Step on that green Tacoma grass

Wintergrass grows with help from island players, volunteers.

The ground may still be bare in spots. But the Wintergrass 2008 lineup shows promising patches of spring green.

“It’s not your parents’ bluegrass,” Georgia Browne said.

This year Browne – singer, musician and park district event coordinator – signed on with four-time Wintergrass organizer and sister islander Wendy Tyner to help with publicity for the annual music festival, happening this weekend in downtown Tacoma.

The two speak of a growing trend of young, up-and-coming musicians at the 15-year-old festival who are taking bluegrass and old-time music and making it their own.

Simon Chrisman and Wes Corbett, children of the island, friends and frequent collaborators, are the first names to come up.

Tyner cites these twenty-something musical co-conspirators as emblematic of the Wintergrass trend toward using new rhythms that incorporate non-traditional instruments like drums and the hammered dulcimer to bend an older genre at will.

“What’s unique about how the kids are affecting Wintergrass is that they’re not following tradition at all,” Tyner said. “We’re watching these young people transform bluegrass music in their own way. They take risks.”

So while that old-timey feel is gone, as Browne points out, in its place is a fresh mix of both music and generations showcased this weekend with the likes of Chris Thile of Nickel Creek, Joy Kills Sorrow featuring another Corbett collaborator Joe Walsh, and the young, Nashville-based bluegrass-newgrass hybrid band, The Infamous Stringdusters.

“When you listen to these kids play...they don’t seem to have parameters,” Tyner said. “If they like it, they play it. And the older Wintergrass-goers are listening to it as well. And they like it. And they’re embracing change.”

Tyner said the first time she and her family attended Wintergrass, they got tickets to one show.

Since then, they’ve spent most of their time in the impromptu elevator and lobby jam sessions, where established musicians the likes of David Grisman may show up, sit down on a sofa and just start playing.

The mix of establishment and newcomers was never more apparent, Tyner said, than last year when seventy-something former Washington State governor Booth Gardner showed up to the young folks’ Friday night dance in a long, black London Fog trench coat to soak up the sounds.

From a marketing standpoint, Wintergrass is far from a tough sell: a family-friendly festival that showcases old-time music and old-school bluegrass while still leaving ample room for experimentation by up-and-coming players, and an educational focus to boot.

In the spirit of getting them young, long-time musician Joe Cravin – “whose claim to fame is that he can make a trash can play,” Tyner said – and Beth Fortune, an award-winning orchestra instructor, are helming a youth academy for intermediate-to-advanced musicians in grades four through eight. Chrisman and Corbett will help merge the generations by assisting with instruction.

There’s even a toddler jam session in store.

Here on Bainbridge, Tyner has observed a solid commitment on the part of the public school system to expose students to musical opportunities from the get-go.

But at a certain point, she thinks, established support for young people who want to form bands dissipates.

That’s when kids take matters into their own hands with student-run open mic efforts like last year’s Tadpole Revolution at Island Music Guild, teen concert series like Zeitgeist and grass-roots – albeit park district sponsored – efforts like Battle of the Bands, featuring nothing but home-grown teenage mergings.

So in many ways a festival like Wintergrass acts as a bridge between old and young, an environment in which new and developing musicians can learn from past tradition while taking musical risks.

“They don’t want stardom, they want to play,” Tyner said. “And Wintergrass gives them a place to do that.”


Grass act

Wintergrass runs Feb. 21-24 at downtown Tacoma venues. For information including a complete concert and education lineup, see

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