WinterWonderGrass bringing bluegrass, community vibe

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STRATTON — The inaugural WinterWonderGrass Festival comes to Stratton Mountain this month to celebrate bluegrass music, craft beer, and community.

From Friday, Dec. 14 through Sunday, Dec. 16, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Keller & the Keels, Fruition, Upstate, Lindsay Lou and more will warm the mountain with folk vibes.

"Music has been an integral part of what Stratton offers as a mountain. It's a community builder and a resource that we want to continue to nurture. With WinterWonderGrass, it's kind of perfect," said Alex Malloy, Stratton's communications and social media specialist.

After being a touring musician for roots music band Bonfire Dub in the '80s and '90s, festival founder Scott Stoughton used his experience from the music industry to "cultivate and nurture the relationship between nature, authentic music, and communal family," according to the festival website. He also founded Campout for the Cause — in its 11th year — a summer yoga and music festival held in the Rocky Mountains to benefit a chosen nonprofit.

"What inspires me is that people that love to show up and honor one another and share the stage... integrate into the community and be in nature," Stoughton said. "That was the sense I got from the bluegrass community. That's what opened my eyes."

Stoughton found a lack of community in pop and electronic festivals that he started in the West, which drew him to really focus on that aspect in creating WinterWonderGrass. Originally from New Jersey, Stoughton grew up skiing at Bromley and frequently traveling to Vermont for family trips, which is why he's bringing WinterWonderGrass to the East Coast for the first time. WinterWonderGrass has been running for seven years at ski resorts in California and Colorado.

"I was drawn back to Vermont. There's something special about it. All my friends in Colorado are from the East Coast and we have a great bond," he said.

It's the second new bluegrass festival to pop up in the Northshire this year. The Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Music Festival had a successful inaugural run in August at Manchester's Hunter Park, and plans to host the event again in 2019.

A portion of the festival ticket sales will benefit the Stratton Community Foundation. WinterWonderGrass has donated over $100,000 to locally and regionally based nonprofit organizations.

The festival is on track for ticket sales, according to Ariel Rosemberg, director of marketing and ticketing for Bonfire Entertainment, mostly from New York customers. "People don't know they're hungry for something like this until they see that something like this exists," Rosemberg said. "Last year it rained all three days and we still sold out. There's a ski culture that's the binding element and this community that has grown with us."

The band Fruition will play in the next three WinterWonderGrass festivals. Singer Mimi Naja said the band is excited to return to Vermont after playing at Higher Ground in Burlington in the past.

"We're stoked to be at the first WinterWonderGrass," she said. "People really mean to be there when it's bitter cold. It's for the troupers, I guess. You have to use your body and go ski during the day and you have to dance to stay warm at night."

Several tents will occupy the bottom of the mountain with two heated side stages and one main stage.

The music doesn't stop at the main stage. The Grass After Dark series will keep folks dancing each night at Grizzly's and the Black Bear Lodge. Tickets are sold separately, however, festival tickets include admission to this series.

Bridget Law of Elephant Revival is an artist at large after performing in the festival a handful of times, and has since become more involved in the logistical side of the multi-state event.

"I've chosen to make it a bigger part of my life and I think that's a testimony to how I feel," Law said. "The community is really vibrant —my musical community is very alive in that scene. The festival is for the hearty, with an emphasis on the heart."

The winter aspect of the festival is what makes it unique and keeps folks alive, compared to summer festivals that occur most weekends throughout the season, Law explained.

"We know how to be in the experience together and it really becomes a special gathering with spontaneous music and jam sessions," Law said. "There's opportunities to play on the mountain or at the end of the night. The combo of the skiing all day and music in the afternoon/evening ... it becomes a bubble of a great bluegrass skiing experience. We all know how to jump in and participate and make it that much more fun. Vermont will be really cool."

New to the festival is Keller & The Keels, a psychedelic Appalachian bluegrass style trio featuring multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Keller Williams, guitarist Larry Keel and bassist Jenny Keel. Williams is good friends with Larry Keel and started playing together in 2005.

Williams doesn't play with the Keels often, but looks forward to the December show and said it will be special. He's played all around Vermont since he became a musician in the early '90s.

"This is something that's been going down for years in Colorado and something I've always wanted to be a part of," he said. "It's something that works and I can't wait to feel that energy."

Williams will also perform in the Grass After Dark series at Grizzly's on Saturday night at 10:15 p.m.

Sustainability is key for the future of WinterWonderGrass.

"We want to continue to deliver a sold-out experience in Colorado and California," Stoughton said. "For the next few years it's about raising the bar and becoming a consistent organization that I can bring my team on, create opportunity, and get Vermont sold out at a high level and producing really well. That's my one-to-three-year plan. Once we do that and they're doing really well, I feel an obligation to continue to do these."

The demand steers the festival path, Stoughton said. "We'll do more if the community wants it. I never want to grow just to grow. I personally want to be doing this for 20 years."

"We do things differently," Rosemberg said. "Nobody else is producing festivals like this. The culture will really surprise people."

A three-day pass is available for $169, and a VIP pass is $299. Single-day tickets are also available. Visit winterwondergrass.com.

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