Wintergrass – Bluegrass Without Borders

Wintergrass 2020 is off and running with workshops, shows, vendors, jamming and the like and all of the travelers seem to be claiming they brought the sun with them which is a rare winter occurrence in the Seattle area. As is typical, there is a great lineup of headliners including Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Darrell Scott, The Kruger Brothers, John Reischman & the Jaybirds, Väsen, The Special Consensus, Trio Brasileiro, Che Apalache, I Draw Slow, The Appalachian Roadshow, The Barefoot Movement, Larry Keel Experience, Red Wine, Joe Craven & the Sometimers, and many others. It is no coincidence there is a healthy dose of international and non-traditional bluegrass bands included, given this years Wintergrass theme of Bluegrass Without Borders. I cornered a cross-section of people to discover what that means to them.

Patrice O’Neill, Executive Director of Wintergrass, had this to say.

“The theme this year is Bluegrass Without Borders, and I think when we were putting together the lineup for this what we wanted to express is that, especially in this world, that is so divided and is so worried about partitioning ourselves off from each other that we wanted to celebrate what we had in common. And that there’s way more of that than there isn’t. So we wanted to bring in artists who could show them the familiar in an unfamiliar way. I just came from seeing Che Apalache and they’re a perfect example. They play this astonishingly great bluegrass around a single mic just like you’re supposed to, and then they do these extraordinary songs in Spanish from Argentina and from all over of Latin America that are just beautiful. They play the mandolin like a charango and it’s such an inspiring sort of thing when you see music is truly the most common language that humans have.“

I asked if there were other bands she was looking forward to seeing.

“Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean all of the international bands that we have I’m just loving. I love Trio Brasileiro as well and they’ll be doing lots of Brazilian Choro. They’re just phenomenal and I think a lot of Americans haven’t experienced a seven-string guitar, which is a wonder to behold when you see someone play that. And of course, our pals Red Wine from Italy, and a festival favorite Väsen from Sweden, plus the Kruger Brothers. Then people like Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, who just kind of live that whole, let’s put our toes over here and see what that’s like.”

After a rousing show by Red Wine, I spoke with banjo player and founding member Silvio Ferretti with his guitarist son, Marco.

“My name is Silvio and I play with the Italian band Red Wine. We love bluegrass and we absolutely love Wintergrass. This place is really special for bringing in people from all over the world, to welcome you, to listen to some incredible bands from the US, but not only the US. This idea is special for me because we are all from the same town, Genoa, Italy, and we’ve been working on trying to play bluegrass practically all of our lives. I started when I was like sixteen years old and of course Marco, my son, was not there yet. “

Marco Ferretti had this to say about Bluegrass Without Borders.

“One of the true meanings of music, in my opinion, is the connection to people. If there are no borders, then everything and everyone is connected at least in some way. Music is one of the possible ways to connect with people in different cultures.”

Brett Jokela, who is affiliated with the Anchorage Folk Festival, spoke about the Alaskan contingencies.

“I come from across the border in the state of Alaska, but there is no border between Wintergrass and Alaska because there’s a lot of Alaskans here. Bluegrass Without Borders means bands like Red Wine, this fantastic bluegrass band from Italy that I just heard. The music comes from all over the world and goes out to all of the world.”

I saw Trisha Tubbs, Vice President of the Wintergrass board, talking with Paul Sato in front of the Youth Programs desk and asked her what Bluegrass Without Borders means to her.

“Bluegrass Without Borders just means inviting people to be inspired by music from different countries, or influence from different types of music. My friend Paul here is from Hawaii, and I’m in Arizona, so we have probably at least thirty to thirty-five States where people come here. We have people who have come in from Canada and Japan all the time, and we’ve got whole groups that come down from Alaska.”

I asked about her involvement in the youth programs.

“I am a supporter of it, but I’m not actually teaching or doing anything like that, but I was very involved in getting the programs going from a board standpoint. We have separate programs for toddlers, pre-teens, and a program we call Youth Academy Teachers and Training. So there are six of them this year in the thirteen to sixteen age range that will learn how to teach music programs. We’ve also got a program called MOX for teens and college-age students where people come in from all over the country to teach them, not just how to play music, but also sound engineering and lighting, and what it takes to put on a festival.”

Paul Sato from Hawaii is no stranger to California Bluegrass, IBMA and Wintergrass. I coaxed the following out of him.

“I’m attending Wintergrass as I have for the last ten or twelve years, and Bluegrass Without Borders… I’m not exactly sure what it means, but what I think it means is the universality of this music and the appeal that can be for people from all walks of life, whether they are international or Americans.”

In the US, we are used to seeing different branches from the bluegrass tree regardless of where it has sprouted, but perhaps no band demonstrates that as much as the Grammy-nominated Trio Brasileiro from Brazil. Trio Brasileiro plays choro music, which originated in the 19th century and means cry or lament. While few would mistake it with bluegrass, it has the same musicianship, working-class roots, heart and passion as bluegrass or other styles such as ragtime, tango or Cuban habanera music. A picture, or in this case, a video tells the story much better than I can. This video features the band with Dudu Maia, a virtuoso of the bandolim (Portuguese for “mandolin”), playing Vibraçãos composed by the great Jacob do Bandolim.

Photographs by Mary Ann Goldstein

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org.