The Intersection of Music and Art

We spent last weekend at our favorite musical event: Wintergrass, a bluegrass festival held at five venues in Tacoma, Washington, though most of the action happens in and around the Hotel Murano, formerly the Sheraton.


No matter where you go, inside or out, musicians of every age, shape and persuasion are playing together. Lest you think bluegrass is all about flat-picking banjo from the backwoods of Appalachia, this festival presents a wide variety of music ranging from free-style jam bands to the Ebony Hillbillies, from a zydeco/Acadian/French Canadian string band to a rockin’ quartet with a cello.


We arrived at 4pm on Friday and stayed until 3pm on Sunday, basking in the music everywhere. There is a Wintergrass academy for the smallest musicians and plenty of open space for organic groups to form and dissolve, playing whatever pieces inspire them in the moment.


This was the first year for my son, now five, as we were concerned in previous years that the demands of the festival would be too much for him. A budding musician, composer and performer, I suspected that this would be the right year to introduce him to the experience. We brought snacks and his basketball; we took breaks between sets to wander outside, play ball, hover near a group of jamming musicians, and most popular: make buttons in the kids’ play area organized by Wintergrass volunteers in the hotel fitness room.


During one of the sets, I was inspired to sketch the bass in a little notebook I carry around for just such an occasion. It occurred to me that this would be an interesting shape to create in felt. Sitting next to me, my boy asked if he could sketch the bass too.


No bluegrass band is complete without a banjo or a mandolin (the mando illustration was a combined effort).


Two days after returning from the festival, he woke up with a low fever and a little blister on his chin that looks like it could be a pox. To be on the safe side, I held him back from school, surmising he could probably use a little extra rest after our long weekend. As I began to organize the house, he pulled out some modeling clay.

Along with the taco, burrito and pizza, he made a pair of banjos and the handle of the bass (I hope someone will illuminate me with a little nomenclature). The bass is for Corey DiMario of Crooked Still (his blog gets high points for best title); one banjo is for Jamie Blair of the Cascade Mountain Boys because he has the coolest hair and best eyebrow expression, the other is for Jim Hancock of the Great Northern Planes because his band mates played a mean trick on him and wouldn’t tell him which song they were playing next (my boy is a softie).

I hope that each exposure to musicians great and small will offset the other idols he sees on big and small screens. Heroes walk among us, and the greatest carry an instrument case.

Bluegrass Knitters Unite

As I mentioned yesterday, I spent last weekend in Tacoma at Wintergrass, a fantastic bluegrass festival, where the traditional definition of bluegrass is stretched far beyond the comfort zone of most purists.


It was amazing to see the Sheraton, where the Madrona Fiber Arts Retreat was held just three weeks prior, so utterly transformed by a vibrating horde of musicians and music-appreciators. And much like Madrona, it is entirely possible to rub elbows with the superstars of the bluegrass world wandering through the hotel lobby. Sophie talked to her hero, Kristin Andreassen, clogger extraordinaire, accomplished guitarist and one of the g’Earls in Uncle Earl.


My father grinned and chuckled most of Friday night at the sight of us contentedly knitting away in the half-light of a bluegrass concert. Apparently, there is an album called The Three Pickers which features the legendary Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and Ricky Skaggs; he called us “The Three Knitters”.

I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than knit while listening to live music. For three days, we sat two rows from the stage, off to the side, where we could hear the chatter between the musicians that was too soft for the mikes to pick up, where we could see the guest performers getting ready backstage, where we could see the techs fumbling with the lighting boards and where we could knit for hours at a time.


Odd as it may seem, we were not the only knitters at Wintegrass. I happened upon Linda in a back hallway, trying to rearrange some stitches that had wandered away from her needles in the dim light. The ability to knit by touch is a valuable skill at this sort of event.


Then there was Lorette, the talented Knitting Doctor. I spotted her standing towards the back of the Pavilion, the biggest concert venue, last year when I attended Wintergrass for the first time. She was absently knitting socks while watching the concerts. She was also wearing Rogue. It caught my eye last year, and there she was again this year, wearing Rogue. This is the sort of pattern that would normally make my head turn, but when I happen to be working on it…


I muscled up the gumption to walk over and introduce myself. As I admired the cables and fondled the world’s softest yarn, Beaverslide‘s mulespun McTaggart Tweed, Lorette told me that she knit that version of Rogue at another wonderful event, the Darrington Bluegrass Festival (incidentally, I’ve knit three sweaters, and a bag with this yarn; it is the softest wool I’ve ever handled). My mother and I have both knit at Darrington, which led me to think that I bet there are a lot of closet bluegrass fans out there who just need to hear our rallying cry: “Bluegrass Knitters Unite!”

PS. In case you are interested, we loved Uncle Earl, Crooked Still, Captain Gravel, True North, The Greencards and Lee Highway. My dad said Chris Thile was fantastic, but Sophie couldn’t stay up that late.