Grand Targhee Bluegrass Camp and Festival

August 2007

ukbluegrass recently spent a week at the Grand Targhee Bluegrass Music Camp and the 20th Annual Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival, twin back-to-back events hosted by the Grand Targhee Resort, near the Wyoming/Idaho border and 8000 feet up in the Rockies.

Great music, people and weather all added up to make this one of the best experiences you can imagine, completely blowing away the preconceptions we had of how things are done in the States.

The Camp

First up was the camp which promised “3.5 days of high level instruction” from such luminaries as Mike Marshall (mandolin), Tony Trischka (banjo), Brian Wicklund (fiddle), Scott Nygaard (guitar), and Eric Thorin (bass). The teaching staff was backed by regular UK visitors John Lowell and Ben Winship, who was running the show. With the standard of tutors on offer this was always going to be top quality event.

Grand Targhee scenery
The Grand Tetons – backdrop to the camp and festival

A comparison with the UK’s own famous camp was somewhat inevitable and if you think Sore Fingers with altitude sickness you’re along the right lines. The week was played out with the best possible humour and a close, friendly atmosphere that will be familiar to all SF students. It speaks volumes that in only its second year the camp had already grown two-fold on the 2006 event, although there were still only 40 or so students. The low numbers meant us “English freaks” were able to fit-in from the off, and we were overwhelmed by the level of generosity and friendship that we encountered from both the students and staff.

Classes began on the Tuesday morning, but instrument lessons were kept short and sweet to allow time for other activities. Afternoons were mostly taken up with elective workshops on a broad range of topics such as songwriting, harmony singing, improvisation and music theory. There were also several structured jams, and in the evenings the tutors and their friends made special effort to ensure everybody could be involved in the informal sessions.

Grand Targhee workshop
Fiddle and banjo workshop

Accommodation was the resort’s ski lodge with private rooms and plenty of space for any accompanying non-musical family members. In summer the resort hosts such diverse activities as hiking, horse riding, disc golf and climbing. There are bikes for hire and facilities such as a swimming pool, hot tubs and a ski lift which takes passengers to stunning views of the Grand Teton mountain range. Plenty to keep you busy during the camp’s quieter moments.

All meals were provided, with the food of a surprisingly high standard. We enjoyed the likes of salmon, pasta and plenty of fresh fruit and veg. Another stereotype was shattered by the beer on offer, which was exceptional. The choice included several examples from the Grand Teton Brewing Company, a local brewery that makes some of the finest ales you’ll find anywhere. To make things even better, those participating in the late-night jamming in the resort’s bar were often treated to free samples by the staff and other punters.

Grand Targhee mountaintop jam
“High on a Mountain Top” jam session

On Thursday afternoon all the musicians rode the ski lift for a mountain top jam at 10000 feet. Sadly, nobody was brave enough to try and carry a bass on the lift, but the session was a truly memorable experience nonetheless. Predictably, we played songs about mountains and sitting on top of the world before heading back down to attend the tutor concert which was taking place in the local “blooming metropolis” of Driggs.

Sore Fingers regulars would recognise the format and quality of the concert, which was part of a series of free gigs held in this small town. Being at a relatively low 6000 feet, it also gave us the chance to breathe some refreshing low-altitude air! Despite some hilarious sound problems, including but not limited to mic stands collapsing, mics being turned on and off at random and some interesting use of effects, the tutors put on a great show and were clearly enjoying themselves. They played in a number of different line-ups, before all coming on stage together for a rousing finale.

Grand Targhee tutor concert
Tutor concert in downtown Driggs

After the concert we stayed up long into the night chatting with the tutors. The good news is they all know about the British bluegrass scene, and those that haven’t been to Sore Fingers yet are keen to check it out. We also helped to expand their vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon expletives and football chants but the less said about that the better. For laid-back fun, Grand Targhee is completely on a par with Sore Fingers!

The camp closed on the Friday afternoon with the student concert, an informal yet high quality event. Many students participated despite zero rehearsal time, and in a tiny room surrounded by some of bluegrass’s most talented musicians it was easy to understand why some found this more nerve-racking than a full-blown gig.

