Northwest String Summit – A Decade Retrospective

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When an annual musical event crosses over the “decade” line of yearly operations, it moves from to the status of a festival to the status as a summer music institution. The Northwest String Summit, which takes place at Horning’s Hideout near Portland Oregon from July 21st-24th, is about to cross that threshold to become an institution and solidify its’ status as a must see event for any fan of bluegrass music and a great time.

This year’s lineup brings a variety of nationally renowned acts to the magnificent woods of Horning’s Hideout.  Joining the ever so gracious host band, Yonder Mountain String Band, will be: Railroad Earth, Keller and the Keels and the Emmitt Nershi band, Greensky Bluegrass as well as many others. This year will celebrate the 10-year anniversary, and once again this year’s festival lineup seems destined for greatness.

It seems only appropriate that as we near the 10-year celebration, that we take a look back at the years gone by. I have been lucky enough to have witnessed all of them so far, and with that being said, here is my personal list of my 10 greatest moments of String Summits past. For the record, they are in no particular order.

2008 Leftover Salmon Reunion – This may have been my all time favorite moment, as all the remaining members of L.O.S. got on stage together for the first time in 8 years to help us dance the night away in an incredibly touching fashion. The Strummit is known as a place for constant collaboration, and this night was a perfect example of the power of music. Danny Barnes stood in for the late Mark Vann, and may have even been playing Vann’s banjo to honor him.  It was an unplanned reunion that manifested at the end of a Yonder set. The L.O.S. veterans led us through an impromptu run of staples such as "Fixin to Die," "Carnival Time," "Reuben’s Train," "Euphoria" and "Up on a Hill."

2010 The Invasion of the Futuristic Robots – Midway through the second set during YMSB’s cover of “Up on the Hill,” we were invaded by a variety of larger than life space robots created by Tyler Fuqua Creations. These giant puppets, with glowing lights pouring from their eyes and fingers, paraded through the crowd to our delight. If ever there was a synergistic balance between old-timey bluegrass and futuristic robots…this was it.

2008 Dinnertime Music – This one is a bit of a personal moment, but the beauty of N.W.S.S. is that the music is never limited to the stage. During the Sunday night feast I found myself standing in line with a plate in hand about the devour some delectable food at the pig roast. As I was waiting in line chatting away with friends, we had the good fortune of having two amazing guitarists, Bill Nershi from the String Cheese Incident, and local Portland guitarist Scott Law singing and jamming right next to us. It was one of those moments where I just can’t help but feel blessed, and I can safely say I never enjoyed waiting in line more than this.

2007 Raleigh & Spencer > Follow Me Down To The Riverside > Raleigh & Spencer – This was a down and dirty jam that left me literally breathless. The Horning’s Hideout bowl in front of the stage was turned into a dust storm as dancing folks kicked up some serious dirt. I tend to pride myself in my dancing stamina (not skill or grace to be sure) but this combination of tunes to close the first set was so ripping and fierce that upon completion I found myself with hands on hips fully winded.


2004 Sheriff Saga – Yonder’s first set that night happened to contain nothing but covers. I remember chatting about that with some friends at set break, and we thought it seemed odd but relatively unimportant. So to make sure they rectify the imbalance of covers to originals, YMSB decided to launch into bassist Ben Kaufmann’s Sheriff Saga, which is a multiple song story that depicts the tangled interactions of a criminal protagonist, a dark and corrupt Sheriff and his promiscuous wife. I was thrilled to hear this Rock-grass Opera live and it didn’t disappoint one bit. This show still gets steady play on my I-pod.

2010 Rhythm Devils and YMSB bringing the Dead back to Life – This was an epic moment for many in the crowd, and for some on the stage as well.  Following a set of music by Rhythm Devils, both Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann from the Grateful Dead sat in with YMSB to rock out a rambunctious New Speedway Boogie>Franklins Tower. The smiles onstage were huge and genuine, and Jeff Austin looked like a kid in the candy store as he played with some of his musical heroes.

2004 Classic Collaboration – As with most String Summits, the name of the game is collaboration. This year we were lucky enough to be graced with the legendary Del McCoury, and his sons Ronnie McCoury, Robbie McCoury, and longtime bandmate Jason Carter to play some incredible bluegrass. Sometimes YMSB has the ability to move into realms outside the traditional bluegrass sphere, and other times, such as this, they give homage to the musical roots that drive their inspiration. They led us through a run of  “Sideshow Blues”, “True Life Blues”, and  “Going Back To Kentucky.”

2002 Crazy Train – This is where it all begins. As Yonder took the stage for the first time at the String Summit at Horning’s Hideout, they decided to bring a bit of insanity to the mix. The rain had been falling hard all day, and the explosive nature of this opener set the scene for that festival and for future festivals perfectly. People came out of their makeshift shelters to dance our first dance with Y.M.S.B. at the N.W.S.S.   As the band shouted out the opening line of Crazy Train ,“All aboard!” , we did so oblige and have been riding the Strummit train ever since.

2009  “It’s a Bird, it’s a Plane…” – Nope, it is the I.S.S. space station flying overhead. This was one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever had at a show. Midway during the “No Expectations” jam, Jeff Austin, draws all of our attention to the sky as the manned space station flew overhead. It was hard to imagine that human beings were flying so high above us, and it was one of those moments of perspective that just made ya think about our place in the Universe.

2007 Drew Emmitt vs. Jeff Austin Duel – During the always epic superjam both Drew and Jeff wound up grabbing some musicians on their side of the stage, and a jam battle was to ensue. Each team tried to out jam the other team with some classic rock songs. The duel went back and forth, and the crowd went absolutely nuts. They ran through parts of covers such as "In-Da-Gadda-Da-Vida," Freebird, "Terrapin Station," and "Norwegian Wood” until Jeff’s team declared Drew’s team the victor. Funny enough, I think the audience really was the one who won that battle of the bands.

2009 Anders Beck and Pete Kartsounes Picking Late Into the Night – This is one of those moments that reminds you of what it is all about. I was chilling at my campground, well after the shows ended, deep in the Horning’s woods, and I heard a familiar sound of picking floating emanating from a near by campground. I decided to investigate, and I found Anders Beck from Greensky Bluegrass and Pete Kartsounes picking and singing their hearts out in my friends’ campground. It was a perfect way to end a full day of music, and it was one of those moments that reflect the true nature of the String Summit collaboration, spontaneity, and a good ole time for fans and musicians alike.

This list is in no way conclusive, but rather just a taste of some of the magic that goes down year to year at this festival. If you were to ask 10 other people for their list, you very easily could have a completely different list. I for one can’t wait to do it all again this year, and I hope by the time we make the 20th anniversary String Summit, that my list will be twice as long with memories not yet conceived.

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