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High class and bluegrass

Tacoma gets its twang on in the fancy Hotel Murano, as well other downtown Tacoma venues

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You hardcore twangers have been waiting a year — and now it’s finally here. Wintergrass 2009 kicks off Feb. 19 at the fancy Hotel Murano, and runs until Feb. 22.

That’s right, four days to get your twang on.

Now in its 16th year, the festival has become one of the most highly anticipated events of the South Sound musical season, and it’s easy to understand why. Since 1994, Wintergrass has offered up some of the brightest regional and national bluegrass artists ever to perform the Appalachia-rooted music. Sponsored by the nonprofit organization Acoustic Sound — which is dedicated to the preservation, promotion and presentation of acoustic music with a particular, though not exclusive, focus on bluegrass music — the four-day event is designed to entertain as well as educate.

Wintergrass was the concept of Rob Folsom.

“Rob Folsom was, and still is, a sought-after sound man for festivals and concerts in the Northwest. He had a particular affection for bluegrass festivals,” says Patrice O’Neill, promoter for Wintergrass. “He and Earla Harding traveled to The International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual event in Owensboro, Ky., in 1993. That event is held indoors in a hotel. When he came back he was excited about the prospect of holding a bluegrass event indoors in the middle of winter.”

O’Neil was working for Folsom at the time, and the pair drove up and down I-5 looking for a suitable location and finally landed on Tacoma, which at the time was in the middle of an arts-motivated renaissance.

“The Sheraton had three percent occupancy, and we told them we could fill it — we did and have every year since,” says O’Neill. This year will mark Wintergrass’s second year at the hot spot the Sheraton became, the Hotel Murano.

While the four-day festival is considered a bluegrass happening, the promoters do their best to incorporate a diverse mix of acts, “We definitely incorporate other genres. That has always been important to us,” says O’Neill.

“We have always believed that if bluegrass is to survive, it must embrace all its myriad roots and branches, and we are willing to dance at the feathery tips of those branches and burrow way down deep to inscrutable roots, but we believe that open-mindedness has been key to building our audience and expanding an appreciation for the music.”

Wintergrass has presented Celtic, blues, jazz, Brazilian choro, gypsy jazz, jam-band, and black gospel to name some of the permutations.

Some old favorites are making their return to the Wintergrass lineup, but 21 of the 28 acts are making their debut at the festival — such as Adrienne Young and the Old Faithful. An amazing songwriter, Young is a multi-instrumentalist, who also happens to be passionate about seed preservation and community farming.

Tony Trischka has been at the festival as a member of several different bands, but this year he comes as a featured performer. He has most recently worked extensively with Steve Martin and his new CD, Territory, which received the IMA Americana Album of the Year award.

The 2009 Grammy-nominated Steeldrivers are brand new to the festival this year and promise to melt your face. The vocals and energy of this band are just unbelievable — very bluesy, very edgy, very sweaty. 

A few of my personal favorites will be on hand this year beginning with the Paperboys. A staple at Tacoma’s Jazzbones, the Paperboys incorporate everything except the kitchen sink including Celtic, Latin, folk, soul and pop for a fresh take on roots music. San Francisco’s Hot Butter Rum pick and grin in a way that surely has Ralph Stanley smiling; the five-piece band plays with more twang then you can shake a stick at. 

Wintergrass will take over the beautiful Hotel Murano in Tacoma this Thursday, Feb. 19 through Sunday, Feb 22. For more information on Wintergrass Bluegrass Festival, visit

[Hotel Murano, Feb. 19-22, single-day passes $20-$60, weekend passes $125 for adults, prices for seniors and kids vary, 1320 Broadway Plaza, Tacoma, 253.238.8000]

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