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Kind of bluegrass: Tacoma's family-friendly Wintergrass Festival

Published on: February 01, 2008

Bluegrass, with its often-speedy tempos and foot-stomping rhythms, is fun music to listen to with kids. The Wintergrass Festival, which runs for four days toward the end of this month in Tacoma, is a fabulous music experience for families. It’s an upbeat antidote to winter’s dreariest days.

Although bluegrass and old-time music are undergoing a revival, they still battle an image problem. “People have the impression, aw, it’s bluegrass. I don’t like that stuff. Three chords. Boring,” says Patrice O’Neill, the festival’s soft-spoken but wickedly funny co-founder and co-director.Dancing

Nonetheless, Wintergrass has been successfully going about its business in the Sheraton Tacoma (now known as Hotel Murano) and surrounding venues for the past 15 years. For four days, bands play back-to-back concerts from morning until late at night and musicians gather in the hotel lobby to jam. It’s busy and intense, and it might seem like the last place you’d want to take the kids, but you couldn’t be more wrong.

Last year, a couple of friends and I — none of us hardcore bluegrass fans — attended the festival for the first time. (One friend called it “the most fun musical experience I had all year.”) We saw children everywhere. Kids were listening to and participating in jams, sitting in on performances and dancing happily with their parents during the evening ballroom shows. My friends and I hung out in the hotel’s Collings Ballroom on Saturday night, from Deadwood Revival at 7:30 p.m. to The Mammals until midnight, and were amazed at how well integrated the kids were into the scene — and how tolerant the adults, even non-related adults, were to the children in their midst.

“It’s such a cool community thing,” notes O’Neill. “That’s the hallmark of bluegrass: It’s an intergenerational thing. I can’t think of another music that does this, that sits down a 90-year-old and a 9-year-old and they play music together as equals.” From my observation, that goes for the dancing, too.

Kid fun at Wintergrass
For families, one of Wintergrass’ big advantages is its location. If you attend with younger children, you’ll want to give them a break to recharge, and you can walk to the Tacoma Children’s Museum (as well as the city’s other museums) from the hotel, meaning that you don’t have to get in your car to take a breather.

Back at the hotel, there’s a well-stocked kids’ room where little ones can read books, play games and do crafts. This year, it’s located in the fitness center on the fourth floor, offering lots of space for kids to run around. Some activities will be scheduled, but there will be plenty of unstructured fun under the eye of licensed day-care workers and volunteers.   

Kids music
Look for a couple of outstanding workshops designed especially for kids. The Youth Academy is a chance for kids in grades 4-8, even what O’Neill calls “complete absolute utter beginners,” to try their hand at playing bluegrass. A local music store provides instruments of every kind, from banjos to upright basses, and kids are expected to play everything. “If you start out as a guitar player,” says O’Neill, laughing, “you get a banjo stuck in your hand.” One of the instructors is Joe Craven, an energetic, imaginative and inspiring musician who has played with mandolinist David Grisman, fiddler Mark O’Connor and Jerry Garcia (who needs no qualifier).

Families with smaller kids can check out Toddlergrass, which runs Friday and Saturday. The music program for preschoolers uses bluegrass tunes to teach movement, singing and rhythm. When you check in on either of those days, look at your schedule for workshop times and locations.

Not-to-be-missed music
So about that music: The festival runs four days, and the schedule will be packed with performers whom you’ve never heard of. How to choose what to see? And if you only have one day to attend, which day should you choose?

“If you want a little tiny sip and don’t want to get too scared by bluegrass, come on Thursday,” suggests O’Neill. “It’s only one show, one stage, limited hours, it’s cheap.” This year’s show traces the African-American roots of bluegrass, with performances by Laura Love and the The Carolina Chocolate Drops. “It’s like living history,” says O’Neill. “Here’s where this music came from, here’s where it went.”

On Friday night, the Youth Academy plays a culminating show with a set by Joe Craven. O’Neill points out that it’s the only free show of the festival, so families who don’t want to commit to a Wintergrass wristband can still check out the music. If you only have one day, however, O’Neill says that Saturday is the best all-around day to attend. You’ll find the most music choices, Toddlergrass will be in session, and all the nearby museums will be open to the public.

Last year, my friends and I discovered some delightful surprises by just wandering into a venue and taking whatever came. New discoveries are a big part of what makes Wintergrass so interesting, and that holds true even if you attend with kids. However, if you’d rather not have such a loosely planned day, O’Neill offers a few tips. “I think that every band on the dance stage [on Friday and Saturday evening] is going to appeal to families,” she says. She also suggests catching anything by old-time band The Wilders, calling them “huge fun,” as well as twentysomething bluegrass-folkies The Duhks, the “young, edgier” Trampled by Turtles, and the Punch Brothers, featuring Nickel Creek superstar Chris Thile. “One band that is just phenomenal that we’re bringing from Sweden is Väsen,” adds O’Neill. “They’re not playing bluegrass by any stretch, but they’re unbelievable. Their music is so joyful and so fun.”

Other bands worth checking out include the young alternative bluegrass band Crooked Still, Seattle string band The Tallboys and anything by Joe Craven, who last year treated a lucky audience to percussion on handmade instruments, storytelling and music — kids of any age would love it.

The whole experience can seem overwhelming, but with a bit of planning and several well-timed breaks, you can easily do Wintergrass with kids. Pick out a few bands you want to see, and spent the time in between soaking up the scene in the lobby, visiting a nearby museum or hanging out in the children’s room or at Toddlergrass. Pack snacks (the snack bar lines are long) and plan to get dinner in the hotel restaurant. If you let the kids chill during the day, you’ll be able to make it to an evening ballroom performance and get in some energetic dancing. And relax — even if you don’t do everything you planned, there’s always next year.

Wintergrass runs Feb. 21-24 at Hotel Murano in Tacoma. Passes range in price from $10 (child, day) to $280 (family, all weekend). Order tickets online through Feb. 19.


Kris Collingridge is ParentMap’s Out & About editor

Photos courtesy of Wintergrass, David Conlin and Maria Camillo

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