Somewhere between the scattered flakes of snow settling on the peaks of Lake Tahoe the sounds of banjo, mandolin, guitar, and fiddle meandered into the open spaces of Olympic Valley.
My tired bones and sore legs have been no match for the feeling in my soul after this season’s long storm cycle. Ski, work, shovel, repeat has been the lifestyle. Luckily for all of us, Mother Nature decided to take a break to let us stretch and move our bodies in a different way.
On Friday, March 31, after finishing up my own personal powder cycle, I once again found myself walking to my truck with my ski boots on. I popped the trunk, grabbed a camping chair, cracked a cold one, and threw on a pearl snap shirt before sauntering to the gate.
Sweet relief was about to envelop me by the name of WinterWonderGrass. Finding its way to Olympic Valley in 2015, this staple bluegrass festival has always signified the true start of spring in the mountains. This year in particular the idea of spring is a bit of a catch-22. While many of us would love to keep skiing powder day-after-powder day for the rest of our lives, the idea of springtime couldn’t come sooner for many folks.
Festivalgoers slowly trickled in on day one as sound checks turned into live sets of music. The early crowd entered straight off the slopes in ski bibs and those same winter boots that have been in our quiver this winter. Like Tahoe roads, a handful of deep potholes on the festival floor held muddy puddles from our most recent storm.
The sun shined bright as a crisp breeze blew through the valley. The transition was seamless from hours on the slope to the free daily samplings of craft beer, seltzer, and wine. As I mentioned earlier, we all need an opportunity to loosen up a little. Friday’s daytime hours were held down by female pickers — one after the next, the ladies stole the show. Hailing from Boston, Massachusetts, the Grammy-nominated, all-woman string band Della Mae set the tone for the day.
From there, it was business as usual at WinterWonderGrass 2023. This well-oiled machine founded in Steamboat, Colorado, by Scotty Stoughton changed stages and acts without a hitch while bridging the gap between homegrown music, nature, and community.
Next up on the main stage was the Brooklyn-based group Lone Bellow, whose beautiful harmonies filled up the crowd. One of my favorite things about WinterWonderGrass is how compact the layout is. With a main stage and three picking tents only steps away, concertgoers need not walk a million miles to see all the music on the schedule. To make it even more pleasant, festival organizers made sure to have heat pumping into each of their music and drink tents.
Moseying into the Jamboree tent for the first time, I was knocked off my feet by Colorado-based Big Richard. This all-female power quartet wowed the jam-packed tent with a mix of bluegrass, pop, and good humor, and was my first surprise of the day.
The entire day felt like a family reunion. With our community basically buried under snow this winter, the festival felt like a coming out. Big hugs and huge smiles were seen all around as friends rejoined and rejoiced on what was a rare sunny day this winter in Tahoe.
Families pulled their little ones in wagons and the Kid Zone was packed to the gills with kiddos at play.
While the crowd thickened throughout Friday, the festival attire began to change. The early-day après-ski scene slowly morphed into that traditional NorCal party attire. Furry jackets, furry hats, and big boots took over as now Nashville-based Molly Tuttle brought down the house. Fresh off her Best New Artist win at the Grammy’s, Tuttle and her band, Golden Highway, donned their own beautiful coats and brought their Nashville sound to the base of Tram Face as the sun set over the Sierra.
The evening’s brisk temperatures were no match for the music heating up in the headliner slot. By 8:30 p.m. the area surrounding the stage was buzzing. Ongoing conversation and collective laughter turned all business as Greensky Bluegrass closed out the main stage. Ethereal psychedelic light beamed from the stage as their “New Grass” sound echoed off the surrounding mountains.
Topped off with numerous collaborations from friends and fellow musicians Jay Cobb, Lindsay Lou, and Cris Jacobs, the true family vibe was brought into full circle.
It’s a long weekend filled with music, libations, and celebration. While many headed home to rest up for the next couple of days at the festival, for others, the night was just getting started. With bands scattered around the village, and the festival’s “Grass After Dark” just heating up, the options were endless.
From there it’s dance, sleep, eat, and repeat, as Saturday and Sunday are stacked with the likes of Marcus King, Trampled By Turtles, and Tahoe’s own Dead Winter Carpenters, to name a few.
Grab a ticket, gather your friends, and see you in Olympic Valley this weekend.
~ Ryan Salm turns athletes into superheroes, transforms boring articles into virtual adventures, and ordinary houses into architectural masterpieces — all with the help of his magical camera. He might only be the 37th best photographer living in the Lake Tahoe Basin, but he tells better stories than all the rest. See why at ryansalmphotography.com or @ryansalmphotography on Instagram.