When the first Wintergrass bluegrass music festival was hosted at the Tacoma Sheraton Hotel nearly 30 years ago, its co-founders didn’t know what it would grow to become. It was inspired by Louisville’s International Bluegrass Music Association conference as a one-day event — a smaller-scale celebration of the musical genre. But it proved such a hit with bluegrass lovers far and wide that by 1994, a nonprofit around it was formed.
Now, Wintergrass, which has now been annually held at Bellevue’s Hyatt Regency Hotel since 2010, has become one of the U.S.’s preeminent bluegrass festivals. It spans four days and comprises live performances, workshops, jam-session opportunities and music education. In 2015, it was nominated for a Grammy, for a Best Music Education Director award.
The theme for 2020 is Bluegrass Without Borders, which publicity director Wendy Tyner said is up to interpretation.
“Wintergrass has always been a cultural experience as opposed to just live performances and workshops,” Tyner said. “There’s a certain aspect and feeling with Wintergrass. It’s about community and family and a lot of discoveries. People come to Wintergrass and they have never heard of a certain band or know the artist, but they have trust… that when they buy tickets and not know the lineup, they know that they’re going to have a great experience.”
This year’s iteration spans Feb. 20-23 and encompasses the expected spread of performances and learning opportunities. Spotlighted artists include the Kruger Brothers, We Banjo 3, Appalachian Road Show, the Larry Keel Experience and Five Letter Word. More than 45 vendors will be spread throughout the hotel during the festival.
Tyner highlighted that Wintergrass isn’t just a nationally known event.
“This year, we have bands from Italy, Canada, Germany and Ireland,” she said. “It’s a great expression of bluegrass music.”
Tyner said that typically it takes about a year to organize the festival, and acquiring musicians to participate is done through a combination of outreach and artists reaching out to organizers. There are five full-time staff members, 25 volunteers that work year-round and then some 325 volunteers that work the four days of the festival annually. Attendees, according to Tyner, always voice their appreciation of the work.
Tyner said the move to the Hyatt Regency — which she describes as “family” — a decade ago was helpful, too. For the director, Wintergrass — particularly its educational components — is beneficial to the preservation of bluegrass culture and enthusiasm about the genre as a whole.
“If you go back east, bluegrass culture is very rich,” Tyner said. “The further west you get, there are fewer festivals and music education that focus on the bluegrass sound… People come every year, and every year they say this is the best Wintergrass they’ve ever attended. That’s just something they say every single year.”