Grand Targhee student concert
Student concert

Ben laid on yet more free beer which was gratefully and quickly consumed, before we had a final rehearsal for our appearance on the festival stage that afternoon. Yep, the camp students were going to be the warm-up act for Yonder Mountain String Band!

And then it was over. It had all finished so soon, but there was no time for feeling sad, as we were joined by over 2,000 more bluegrass fans for the weekend’s festival!

The Festival

If you prefer your bluegrass to be traditional, sober, and staid then Grand Targhee probably isn’t the event for you. Indeed, if you prefer your bluegrass to be “bluegrass” this festival might not be for you.

Dancing high on the side of a Wyoming mountain with 2,500 other young music fans, watching an electric Sam Bush Band belting out Whole Lotta Love, a suspiciously herbal funk wafting over the crowd and the Perseid meteorites whizzing overhead, it would be easy to forget that this was a bluegrass festival at all.

We reckon that most Brits would love this event. If you can put up with the jet-lag and travel and you like all kinds of acoustic music and stunning outdoor scenery then do try to check this one out.

Grand Targhee festival
The festival stage and crowd

With all sorts of newgrass, jazzgrass, jamgrass, rockgrass and even a little country on the bill, the eclectic line-up had attracted a much younger crowd than seen at British bluegrass events with an average age somewhere in the thirties. Acts included Yonder Mountain String Band, Seldom Scene, The Sam Bush Band and David Grisman (with both his Bluegrass Experience and Quintet), not to mention the many groups provided by the camp instructors.

The bill was kept to only 5 or 6 bands each day, meaning most got to play a full-length set – a treat for those of us who rarely see musicians of this calibre. There was plenty of dancing, hollering and even moshing at the front of the crowd, but not once did the atmosphere change from friendly and family-orientated.

Friday night headliners were Yonder Mountain String Band, but they couldn’t appear until us camp students had our moment of glory. We all took to the stage with our tutors and belted out an out-of-tune Turkey in the Straw and an (approximately) in-tune I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home. The crowd wanted YMSB, but we still got a few whoops and even a bit of pogoing for our efforts.

Grand Targhee - Yonder Mountain String Band
Yonder Mountain String Band

Highlights throughout the weekend were many and varied. From YMSB’s energetic, youthful set to Sam Bush’s comic frontman antics (expect him to run for office next year on a Bush/Clinton Presidential ticket – George Clinton, that is – backed by Grisman as Secretary of Agriculture), not forgetting simply wonderful musical offerings from the likes of Kane’s River, Brother Mule and Tony Trischka.

The biggest surprise for us was the David Grisman Quintet whose show was an example of sublime musicianship and the purest tone, with only occasional forays into muzak territory. The perfect soundtrack for chilling out on a Sunday afternoon.

The music didn’t end with the headline acts – on the Friday and Saturday there were also special, small-scale performances in the bar late into the night, including one by Casey Driessen. We’d bumped into him earlier on and he seemed slightly confused to see us on the other side of the planet from where we’d last met at Sore Fingers.

Grand Targhee - Kane's River
Kane’s River

This festival was no place for the bluegrass police, with many bands using drum kits and other weird non-bluegrass instruments including flutes and pedal steels. Scott Vestal also made great use of his banjo synthesiser, lending a Hammond organ vibe to The Sam Bush Band’s set.

Away from the stage there was a good selection of stalls, including various clothing (lots of tie-dye for the hippies), instruments and plenty of hats to keep off the intense sunshine. Food available included the typical hamburgers and pizza along with more unusual efforts such as carnitas and rather tasty elk burgers. And, of course, there was yet more beer from the Grand Teton company (we recommend Bitch Creek ale and Workhorse wheat beer).

Grand Targhee - Bush and Grisman
Sam Bush and David Grisman

As for picking, there was plenty going on around the camp grounds, but with such good bands on stage we rarely got involved. Being 8000 feet up the nights were cold and only the bravest souls were playing after sunset.

On the Sunday night, Grisman and co set up a jam in the resort lodge which attracted a crowd of idolising onlookers. It was at this point that we had to say goodbye to the new friends we had made and so in we waded, into the most heavyweight session we had ever seen, and started hugging the various tutors and fellow students who had made our stay so memorable. The Dawg didn’t seem to mind too much…