Northwest String Summit: Too Much Bluegrass or Not Enough?


According to the test of time that this festival has passed with flying colors by completing its fifteenth year, it’s easy to say there’s no such thing as too much bluegrass, at least for the die-hards. Some people, I assume, are only casual listeners, which leaves the question: Can I stand to enjoy four days of country twang, or will I be dreaming of smashing banjos over smelly hippies by Saturday morning?

To set the record straight, Northwest String Summit doesn’t outright claim to be a bluegrass festival. Their facebook page describes itself as bluegrass, roots, and Americana. Which is true, but these three genres are fluid in their definitions depending on who you’re talking to. Nonetheless, Yonder Mountain String Band has been the musical host each year, and it’s no secret bluegrass is the backbone of all the music they bring in. Perhaps these are just semantics that only a music nerd such as myself would wonder about. But here I was at the gate of a four-day event, with only one way to find answers.

Early arrivers were treated to Portland acts Fruition and the ever-inventive Shook Twins, who put together slow-moving melodies to create a dreamy atmosphere before the sun went down. Thursday’s main act, Greensky Bluegrass, has blossomed into one of the most popular bands within the scene in the past few years by implementing a heavy amount of psychedelic folk and steel guitar solos into their sound, and Thursday’s two-set show was no exception. Away from the mainstage was the Kinfolk Revival Tent, which hosted raging late night shows until the wee hours of the morning. Thursday saw the Infamous Stringdusters on this stage, who brought out their honorary (and equally infamous) member, Nicki Bluhm.


Off in the woods, nestled at the bottom of a hill next to a creek, was the unique, yet natural setting of the Cascadia stage. A perfect spot for the highly anticipated 90s-inspired roots revival act, Sidebood. This band consisted of both the Shook Twins, Allie Kral (of Yonder), and a few others in this all-female outfit, which jammed out to R&B and pop classics that ran supreme during the 1990s. Day one was in the books, and I fell asleep with Destiny’s Child songs in my head. So, safe to say, I was nowhere near bluegrassed out.

The cloudy mornings made it easy to sleep late, but I was told there was children’s-themed music starting in the early morning. The partying crowd, however, didn’t make it out until at least noon on Friday, right when Horseshoes & Hand Grenades played their classic bluegrass tunes on the Cascadia Stage. The daytime hours were jam-packed with notable bands throughout, with hardly a moment to get faded at the campsite, yet most managed to do so. The evening hours brought in a glimpse of sunshine along with Della Mae, featuring an insane (and award-winning) fiddle player, followed by the luscious and soulful music of Railroad Earth.


The first Yonder set came just as the sky got dark. The five of them took the stage and hit running fast with “Rambler’s Anthem” off their second album. Yonder Mountain String Band is as bluegrass as a bottle of a moonshine, but that doesn’t mean they can’t experiment. Their progressive style provides room within their chords to rock out as they pass turns soloing over hard rhythms, and even add in some out-of-the-blue covers like “Life in the Fastlane” and “Jolene.”

Late night was all over the musical map with the Polyrhythmics, the eight-piece jazz funk group out of Seattle nestled on the Cascadia Stage. Off in the tent were the smiling faces and familiar blues sound of Leftover Salmon. These were some pretty diverse early morning options for a festival whose name is damn near synonymous with bluegrass.

It took a little while longer for most people to wake up on Saturday, as it should. The festival-goers have now seen three former co-headliners and one Yonder show in two short days. I didn’t hear music until the afternoon, when the grooves of World’s Finest caught my ear from the coffee bar above the Cascadia stage. This area later in the afternoon provided a relaxed environment to sip a beer and listen to some singer-songwriters in front of the couches next to the bar before heading to the mainstage for the distinguished Steep Canyon Rangers.


When the time came for the YMSB Saturday night showcase, all the families set up blankets and chairs along the ampitheater’s hills. The music started off as any other Yonder set, as they eased the crowd in with their own songs before taking a hard turn on the sound they’ve built for almost two decades.

The outspoken bassist, Ben Kaufmann, called out keyboardist Asher Fulero and Jay Elliott on drums and played to warm up songs before a quick break. When they came back, the music eased its way into the beginning of “Pigs on the Wing 1.” Soon enough, the signature sounds of Pink Floyd were heightened by layers and layers of strings. The fiddle solo felt as natural as the guitar on the album and the mandolin and banjo provided more atmosphere than I knew existed. Vibrant lights were dancing on the trees and beaming through the audience, all while three giant pig heads floated through the pit floor and people with glow-in-the-dark slingshots were catapulting neon beach balls into the crowd. It was chaos to the finest degree; the type of insanity people who spend large portions of their paychecks on concert tickets live for.


Sunday, everyone (I talked to) woke up with a bit of disbelief. The wild but fuzzy memories of the String Summit provided doubt that it actually happened. Not just the night before, but the prior three days. And there was still another day left! It was as real as it gets, though, and Rabbit Wilde was slated for a 12:30 slot, followed by the electronic dance party known as Yak Attack. The big stage was swinging big by the afternoon. Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel played Grateful Dead hymns before Yonder came on and played a pre-dusk closing set to round out the weekend.

When I got to my car for the ride home, the first thing I did was find a calming bluegrass song to play. So either I like bluegrass a lot more than I thought I did, or String Summit put together a lineup much more diverse than expected. Very few of the bands are traditional bluegrass (in the eyes of the purist), but everyone I saw knew how to have a good time.


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Colin Hudson

Colin has been reviewing and writing about music in the Pacific Northwest for three years. His background lies heavily within funk and blues, but has explored new depths since moving away from his hometown in Indiana. Now, Colin is up to just about any genre and has contributed for a number of local, regional, and national publications including The Deli Portland, Oregon Music News, SSG Music, InTheMix, and The Untz. In his spare time Colin enjoys wearing sunglasses all the time and pondering about the awesome mustache he used to have.

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