dickens.
Last year, the festival highlighted the music of Ralph Stanley and the Stanley Brothers, and this year Brown and many festival performers will pay tribute to Doc Watson via stories and songs.
“It feels like doing a term paper, putting together how this thing will flow and some of the stories will be told but it’s just so much fun that these bands on the lineup really get into being a part of this because they’ve been influenced by these people too,” Brown said. “People didn’t know what to think but it’s educational, it’s entertaining and it gives very much a view to the tradition and the history behind it.”
The history behind Blue Waters is equally as noteworthy.
It all started when Medical Lake community members teamed up with members of the Inland Northwest Bluegrass Association, a meeting organized by the festival’s late founder Denny McDaniel.
“The bluegrassers knew a whole lot about bluegrass festivals but not how to necessarily put together a big, successful event whereas some of the Medical Lake people knew how to work the city and the park and get people out there,” Brown said.
The 2016 festival program notes that 40 people, at most, attended the first Blue Waters festival. But over time, the festival blossomed into a multi-day event that welcomes both bluegrass aficionados and newcomers alike.
“We have people from all over who go to bluegrass festivals… but it’s so fun each year when somebody comes up and says ‘I’ve heard about this but I’ve never come and this is just so great,’ ” Brown said.