Behind the Scenes: Kevin Brown talks about Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival
Kevin Brown is a well loved musician, songwriter and bluegrass DJ based out of Eastern Washington, an arid land of high desert, dense forests, and some serious cowboy culture. We’ve been working with him promoting his new album, The Beloved Country, but we also keep hearing about The Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival (Aug 10-12 this year outside Spokane, WA), an all-star Washington State bluegrass festival that he curates and runs. After spending last weekend at Pickathon, we were more curious than ever to learn about what goes into building a great roots music festival. This is part of our ongoing “Behind the Scenes” interview series in which we get to meet some of the people behind the scenes of the roots music industry. The quiet builders and humble workers who get it done without much credit or many accolades. We loved how Kevin thought about acoustic roots music and turns out he brings that same quiet thoughtfulness and refreshing honesty to building and producing one of the best bluegrass festivals in the Northwest!
Hearth Music Interview with Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown: Blue Waters was started in 2002 by some folks in the community of Medical Lake , a small lake town near Spokane, WA, who wanted to have a music festival to raise money for some local charities. They decided on bluegrass even though none of them knew much about the music, and wisely enlisted the help of some people in the Inland Northwest bluegrass community. I attended the first meeting with my friend Jim Faddis and it was a strange mixture of beer-can-pounding Good Old Boys, suburban bluegrassers, and miscellaneous business and community leaders, with very little organization to the meeting. I think most of us felt like spectators at a rodeo, but somehow a planning committee was formed. I had recently started doing a bluegrass radio show on our public radio station so I got recruited to help book the bands. The festival was held at the city park on the shores of Medical Lake that August, and if I remember correctly there were about 50 people in attendance at that first festival. The saving grace was an absolutely beautiful location and some great music from Jackstraw, John Reischman & The Jaybirds, and a few local bands. It took a few years to really get off the ground and grow, but the lakeside park and some high-energy bands in those next few years like Broken Valley Roadshow (Montana’s young hotshot band at the time), Hit & Run Bluegrass, The Biscuit Burners and The Wilders helped the word to get out, and we grew to our present size of 800 – 1000 people.
Steep Canyon Rangers at Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival
Why do you think bluegrass fests seem to be so location-focused? I’m thinking of the Colorado festivals that have these amazing backdrops of mountains and nature.
I want to think that location is everything, but then there are festivals like Wintergrass that are held in the most ungodly un-bluegrass places on the planet (a hotel complex in downtown Bellevue WA?!) that are wildly popular so I guess that sort of deflates the theory. Still, when it comes to outdoor summertime festivals I think you’ve got to have some natural beauty and an environment conducive to sitting in a chair and watching bluegrass without baking in the sun. Also, not everyone in a family or group of friends has the same tolerance for sitting and listening all day, so having the opportunity to swim, hike, ride bikes, or go join the campground jam session all make for a more enjoyable weekend. Water, trees and great summer weather make for a multi-sensory experience, and the natural beauty seems to go with the earthy nature of the music.
What’s the natural environment like around the fest? Tell me more about the location!
One of the most consistent bits of positive feedback we get about Blue Waters is that we have a stellar location. The festival is held in a park on a nice little lake under a canopy of Ponderosa Pine trees. The stage actually sits nestled between 4 or 5 really big Ponderosas that are kind of like pillars. Eastern Washington summers can be hot, but we don’t have humidity, we have great shade, and the lake has a family-friendly swimming area and a nice walking path around it. It’s just a sweet spot, and it’s also within walking distance of local shops and restaurants. In fact, there’s a second lake within walking distance as well, with better fishing and it’s a nice place for an hour or two of quiet during the weekend. We are only a 4 hour drive from Seattle, 3 hours from Missoula, and 2 hours from Eastern British Columbia, so we’re centrally-located for a wide geographic region of folks who tend to love the outdoors. Spokane is sort of off-the-beaten-path, but I think that’s part of the charm. If you want to get away, you want to GET AWAY to some place that feels like summer!
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West at Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival
How is Blue Waters different from other bluegrass festivals you’ve been to? What other festivals have inspired you recently?
