The 37th annual Bowers Bluegrass Festival is returning in late August to the historic Bowers Mansion Regional Park for four days of pickin’ and grinnin’.
While bluegrass music is commonly associated with Appalachia or the American South, its impact is global and instantly recognized thanks to the hallmarks of the sound: acoustic string arrangements, a quick tempo and a performance style in which musicians play a shared refrain and take turns with solos.
The Bowers Bluegrass Festival connects folk and traditional music to Northern Nevada’s own historical heritage through its chosen site. Bowers Mansion was built in 1863 by Comstock millionaires Lemuel “Sandy” Bowers and his wife, Eilley Orrum Bowers. The height of wealth and refinement at the time it was built, the mansion and its surrounding grounds are now a regional park where guests can tour the historic house, picnic on the lawn and enjoy the public pool.
The festival is put on by the Northern Nevada Bluegrass Association, a nonprofit with the simple and laudable goal to “provide information, instruction, performances and support to the bluegrass and traditional music community in northern Nevada.” Throughout the year, NNBA is responsible for organizing regular jam sessions, hosting classes and providing membership resources like discounted fees for events and free instruction. The Bowers Bluegrass Festival is the biggest event on their calendar.
This year’s festival will feature jam-band-friendly camping arrangements and a chuckwagon supper at nearby Washoe Lake, a bluegrass gospel concert at the Davis Creek Amphitheater, and performances by 12 bands. This year’s headliner is the Grammy Award-nominated Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, who will take the main stage on Saturday, Aug. 26, at 5:15 p.m. Eight of the 12 bands represent Northern Nevada’s own bluegrass community.
“As folk musicians, we all keep track of where the festivals are, and it’s like our family reunion,” said Holly Sternberg.
A fiddle player since childhood, Sternberg is the only act billed as a solo performer, although she intends to bring her students with her to perform some of the music that earned her the champion’s title in the Nevada State Old-Time Fiddler’s Contest in Eureka.
Sternberg grew up taking violin lessons in Quincy, Calif., learning to play classical music before graduating to her favorite discipline: Celtic music.
“I love the nuances and the ornamentations that you can get in Celtic music,” she said. “I really love the nitty gritty, minor, sad, mournful kind of sound you can find in Celtic music.”
After landing in Reno for college, Sternberg found out about the weekly Celtic jam sessions hosted at Ceol Irish Pub. This served as her introduction to what she considers a lively folk and traditional music scene in Reno—one that, in her experience, far outstrips even more populated cities.
“There are a ton of bluegrass players here in Reno,” Sternberg said. “And then there’s a little Celtic circle, and there’s a little old-timey circle. I’m really proud of Reno, because there’s hardly any of that in Vegas, and it’s huge, and hardly any of that in L.A., and it’s huge.”
Sternberg spent years ingraining herself in the folk music scene, becoming a part-time performer and full-time violin teacher. She’s played and recorded with other bands (including an upcoming album with her duo project, Fiddlers Two). While she’s the first to admit that bluegrass hasn’t always been her forte, her dedication to traditional folk music earned her a spot on the stage in August.
“We’re doing a lot of twin fiddling, though, which is really fun,” she said. “That’s where you have two fiddles, but one is playing melody, and one is playing either harmony or some kind of form of backing. It’s kind of cool, because a lot of times, you don’t see bands with more than one fiddler.”
While Sternberg and her students will explore some of the older styles of folk music surrounding the genre, bluegrass itself has plenty of modern practitioners. Another Reno band called Wheatstone Bridge has been performing for decades, recording originals and drawing inspiration from relatively modern artists.
“My favorite band in the world is Devo,” said Jill Marlene, songwriter, singer and co-founder of Wheatstone Bridge. “Our next album is going to be called Campfire Songs for the Apocalypse. That’s because we write Dixie Chicks songs about the shit of the world. They’re lullabies and kind of passion songs about the end of the world.”
Like Sternberg, Marlene entered the folk-music scene through Celtic music, although she said Wheatstone Bridge’s sound is more Americana-inspired. She is joined by guitarist and songwriter Steve Barron, singer and fiddler Amy Willoughby, mandolinist Zeke Griffin, percussionist Diana Ekins, banjo player Joseph Martini and bassist Jim Buehler.
Wheatstone Bridge got its start in the ’90s when Marlene met Barron, her songwriting partner. The lineup has changed and adapted over the years, but Marlene’s songwriting has been one of the through threads.
“I was a poet way before I was a songwriter,” she said. “Sometimes Steve comes with an idea and a first line, and then I’m like, ‘OK,’ and then I take 10 minutes, and we write it, and it’s good fun.”
In Marlene’s experience, serious bluegrass players in town all know each other, either by proximity or reputation, and traveling to bluegrass festivals and jam sessions, even in nearby states, is common. While some of her bandmates have attended and performed in the Bowers Bluegrass Festival in years past, this will be her first experience with the festival as either a guest or performer. To Marlene, bluegrass music’s blend of simplicity, heritage and technical skill offers the perfect vehicle for lyrics—calling the band’s catalog “therapy songs.”
“Bluegrass, there’s something ancient and mystical about it, and I feel like people are moved by that kind of sound,” Marlene said. “What messages can you send? How can you sneak those ideas in? How can you soften an idea for someone enough for it to hit their heart instead of hit their head?”
The fundamental connection to the nation’s musical spirit is a big draw for many bluegrass musicians.
“I really love the stories of bluegrass music and the cultural history of it that I think that we, as citizens of the United States, are most connected to,” said Brooke Chabot, guitarist and vocalist of Truckee-based band Rubicon Gold. “I feel like it’s the deepest root, along with blues, of our history.”
Rubicon Gold will also be playing at the Bowers Bluegrass Festival for the first time, and to Chabot and her bandmates Mick Melvin (bass and vocals), Peter Anderson (banjo and vocals) and Dave Zimmerman (mandolin and vocals), it’s a chance to meet and play with likeminded people outside of their Truckee bluegrass scene.
“I met all the guys in Rubicon Gold at the local bluegrass jam at Alibi Ale Works in Truckee on Sunday nights,” Chabot said. “We’ve been playing mainly in Truckee. We’ve had a couple of gigs in Incline Village, and we’re looking forward to recording. We have quite a few originals that we’ve put together.”
Rubicon Gold revels in its three- and four-part vocal harmonies, and aside from their originals, the band enjoys performing bluegrass renditions of popular songs from the ’80s and ’90s. Chabot said that the ability to meet and play live is integral to both their sound and bluegrass culture at large—even though they managed to keep the jam sessions going over Zoom during the pandemic.
“It can be very simple music, and you can pick up with almost anybody who knows it,” she said. “Everyone knows the same handful of songs that are a part of the collection. And it’s just a great way to connect with people. … You can just sit down and play the songs that everyone knows.”
To Chabot and many of the musicians attending Bowers Bluegrass Festival this year, the connection offered by the genre isn’t just reserved for the players.
“I think the authenticity of it, it’s just, really, the core of the genre,” Chabot said. “The feeling of it is going to be there, and it’s nothing but happy experiences for everyone.”
The Bowers Bluegrass Festival takes place Thursday, Aug. 24, through Sunday, Aug. 27, primarily at Bowers Mansion, 4005 Bowers Mansion Road, in New Washoe City. Tickets prices vary. For tickets or more information, visit www.nnba.org/bowersbluegrassfstival.