The 18th annual Northwest String Summit kicks off on July 18th. Hosted by Yonder Mountain String Band, this year’s String Summit features both long-time participants (Infamous Stringdusters, Danny Barnes, Fruition, Benny “Burle” Galloway) and some exciting newcomers (Dark Star Orchestra, Ghost Light, Trampled By Turtles). With the gates opening in just a few short days, we slipped a few questions in front of co-owner and promoter Skye McDonald.
Before we get to the specifics of this year’s Northwest String Summit, I’d like to give you a chance, if you’d like, to give some thoughts on the passing of Jeff Austin. Although he hasn’t been a member of Yonder Mountain String Band for several years, many Kinfolk have been deeply affected by the news of his death.
It is tragic. Benny “Burle” Galloway said to me recently that “when you’re that kind of brilliant you have a tendency to burn bright and hot, and sometimes fast.” That pretty much sums it up. YMSB was (and is) a pioneer of this music. Their early sound and tunes along with Jeff’s infectious energy and quirkiness drew us in and endeared us to them, creating the Kinfolk scene that persists. This community has blossomed and expanded to become a huge scene including bands that have catapulted beyond what was imaginable. The Kinfolk community is what it’s all about and Jeff leaves us that as part of his legacy. Many of my current best friends (including my wife) I met in this Kinfolk community….it is family in so many ways and will certainly keep on going…
This year’s lineup is really diverse. Is it hard to keep things fresh, while still having the top tier bands in string music (like Infamous Stringdusters) coming back year after year? Is the expanded diversity due to personal desire, a necessity to keep things fresh, or both?
Yes and yes. My partner Gregg and I try very hard to balance the two, as well as balance staples and take risks on new music. There are the core bands like the Stringdusters, Greensky, Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, which we have to find balance in yearly as well. We also love having a dance party at the end of each night, and that is very exciting this year. Galactic, Pigeons, DSO, Dirty Revival, Fruition all will have people moving late, after a full day of strings.
The yearly String Summit band competition has proven to be a launching pad for up-and-coming acts. How many entries do you get each year? Who is in charge of picking the finalists?
It constantly surprises and amazes us how many bands and how much good international talent enter the Band Competition. This year, we had 76 unique entries from 4-5 different countries, which we have to narrow down to only 5 finalists. There are three of us (Gregg, Pastor Tim, and myself) that get tasked with this – we each listen independently to them all, base our funnel on strict criteria such as the requisite to leave open the date of competition, provide music that would be performed as close to as you’d be able to perform on our Main Stage (single condenser mic, no Dis). We then meet with each of our top 10-12 and compare and contrast until we come down to the top 4. The fifth finalist is chosen by fans who get to decide between 4 bands. The most votes on a youtube video/song wins the fifth spot. It is a lot of fun! The actual competition breeds such unique community and energy that it’s become a highly anticipated portion of the festival – plus the winners get a slot on Sunday of the current year’s event and an invite to the next year’s festival.
In addition to all the music and eye candy offered at String Summit, there are always some unrehearsed, standout moments. For example, I will always remember when Yonder brought down the music and the lights so we could all watch the International Space Station fly over. What have been some of your favorite, unplanned moments?
Wow, that is a tough question….. Ha! There was the naked guy incident from NWSS #2 (I think) during Yonder’s set where a young man jumped up on stage bearing all, right in front of Jeff Austin and Adam Aijala. He proceeded to dance almost reminiscent of the naked pole dancer guy from the Dead’s Veneta, OR 8.27.72 show. The look on Jeff’s face was priceless!
Or in 2012 when the Main Stage generator blew its belt shutting down the PA and lights within the last hour of the last set on a Sunday. Quickly it became evident that our audible would have to be something vastly pared down, which ended up being Yonder doing one of their famous (nearly) unplugged intimate sets to close out the festival – classic turning lemons into lemonade.
What are some of the musical standouts from years past?
Musically we stack it with players to create and encourage one-of-a-kind collaborations and playshops that, although we select the ingredients, the finished product far exceeds expectations and elevates the energy well beyond. Such as our Fallen Heroes tribute sets to recently fallen musical heroes (Tom Petty, Prince, Chuck Berry, David Bowie, Gregg Allman and so on).
Or New Riders of the Purple Sage’s last show with Marmaduke was at NWSS.
Yonder performing Franklin’s Tower with the Rhythm Devils, Scott Law and Keller Williams will always be a highlight.
Greensky Plays & Sings Bluegrass down at Cascadia will go down as one of the most unique (packed) sets ever at NWSS.
Who are you most looking forward to hearing this year?
Well, naturally I look forward to all of them, but some that have really caught my ear and I look forward to sharing with our devoted and enthusiastic patrons (most of whom come to find their next favorite bands) are Ghost Light, River Whyless, Ley Line, Ayla Nereo, Steve Poltz full band set! I am REALLY excited for Yonder’s sets knowing that there are some timeless sets coming. DSO performing much of what has been called one of the best Dead shows ever, Veneta 8.27.72 – they won’t be able to play it all, but we’ll get the spirit of it.
Of course I am a huge Dusters fan and stoked to hear their new tunes, they always bring it! It’s Trampled By Turtles first NWSS, too! I could talk up all the bands for real.
How do you picture the future of Northwest String Summit unfolding in the years to come?
We love co-creating this event and realize there is a choice of festivals now more than ever. We want to continue to set ourselves apart by offering as authentic an experience as we can through human connection and community. We like to say very accurately, when you come to NWSS and descend into the Horning’s canyon, you have to disconnect to reconnect. As I said, this Kinfolk Community and its greater musical family has become so much to so many people and that is the magic that propels us into the future.
We do want to become more sustainable with our footprint and impact both environmentally as well as casually – festivals are such a great place to spread the word and create action for many great causes. I’d like to see those become more of a centerpiece of the event going forward, too.
Northwest String Summit takes place Thu, Jul 18, 2019 – Sun, Jul 21, 2019 at Horning’s Hideout in North Plains, OR. For tickets, lineup and more visit stringsummit.com.