A Decade of Bringing Bluegrass to the North

Photo: Bruce Barrett
II by Leighann Chalykoff II
Summer 2012 (V6I2)

It’s a Sunday morning in early spring, and the Mt. Lorne Community Centre is full to capacity. Folks came out for the breakfast--eggs, sausages, and blueberry scones--and also for the music. Amid the clink of forks hitting plates and friendly chatter, a five- piece bluegrass group called The Bennett Sun--named for the newspaper printed at Bennett, B.C., during the Klondike Gold Rush, which later became the Whitehorse Star--takes the small makeshift stage to enchant and entertain the audience. 

   “This is a Dylan song,” says ukulele player Roslyn Wilson. “You’ll recognize it …I hope.” The audience laughs, and the band begins a peppy version of Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.

   The Bennett Sun first made an appearance on the Yukon music scene two years ago at the Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival after coming together as a band during the Bluegrass Camp. In 2011, they won the festival’s showcase competition for new acts, earning a spot on the mainstage at this year’s event.

   Though the members of this fledgling band take pleasure in the weekly rehearsals at each other’s homes (usually following a nice dinner), the win fueled their motivation to play more public shows. And as The Bennett Sun gears up for its first main-stage concert, the Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival prepares for a milestone of its own--this summer marks its tenth anniversary.

   A decade ago the festival began in Haines Junction with a group of friends--Bob and Caroline Hayes, Harvey and Anne Jessup, and Bruce Beaton--and a simple notion: “We played bluegrass music and we thought it might be a good idea to have a festival,” says Bob Hayes, “but we really didn’t know a lot about music festivals when we started.”

   Over the years, it became a wild success, with weekend passes selling out quickly each year. As the festival grew, the organizers and volunteers learned the ropes and put in a lot of hard labour.

   “A festival rests on three legs: the music, the audience, and the volunteers,” says Hayes, adding that most volunteers put in 36 hours over a festival weekend. “You do it because you get a huge amount of satisfaction and comfort and joy from doing something together.”

   From the beginning, the point was to build a family-oriented community event. There is no alcohol sold at the festival, which Hayes believes makes it easy for businesses to support the affair. (A whopping 80 percent of the festival’s funding comes from sponsor- ships.)

   After eight years, the festival had outgrown its home at the St. Elias Convention Centre, in Haines Junction. With most of the volunteers and the audience coming from Whitehorse, it made sense to move the event to the city and the larger theatre at the Yukon Arts Centre.

   As Hayes talks about his years with the festival, he becomes nostalgic. “Why don’t I keep doing it if it’s so bloody good?” he jokes, but is sure to emphasize that he was happy to hand off the festival to a new slate of volunteers, in 2011. Those volunteers plan to keep the Bluegrass Camp and festival going strong as long as Yukoners are interested in fingerpicking banjos and three-part harmonies under the midnight sun.

    Bluegrass music--with its roots in Appalachia--may not seem like a natural fit for the Yukon, but the genre is expanding and finding fresh audiences, says Steve Gedrose, producer of this year’s festival. “New generations of musicians have gotten hold of the traditional bluegrass instruments and are making the music their own.”

   Even though the bluegrass sound has evolved, some of the original tenants of the genre remain strong. For example, murder ballads--traditional British songs about the demise of an individual--and songs about heartache and hard times are still bluegrass festival favourites.

   “The bands will joke about it,” says Gedrose with a laugh. “They’ll say, ‘Here’s another cheery murder ballad.’” Despite the rip-your-heart-out lyrics, the songs are played in an upbeat way, the musicians are smiling, and, most importantly, it’s hard to be sad when listening to the banjo.

   As proof, Gedrose points to the words of Charles Shultz, creator of “Peanuts.” “As soon as a child is born, he or she should be issued a dog and a banjo,”  Charlie Brown tells his schoolteacher in one of the newspaper comic strips. “That’s right, a family of eight …eight dogs and eight banjos. Ma’am … we’re talking happiness here.”

   That happiness and positive energy has drawn many people to the bluegrass genre, both as musicians and as audience members. “It completely shifted how I thought about music,” says Paula Pawlovich, who was trained a classical violinist but found it unsatisfying. Her violin changed into a fiddle when she signed up for last year’s Bluegrass Camp and fell strings over fretboard in love.

   “With the violin, you had to play with an orchestra or a quartet--it always had to be planned,” she says. “But with fiddling you can jam around the campfire and you can play with anybody.”

   Charged up after her experience at the camp, Pawlovich went to the festival and volunteered. Now, as the new president of the Yukon Bluegrass Society, she will lead the festival into its next decade.

   Although the Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival attracts top bands from the U.S., it’s not just about celebrating the leaders of the genre. The organizers wanted more, so they devised a way to get local people, like Pawlovich, interested in bluegrass and playing the music.

   The Yukon Bluegrass Music Society started a Slow Jam Series, where musicians of all skill levels get together and play for fun. A few years later, they added the Bluegrass Camp, where members of the Outside bands coming to the Yukon for the festival teach fiddle, bass, guitar, mandolin, banjo, and vocal harmonies.

   The beauty of bluegrass is that musicians do not need a lot of technical knowledge to start making music, says Gedrose. Many of the songs are made up of just three chords, and those chords are not complex. He adds that bluegrass is also generally very inclusive.

   “The fancy bands that come up to play are open to jamming with local people and showing them licks.”

   The professional musicians and their local students spend four days together at a retreat. There are classes in the mornings and afternoons and long jams around the campfire that run late into the night.

   Over the years, the camp has introduced a community of local musicians to bluegrass and spawned a number of local bands, including The Bennett Sun. It has also left a fond and lasting impression on many of the professionals who have come in to teach.

   The Gibson Brothers played the 2011 festival, and the band’s banjo picker, Eric Gibson, was one of the musicians who came to the Yukon early for the camp.

   “I’ve been playing music professionally since 1993, and that was one of the best weeks I have ever had making music,” says Gibson, on the telephone from his home in upstate New York. “I don’t mean to gush, and I am not blowing smoke--it was just a great experience.

   “We’re from the States, and when you think of the Yukon, you think of bears, so I was always looking over my shoulder. I don’t mean to sound like a scaredy-cat, but it was exhilarating to be up there.”

   On one beautiful afternoon, Gibson took a bike ride down to the Yukon River. While he was enjoying the amazing scenery, a golden eagle appeared out of nowhere. “My next thought was What if a grizzly appears out of nowhere? I’m in my 40s, but I made it back to camp on that bike pretty quick,” he says.

   During the camp, Gibson led a class of six students on the banjo. “It felt like everybody was there to learn--there were no egos,” he says. “I’ve done other classes where the students just want to show you how much they know, and it wasn’t like that at all.”

   After winning the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Album of the Year and Vocal Group of the Year awards in 2011, the Gibson Brothers will make an encore performance at the camp and at the festival in 2012, and Gibson is already excited.

   “If this year’s experience is half as great as last year, I’ll be happy,” he says.

   The 10th anniversary Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival will take place at the Yukon Arts Centre from June
8–10, 2012. The Bluegrass Camp runs from June 4–8 at the Sundog Retreat. Visit yukonbluegrass.com for more information. Y


Harper Street Publishing
Box 141
Carcross, Yukon Y0B 1B0

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