OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — Music festivals around the country feature bluegrass and bluegrass-based bands in picturesque mountain environments. Events like Telluride Bluegrass Festival, High Sierra Music Festival, and many others draw huge crowds with an appealing combination of sound and scenery.
Now its Tahoe’s turn, as Squaw Valley hosts the inaugural Mountain of Strings on Saturday. The music festival will feature three nationally acclaimed bluegrass acts — Yonder Mountain String Band, the Del McCoury Band, and Tony Furtado.
Squaw Valley is teaming up with Crystal Bay Casino and local promoters Devil Dog Productions and Pet Projekts to hold the event.
“The idea is to create a signature bluegrass event in Squaw Valley around Yonder’s spring tour,” Pet Projekts Ryan Kronenberg told Lake Tahoe Action in March. “Tahoe doesn’t really have its own bluegrass thing.”
Due to weather concerns the festival was initially planned to take place in a large tent. With a clear forecast for the weekend however, the music will take place in open air on an outdoor stage, Kronenberg said.
“We’re excited,” he said. “It’s Yonder Mountain and Del; you can’t really go wrong with that.”
Yonder Mountain String Band going strong
Hailing from Nederland, Colo. Yonder Mountain String Band has been rocking audiences around the country for years with its unique bluegrass-based sound.
“We play Yonder Mountain music; that entails bluegrass and rock, some funky stuff, some heavy sound,” mandolin player Jeff Austin told Lake Tahoe Action in 2012.
YMSB is Austin and Dave Johnston (banjo), Adam Aijala (guitar) and Ben Kauffman (bass). The group formed out of group jams in Nederland in 1998.
“We were all just kind of living in the Front Range and going to these jams that they were having at little local bars,” Johnston said.
The four came together and developed a jamgrass sound that quickly developed a national demand. The group has been a fixture at music festivals around the country, including Telluride Bluegrass Festival and High Sierra Music Festival. The band holds its own festival, Northwest String Summit, in North Plains, Ore., each year in July.
Yonder Mountain String Band has been in studio recently, recording tracks for an upcoming album.
“We’re working out the new material,” Johnston said. “We’re making some headway on putting together a little EP, or maybe even something bigger than that.”
The band has also been on the road in recent months, drawing large crowds as usual. Johnston mentioned that an April 18 show in Seattle had sold out.
“I think that made like eight shows in a row that we’ve sold out, so we’re definitely getting some good momentum going on,” he said.
After 15 years together, the members of Yonder Mountain String Band are appreciative of what they’ve achieved.
“I think that behind it is basically the idea that no matter what obstacle or problems pop up we realize that we have something that is difficult or impossible to duplicate in another set of circumstances. We have a fundamental respect for what Yonder Mountain has accomplished,” Johnston said. “I think we’re doing a pretty good job of staying grounded.”
Del McCoury band makes bluegrass a family affair
Del McCoury has spent a lifetime playing bluegrass music. He played guitar and sang for Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in the early ‘60s, appearing with the group on the Grand Ole Opry. He then formed his own band, Del McCoury and the Dixie Pals. McCoury brought his sons Robbie (banjo) and Ronnie (mandolin) in to the group during the ‘80s, and changed the name to the Del McCoury Band in 1988.
“Personally, as a kid, I thought all kids’ dads did what mine did,” Ronnie McCoury told Lake Tahoe Action in 2011. “Dad started a band in 1966 and I was born in 1967, so I’ve always been around it.”
The family band developed nationwide notoriety in the ‘90s.
“In 1992, when I was in my 20s, we moved to Nashville,” Ronnnie McCoury said, “There was a cable show, ‘The Nashville Network,’ which played in a lot of homes around the country — country music and such. It was a chance for us to get out there, and, sure enough, as soon as we got here it all started clicking.”
The band received a Grammy nomination for “Best Bluegrass Album” in 2004. It won the same award two years later for the 2005 record “The Company We Keep.”
The three McCourys are joined by Alan Bartram (bass) and Jason Carter (fiddle).
Tony Furtado fell for banjo as a boy
For banjo prodigy Tony Furtado, a school assignment led to a lifelong passion for stringed instruments.
“Back in 1979 when I was about twelve years old, I had an intro to music class, and one of the projects was to do a report on a musical instrument and to make it out of household items,” Furtado told Lake Tahoe Action. “At the time I was pretty crafty with my hands. I ended up making a little banjo out of pie tin and paper, glued the paper on, painted it with paint and put it in the oven to flash dry it. I put some rubber bands on it for frets, and nylon fishing strings. I tuned all the strings to one note because I didn’t know better.”
Fascinated with the diverse history and application of the banjo, Furtado began playing the instrument. He developed quickly, earning praise from instructors and deepening his love for the banjo. He won the National Bluegrass Banjo Championship in both 1987 and 1991, earning national recognition.
Furtado played with folk musician Laurie Lewis’s band during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, before signing a deal with Rounder Records. He now performs both with a trio and as a solo artist. He has worked with many notable bluegrass artists, including Alison Krauss, Mike Marshall and Jerry Douglas.
While Furtado has spent much of his career in the bluegrass scene, his interests vary widely.
“I’m definitely not straight up bluegrass, I’m influenced by it,” Furtado said, mentioning his interest in blues, slide guitar and other musical areas.