There are several other great summertime bluegrass festivals in the region (Darrington, Columbia Gorge, Pickathon). I guess if I were to differentiate our festival I’d say that we’re a little more “small town” than those, being farther from the major cities on the I-5 corridor, but still very passionate about maintaining a high-caliber of music and a breadth of styles while being affordable. Our national headliners have been some of the best of any bluegrass festival our size in the west — Dan Tyminski Band (his only festival appearance in the US the summer of 2010, with a one-time all-star backing band), The Seldom Scene, Darrell Scott, Mountain Heart, Infamous Stringdusters, Crooked Still, etc. Many of the Northwest bluegrass festivals tend to stay in a pocket of more mainstream bluegrass, or just regional bands, or picking-only festivals. I think we offer more variety. And yet our weekend passes are still lower than most festivals our size.
As far as inspiration goes, I have to admit I haven’t been to as many other regional bluegrass festivals recently as I would like, but I do scour the lineups of other festivals to see who’s booking who, and which festivals seem to have some unique personality. There are several that I have my eyes on to attend, like the Durango Meltdown and Pagosa Festival in Colorado, the Big Horn Mountain Festivalin Wyoming, and of course some of the big ones like Merlefest and Delfest. Every year or two I try to go to one of those (my favorites have been Grey Fox and Rockygrass), but they do always get a bit depressing from a Festival Promoter standpoint, because our budget is so small compared to theirs.
Dan Tyminski Band at Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival
How do you pick the performers? Are you focusing on draw, or artistic choices? What are you looking for in choosing your lineup?
Being a DJ at heart, I approach the lineup similar to my bluegrass radio show, as a set of music that gives everybody something they already love as well as something they maybe haven’t heard before, and have it all hold together and yet still be sort of organic. We offer a variety that includes some of the young progressive bands, songwriting legends, old-time masters, and a blend of local, regional and national artists. I do look for draw, but maybe in less conventional ways. Dirk Powell for instance, is not a household name — not even in casual bluegrass circles — but he has such mega-respect in the roots music community that I already know people are making some pretty long drives just to come for him. We had the same experience with Darrell Scott a few years ago for his reputation as a performer and songwriter who isn’t necessarily “bluegrass”. I am committed to keeping this a bluegrass festival, but want to keep somewhat off-center with that, in some different ways perhaps than other festivals do.
For instance, this year I think we’re simultaneously a bit less bluegrass than past years, but ironically we’re more traditional! We are also more fiddle-heavy than we’ve ever been, which is great because Spokane has an absolutely thriving fiddle scene with some of the best instructors in the region, and a couple of fiddle dynasties that have multiple National Champions, and an openness to a wide range of styles. This really happened quite unintentionally. It just hit me when the lineup was about finished that there was such sheer power in the breadth of fiddlers and the bands they play with and styles they play: Dirk Powell, The Quebe Sisters, Jenny Anne (Bulla) Mannan, the Foghorn Stringband’s Sammy Lind, and the husband wife fiddle duo of Greg & Caridwen Spatz who will be playing in Jim Faddis’ band. Greg is the fiddler for John Reischman & The Jaybirds but he’ll be playing mandolin for this set! There is also a really incredible local band called The Dead Fiddler’s Society that is steeped in traditional fiddle tunes and styles, and they always host one of the best jams in the campground as well as putting on a great stage show.
The Quebe Sisters aren’t bluegrass, but the style of Texas Swing they play is so retro that it can certainly be called “traditional”, and so infectious and danceable that I know they’re going to be a huge hit. And our other major headliner is The Josh Williams Band, who are certainly VERY bluegrass and who I’m very excited to finally see live. Josh Williams is just so ridiculously talented and solid in every respect.
There is also a young husband-wife duo Anne & Pete Sibley who are a lot like Pharis & Jason Romero, or The Honey Dewdrops (who they are good friends with). Very traditional, and yet armed with plenty of powerful original songs, and the sweetest stage presence.
Really the bottom line is I want a lineup I can personally be excited about. That is definitely the case this year!
Crooked Still at Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival
Do you run the festival as a non-profit, or is it for-profit?
We are a 501-C-3 non-profit, and I can tell you we definitely do NOT make a profit!! Our goal has been to support some local charities after all the bills have been paid, but these past few years especially have made that hard with some loss of sponsorship due to the economy. We are entirely volunteer-driven, and we are short-staffed with committee folks. Several of us have been involved since the very beginning, and we all wear multiple hats. It’s a lot of work to put on a festival, and I can see why some of them don’t last more than a few years. But every year at the end of the Festival Weekend we all kind of look at each other and say “Wow! That was a blast!”, and people thank us profusely as they are leaving, and so we gear up and do it again.
