The immediate appeal of the Montana Rockies Bluegrass Association’s (MRBA) Spring Bluegrass Festival is communicable in numbers: one microphone, one stage, 18 bands, more than 11 hours of music, a half-dozen—sometimes more—breakout rooms for separate jam sessions and just a $5 cover charge. The seventh annual event, which takes place in the modest confines of the Stevensville School’s multipurpose room, is billed as a showcase and fund-raiser for MRBA, but more than anything it’s become an all-access pass to a day-long bluegrass binge.
“It’s a down-home event with a real reunion, family feel to it,” says bassist, guitarist and vocalist Ted Lowe, who’ll be performing with three different bands during this year’s event. “Here’s what it’s like: in a lot of ways it’s like showing up to a big jam session rather than a big performance.”
This year’s lineup includes bands from Washington, Idaho and Montana, including Dusty Miller, Left Over Biscuits, Too Hot to Handle, Gravely Mountain Boys, Ramblin’ Rose and local favorites Broken Valley Roadshow. Each band is alloted 30 minutes at the main microphone, and their sets are recorded, with the best songs selected afterward for inclusion on a compilation to be sold by MRBA. Before and after musicians play their sets, they’re invited to jam in breakout rooms located throughout the school, which are also open to ticket buyers.
“I think that’s maybe the best part,” says Lowe. “You can sneak back, circulate at will in a real relaxed and informal atmosphere. Last year, the weather was so nice we all decided to just jam outside.”
The Festival just yodels of an it’s-all-good, apple-pie-and-moonshine, dusty-front-porch vibe, and that’s exactly how organizer Ben Essary likes it. The Stevensville School was chosen not only because it has decent acoustics, but mainly because it’s a laid-back, flexible and central location. The lineup features some of the area’s best musicians, but the day starts off with a set dedicated to kids playing bluegrass, with any child 18 years old or younger invited to participate.
“We don’t always expect polished performances,” says Essary of MRBA’s largest event of the year, “but we do expect to showcase and promote the area’s bluegrass music, young and old.”
For Lowe, that means being prepared for anything. The last two years he’s played with pick-up groups he’d never even practiced with before.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of e-mailing a list of songs and saying, ‘See you there,’” he explains. “It sounds loose, but what’s going on there is just that you have some seriously fabulous musicians who maybe don’t always have the chance to play together. This is our chance to get together and let folks watch.”
The Montana Rockies Bluegrass Association’s Spring Bluegrass Festival takes place Saturday, April 8, starting at noon in the Stevensville School’s multipurpose room. $5, or $3 for MRBA members.