Wintergrass Festival 2018

Outside the Hyatt Regency in downtown Bellevue, it’s a damp, dark February evening as the city’s tech workers and mall shoppers pull up their hoods and tighten their scarves. But, inside, the jam is on as multigenerational bluegrass bands spring up impromptu in the hallways, landings, and just about anywhere they can find a spot to set up. Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2018, the Wintergrass Festival descends on Bellevue February 22-25 with a musical culture of the community, collaboration, education, and fun.

Wintergrass is a prime example of how to instill arts and culture into a community better known for its corporate persona. A family-friendly event, the festival features 30 bands from the USA, Canada, and Sweden and offers 60 workshops ranging from “Banjo 101” to “How to Grow a Band.” Headliners like Ricky Scaggs, Sam Bush, and David Grisman mingle and even jam with attendees when not performing on stage.

“The sense of music is everywhere. It’s like watching a hive,” says Wintergrass development and publicity director Wendy Tyner.

Bluegrass comes in many iterations at Wintergrass including traditional, modern, “jazzgrass,” gospel, and country. Instructor Rushad Eggleston comes to bluegrass with his cello – unconventional instruments are welcome. Even attendees without instruments can join the fun thanks to a stash of harmonicas in a range of keys available to borrow.

The festival has prompted many award nominations including Director Beth Fortune’s 2015 Grammy nomination as best musical director for her work with Wintergrass and as a teacher at Washington Middle School. Wintergrass won Event of the Year in 2005 from the International Bluegrass Music Association. But, the festival is most proud of its educational component working with underserved youth. Nearly half of the kids are given scholarships to attend the festival and participate in group workshops, bands, and get to see accomplished musicians make bluegrass magic. And kids under 12 can attend for free regardless of participation in workshops.

Approximately 250 youth are served by the following programs: Pintgrass (ages 4-7), Youth Academy (ages 7-14), Youth orchestras (6 regional middle schools), and the Rock City Songsters (ages 16-20) including a mentoring program where they learn about sound, the stage, and marketing. Wintergrass founding executive director Patrice O’Neil has been the creative spark in creating educational programs to inspire young musicians, says Tyner.

The festival draws 12,000-16,000 visitors annually according to Tyner. In addition to attendees, that number includes a huge number of volunteers, some of whom receive teaching accreditation hours for their service. Currently, more than 80 percent of visitors come from the Puget Sound area, but the festival would like to see that demographic expand to include people from all of the Northwest, West Coast, and Alaska. They are also hoping that Bellevue residents increase their presence this year.

“We are proud to be in Bellevue,” says Tyner noting that the festival brings in 2-3 million dollars in revenue for local hotels and businesses. “People come for the festival and then stay and visit Bellevue museums, restaurants, and stores.”

Though headliner shows frequently sell out on Friday and Saturday nights, most of the bands play twice during the festival. Thursday night and Sunday generally have the capacity to sell more tickets. Children’s groups perform on Friday night and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets may be purchased for one day up to all four days of the festival with reduced prices for military, Canadians, and seniors.