Stevens Point Bluegrass Scene: More than Meets the Eye
Brian Luedtke
Bluegrass has been a facet of the Stevens Point music scene since the 1970s with roots as deep as Mandolin Club in the early 1900s. Through events like the Wednesday night open mic at Northland Ballroom in Iola, Wisconsin, and the upcoming Save the Penokee Spring Fest at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, local and student bluegrass groups have been able to grow with a strong following turning culture, the 'grasser.'
Before one can understand the grasser it is important to understand the bluegrass upon which the grasser feeds.
Sam Odin, philosophy major at UWSP and member of Horseshoes and Handgrenades, described bluegrass as being full of, “Banjos, fiddles, high-tonal quality and not a lot of the lower end, soulful, kind of stuff ... Not a whole lot of funky funk.”
Local bluegrass bands such as Horseshoes and Handgrenades have risen in
popularity across the region and the state. Photo by Rachel Hanson.
Bluegrass is especially well-suited for live performances in small venues where rock performances would be prohibitively loud. There are also standard songs that are commonly played live that each band puts their own twist on.
“It is an Appalachian musical style ... But it is very musically interesting. It’s got great solos, it’s got that syncopated five-string banjo, it’s got the searing fiddle and the hard mandolin drive – the chop,” said Art Stevenson, of Art Stevenson and High Water. “It’s got a natural beat that you can dance to.”
“I think that everybody agrees that traditional bluegrass sound is pretty much from Bill Monroe's bluegrass boys and most bluegrass bands today base their sound on something that derives from that, whether they are traditional or not.” Stevenson said.
Stevenson, who saw Earl Scruggs and Basser Clements at his high school gym in Stevens Point in 1976, has grown up with bluegrass.
“In the late 1970s there were all kinds of bluegrass bands touring in Wisconsin. So it caught on here, because it is such good music, it couldn't stay in the South,” Stevenson said.
If you have seen bluegrass live you know that it becomes quite apparent when good bluegrass is being played; it is as if someone coated the floor with bubble wrap and offered a prize to the person who pops the most bubbles. People flock to the floor and begin joyfully stomping around with the tempo of the music.
“I think that it makes a pretty cool community. The whole group of people that are either playing bluegrass around here or even going to shows and stuff are awesome people. It extends past just the music,” said Rachel Hanson, a sophomore at UWSP and member of The Back Alley Blossoms. “When I found Northland and that whole crew, I kind of feel like I found my spot, you know?”
Many friendships are made through the music, creating a group very similar to a large family, where everyone knows everyone and the atmosphere is very inclusive. Jam sessions are open to anyone who is able to play and contribute something. Often the music is supplemented with a potluck of sorts and fine beverages.
“I really think that because it is a rural setting, a small town rural setting, people kind of resonate with the bluegrass because of that. It just, kind of, makes them feel like they are home,” Stevenson said.