Asked to describe the music festival known as Wintergrass, founder Patrice O'Neill puts it this way: "It's a total immersion bluegrass bash. You walk in the door, and you are confronted with a wall of music from the time your foot hits the lobby until the time you leave. There's music everywhere."
What makes Wintergrass different from other bluegrass festivals is easy to see amid all the banjos and Dobros. Simply put, it's held indoors, based at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Tacoma, Wash., about as far from the rural South as you can get. The musicians, fans and about 300 volunteers pretty much take over a section of the downtown area with five lively stages within walking distance of each other.
As a longtime mandolin picker in a number of bluegrass bands, Mountain Heart mandolinist Adam Steffey says, "It's not what we would expect, being from the Southeast where bluegrass started and still the biggest section in the country for it. But you go out there, and those people know all about it and about all the bands. They're current on everything."
"And the scenery doesn't hurt," adds Mountain Heart guitarist Steve Gulley. "You look out the window on the top floor of the hotel, and Mount Rainier is right there. It looks like you could reach out and touch it."
After such a positive experience in 2005, Mountain Heart happily accepted a return invitation to this year's Wintergrass, which kicks off Thursday (Feb. 23) and runs through Sunday. The eclectic lineup also features Bluegrass Etc., Shawn Camp, the John Cowan Band, Guy Clark, the Duhks, the Grascals, Randy Kohrs, Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum, Mike Marshall and Hamilton de Holanda, the Del McCoury Band, Psychograss, the Kenny & Amanda Smith Band, Uncle Earl and the Wilders, as well as many acoustic artists from the Northwest.
"I think it will be a really fun journey for people this year," O'Neill says. "It's actually my favorite lineup that we've ever done. There are a lot of people -- on the West Coast anyway -- that people haven't heard of because it takes awhile for things to drift out here. A lot of people who are up on stuff look at the lineup and say, 'Oh, who's that?' I say, 'You'll see. You'll like it.'"
In 1995, Bill Monroe himself walked into the hotel lobby, only to find a New York ensemble performing "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Without even taking his coat off, Big Mon put his luggage down and asked to sit in. Swarms of awestruck people started hanging over the balcony for a closer look.
"It was truly a moment," O'Neill recalls. "He sang the song with the band, took his hat off and took a bow. It took forever for him to get through the lobby because everyone wanted to talk to him. He had a pocket full of quarters he was giving out to kids. He was amazing."
Monroe's presence changed O'Neill's whole perspective of the genre.
"When I started working on the festival from the beginning [in 1993], I wasn't really a bluegrass person, so I didn't really know a lot about bluegrass," she says. "And I didn't know a lot about Bill Monroe, but I think watching him for those two years did more to turn my heart to it than anything. He was this frail, old man, and he just never quit. He jammed with people 'til who knows how long into the night."
O'Neill also enjoys watching suspicious music fans become devoted bluegrass followers over the course of a winter weekend -- even when the roster strays from strictly traditional bluegrass.
"It's my favorite thing to happen: to see them be surprised that they like it," she says. "People have this perception of what bluegrass is that generally is really wrong. I think one of the things that's really fun for us is to mix up styles and genres and stuff, so that we get jazz people and we get songwriter people and we get Celtic people and we get indie people in here. They think they're coming to see the one band that they like, and then they stumble onto something completely unexpected."
At the IBMA conference in Nashville last October, Wintergrass picked up the award for best bluegrass event. This year, O'Neill has urged fans to buy tickets in advance.
"It was very sad last year. We had people milling around registration looking for tickets to buy," she said. "We were like, 'Look, guys, we arrived! People are scalping our tickets!'"