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Wintergrass: 4-day festival is heaven for bluegrass fans

Patrick MacDonald
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE - They're pickin' here, they're pickin' there, they're pickin' everywhere at Wintergrass, Tacoma's annual total immersion into bluegrass music.

There's nothing quite like it anywhere in the world. One of the biggest and best bluegrass festivals, it attracts not just fans but also musicians - by the thousands. Instruments in hand, they swarm all over the Tacoma Sheraton, the official headquarters, where jam sessions break out in the lobby, mezzanine, hallways, restaurants, parking lots, rooms and suites. Step into an elevator and you're likely to get serenaded all the way to your floor.

The amateurs are inspired by the professionals, and this time they have some major ones to experience. Jerry Douglas, the brilliant dobro player - probably the best ever - is coming with his band. Douglas, whose playing is so sweet, strong and moving it's otherworldly, is best known as a member of bluegrass' most popular group, Alison Krauss & Union Station. He's been featured on albums by a variety of top artists, including Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Garth Brooks, James Taylor and Phish.

Chris Thile, the lively young mandolin player from Nickel Creek, will perform with his band, featuring acclaimed guitarist Bryan Sutton, and he'll also jam with fellow top mandolinists Mike Marshall and Brazil's Hamilton de Holanda. Featured bands with international reputations include Doyle Larson & Quicksilver, Hot Buttered Rum, Blue Highway, Uncle Earl, the Gibson Brothers and the Greencards.

Regional favorites are also on the bill, including Jo Miller & Her Burly Roughnecks, Runaway Train, Mike Dowling and Deadwood Revival.

Some 30 bands and 200 musicians will perform on five stages during the four-day festival, which begins Thursday.

Registrants get wristbands that grant full access to all shows. Day passes are also available, but no tickets to individual shows.

But even if you're not registered for Wintergrass or have a day pass, that's no reason not to head down to the Sheraton. In addition to the music busting out all over, more than two dozen vendors will be there with displays of beautiful instruments, as well as everything else a bluegrass fan may desire, from strings and bows to books and magazines.

The busy festival also includes workshops, a youth academy and rollicking dances on Friday and Saturday nights, which turn into great parties.

Wintergrass is a Northwest treasure. If you love bluegrass, or any kind of old-timey, folk/country music, you'll love Wintergrass.

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