What are some of the challenges of producing a bluegrass festival? Name one or two of your best AND worst moments producing Blue Waters.
Finances, obviously — especially in an economic climate where it’s hard to get consistent sponsorships. But perhaps even more so, trying to make a festival succeed when all you’ve got is a motley collection of folks who collectively don’t have all the skills or know-how necessary to make it all happen smoothly. We are woefully deficient in fundraising energy and experience, and not the most organized committee in the world. The hardest moments have definitely been related to finances, or staffing (100% volunteer), or the myriad of drudgery pre-festival tasks and meetings. But somehow the festival weekend goes off without a hitch and we all have a blast.
Probably the worst moment I can think of was back in 2006 when The Wilders played. They arrived late after fighting traffic on their way out of Seattle, so they came straight to the festival. They put on an incredible set (starting with Ike’s yell “MAN, I CAN’T TELL YOU HOW GLAD WE ARE TO BE IN SOME REAL COUNTRY!!”), and then they hung around and talked and maybe even jammed a little afterwards, and then headed to their hotel room. I had forgotten to un-silence my cell phone, and even though I was up late picking in the campground I never heard the 3 or 4 frantic calls from Betse Ellis. Apparently the hotel had given away their rooms to some other tired travelers when midnight rolled around, and they only had one room available for the guys, and ended up putting Betse in a rollout cot in a tiny room. I was horrified when I found the voicemails about 2AM! Fortunately the hotel was able to find her a real room for the next night, but I’m pretty sure we ended up switching hotels for the next year. The great thing, though, is we had The Wilders back last year and Betse didn’t even remember that incident, and she even helped me fix a broken tent pole on my tent (I camp behind the stage) after their set!
I think one of my favorite stories was a couple of years ago when Martha Scanlan played. She arrived a bit late and got out of her van and there was a young man with her. He seemed quite a bit younger than her and I wasn’t about to start speculating about what the relationship might be, but was more focused on wanting to get Martha backstage where she could start getting ready for her set. But the story came out in bits and pieces as she was getting ready and he was sitting their quietly writing in a journal. A few songs into her set she stopped and told the whole story to the audience. She said that she had been driving through The Middle Of Nowhere, Washington by herself and passed a young man hitchhiking, and just had some inner jolt that she needed to stop and pick this young man up. He was soft-spoken and seemed nice enough, and it turns out his wallet and cell-phone had been stolen in Portland and he was hitchhiking home to the Midwest where he was supposed to be teaching a class in a few days. So Martha — being Martha — gave him a ride, brought him to the festival, and proceeded to take up an offering to buy him a bus ticket home. It was a Sunday afternoon set she was playing, and being a preacher’s son I know the difference between a religious experience and a hole in the ground, and this was nothing short of the weirdest and holiest moment I’ve ever witnessed at a music festival. People filled four or five ball caps full of money and the young man sat backstage crying, witnessing this whole spontaneous outpouring of goodwill, and no doubt wondering by what token he had ended up in Martha Scanlan’s van that day. I told him most guys there would have just been satisfied to end up getting a ride from Martha Scanlan.
It also struck me that day that in order to be a good songwriter you’ve got to live like a songwriter. That’s why Martha is so good. I think I learned more in that moment about bluegrass & folk music than in any workshop I’ve ever attended at a festival.
What’s your general philosophy behind the festival?
Good, live, authentic music is IMPORTANT. I believe that to the bottom of my soul. People need real music in their lives — not the stuff you hear in the background at the store, or listen to half-engaged on Pandora or Spotify. People need to experience music, either by playing it themselves or being right up close to a performer who is passionately playing it under the stars. The beauty of a good outdoor festival is people are brought together to enjoy music without being encumbered by their daily responsibilities, and some really beautiful Community happens and some incredible music is made. There’s just something about that energy that makes all the time and effort of putting on the festival worthwhile.
The Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival will take place August 10-12 on Medical Lake, near Spokane, WA. Sounds like a great day trip out for all our Seattle friends!! Find out more :
THIS YEAR’S LINEUP: The Josh Williams Band, The Quebe Sisters Band, Foghorn Stringband, Dirk Powell, Anne & Pete Sibley, Jim Faddis & One More Ride, Jenny Anne Mannan, The Callenders, Big Red Barn, The Dead Fiddler’s Society, Old Bear Mountain, and Kevin Pace & The Early Edition.