The music director of the Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival talks the appeal of the genre and how it takes a village to tune a banjo

click to enlarge DEREK HARRISON PHOTO
Derek Harrison photo

For 18 years, the Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival has brought the sounds of one of the quintessentially American musical genres to the shores of Medical Lake. It now draws between 800 and 1,000 people, who return annually to camp out over the weekend and hear bands like the Steep Canyon Rangers, Della Mae and Chatham County Line.

Kevin Brown, the festival's music director, has been putting together the lineup since day one. He's also a singer-songwriter and the host of the Spokane Public Radio show Front Porch Bluegrass, and he spoke to the Inlander about the process of growing the festival, the intimacy of the event and what's so great about bluegrass. Responses have been edited for clarity.

INLANDER: What differentiates Blue Waters from other festivals?

BROWN: It's a great setting for it, because it's in the pine trees, by the lake. It's really a great summertime location for it. And we'll get bands commenting on it, stopping in between songs like, "Wow, this is great." After the stage shuts down, people stay up all night jamming. It's fun to watch and participate in it. Sometimes you'll see the headlining bands out there picking after hours with people in the parking lot. That's one of the great things about bluegrass festivals: There are no walls between performer and audience. You have access to talk to these people, to get them to show you the guitar lick that they were doing on stage or whatever. And that fits with the folky element of the music, too.

What's the process of putting the festival together?

It's a year-round job, and there's a full board [of directors] that's doing this all year, too. We're a 100 percent volunteer organization. It definitely takes a village to tune a banjo. I start looking at the next year's lineup about a month after the festival ends. And that's when a lot of bands are starting to book because summertime is a big season. September, October and November is a time where we say, "What's the budget, and who can we get within that budget?" We have the lineup solidified by the early part of the year, in time to announce at Wintergrass, which is a national festival that takes place in Bellevue.

How has the festival evolved over the last 18 years?

It felt like there were 20 people in the audience the first year, this big park with a few scattered chairs out there. Now it's a park full of people, and we have a real stage. People have discovered that it's a great family event, no matter what your age group is.

Who are some of the artists you're excited about in this year's lineup?

I approach this like a radio show or an album. It's got to have an arc. It's got to have some variety. You can't go full throttle bluegrass through the whole [lineup]. Every year, I look at that palette — how are we going to give them a breadth of music there? Wood & Wire is the full-on bluegrass band. They were nominated for a Grammy last year, and they're out of Austin, Texas. Real high energy, good songwriting; has a bit of that Texas attitude. On the complete flip side of that is Ashleigh Caudill, a songwriter that I've been playing on my radio show for years. And I'm real excited about High Fidelity. They're still in their 20s, and they sound like they're pulled straight out in 1968. It's not a retro shtick; they really sound like an old, old band.

What is the appeal of bluegrass?

People are surprised sometimes when I liken it to jazz. There's a virtuosic and improvisational element to it that country music doesn't have, that folk music doesn't have. There's a canon of songs, fiddle tunes or standards or whatever, that you can play in a gazillion ways, just like jazz standards. I think there's something about connecting with something that's not electric, especially when you're seeing it live. It's a formidable music to listen to, especially in this age of musical wallpaper, where people turn on Spotify as sort of background music. You watch a bluegrass band play live, and it's in your face. ♦

Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival • Fri-Sun, Aug. 9-11 • $25-$55 • All ages • bluewatersbluegrass.org

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About The Author

Nathan Weinbender

Nathan Weinbender is the Inlander's Music & Film editor. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.