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Four days of bluegrass in downtown Tacoma

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Of course I love Wintergrass, the national bluegrass festival held in our own backyard next week. It’s all about music, and speaking personally, there’s nothing more central to my existence than music. Music is my business, my hobby and my social life. Music is the bridge between my teenage daughter and me. Music is my comfort in hard times and my battle cry in worse times. Music in the morning pumps me up for the day, and no celebration is complete without music. If anyone ever tries to say that music is not important, send them my way. On second thought, send them to Bobble Tiki. I don’t even want to know someone who would say such an ignorant thing.

Another big reason why Wintergrass is vital to me (and should be to you too) is plain, simple hometown pride. It’s a national event that makes Tacoma a travel destination for musicians and music lovers from all over the world. This is good news for local businesses. Also, those of us who already live here get to enjoy the festival without paying airfare, hotel and car rental expenses. And as an advocate of local musicians, I’m psyched that several of our best local performers get to share the stage with national acts and become a part of a larger network. These things put Tacoma squarely on the musical map.

I also admire the sense of community that Wintergrass engenders. Though bluegrass is a genre of music that requires great dexterity and skill, the music is one of inclusion rather than exclusion. Anyone can jam. Everyone can dance. Plus there are more than 50 workshops scheduled so those interested in honing their skills can learn from the professionals. Another example of this sense of community is demonstrated by the Wintergrass volunteers. The festival is operated by more than 300 of them, and every year they have more people asking to volunteer than they can possibly use.

Another thing I dig about Wintergrass is that contrary to what you might think, it isn’t just bluegrass music. The lineup includes django, swing, gypsy jazz, traditional Swedish music, contemporary country, folk, singer-songwriters, and other acoustic based genres.

“People expect to hear the ‘Beverly Hillbillies,’ and then they come here and get their minds blown by these incredible musicians,” says Patrice O’Neill, co-director of Wintergrass.

“We get a lot of crap from people about not having all bluegrass,” O’Neill says, but she explains that one of her greatest joys in life is putting musicians from different traditions together to jam. “These great musicians encounter each other, and this explosion happens. I love bringing people together like that at Wintergrass. I love seeing them stretch themselves.”

This makes perfect sense in light of this year’s Wintergrass theme: Transformation. It was so named both because of the transformation happening at its home base — Hotel Murano — and because of the transformative nature of music. In case you haven’t heard, the Tacoma Sheraton is transforming into Hotel Murano or what O’Neill calls an art museum you can sleep in.

“Love it or hate it, its spectacular!” she says.

The diverse lineup of bands reflects a desire to get back to the roots of bluegrass while honoring the changes along the way. O’Neill explains that roots music split into different paths and transformed into new genres such as bluegrass, rhythm and blues, and gospel. “We always think of bluegrass as traditional, but music is not static. It’s a constantly changing thing. There is tradition to be sure, but it’s a constantly moving target,” she says.

All of the bands will play more than once and at different locations to give festivalgoers a chance to see them all. The venues are located at Hotel Murano, Urban Grace Church, Rialto Theater, Varsity Grill, and Courtyard Marriott Hotel. The dances are not to be missed. If you are a musician, you’ll want to have your instrument with you for impromptu jams that happen in every available hallway, staircase and/or bathroom stall. When you tire of carrying your instrument, you’ll love the free instrument check-in located upstairs in the Rotunda at the Hotel Murano Tacoma Bicentennial Pavilion.

LINK: Live blogging at the festival

LINK: Wintergrass chat in the Forums

LINK: Festival homepage

LINK: Ticket information

LINK: Band schedule

LINK: Hotel Murano festival headquarters

LINK: Where to eat

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