(First published in the October 24, 2019 issue of City Pages)
String pluckers have become the rock stars of central Wisconsin
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades performing at Granite Peak in 2018.
On a cold, sub-freezing March night in 2018, a crowd roared into a frenzy in the Sundance Chalet on Granite Peak. There was hardly room to move in the audience as Adam Greuel, Russell Pedersen, and the rest of Horseshoes and Hand Grenades entered the stage. Backlit by a green glow of the stage lighting, Pederson, Greuel and fiddle/mandolin player Collin Mettelka huddled around a single microphone with the signature hand grenade affixed to the stand.
Judging only from the size, age and tenor of crowd, you would easily think this was a rock concert. But that’s the wrong era. Today, bluegrass bands such as Horseshoes and Hand Grenades are the new rock stars — just in a non-commercialized, grassroots way. From his home base in Stevens Point, Greuel and company go places and get recognized all the time. They’re playing national tours and major festivals.
And they’re only one of many hot bluegrass acts in the area. Those acts vary from very traditional bluegrass to more modern styles. The band that opened for Horseshoes and Hand Grenades that night — Dig Deep, also based in central Wisconsin — could be mistaken for a heavy metal band that mistakenly picked up a banjo and some fiddles instead of flying V guitars and Marshall amps. They, combined with Horseshoes, brought down a sold out show.
As unlikely as it might have seemed 10 years ago, bluegrass is now the genre that’s packing in rowdy crowds at local venues, from bars to concert halls and outdoor stages. Sure, the annual Bluegrass in the Pines music festival has been going for 10 years in Rosholt, organized by Art Stevenson who’s considered the father of central Wisconsin bluegrass. But it was hard to imagine back in those early days that this “niche” musical genre would find such a popular following among young music lovers as well as the older fans who’ve attended bluegrass festivals for a long time.
The scene has come a long way since the days Greuel and his bandmates played at college parties at UW-Stevens Point before graduating in 2013. In a recent interview with City Pages just before he took off for Colorado for a series of side projects, Greuel says that while they found a few fellow bluegrass enthusiasts at those parties, their style of music surprised most people, and won over many who were delighted to hear something besides a typical drum and guitar rock-pop band. “The sound we were creating was new to a lot of our peers,” Greuel says.
The simplicity of their acoustic string instruments—banjo, guitar, stand up bass, violin, mandolin, etc.—was a great benefit to playing those house parties and growing their on-campus popularity at UWSP, Greuel says. They could quickly set up and play anywhere, and did so.
Today the band performs about 100 dates per year. Horseshoes reached some milestones this year: playing the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado, and playing the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville (which gave the Grand Ole Opry its start). Those were two bucketlist shows, Greuel says.
It’s not just the Horseshoe and Hand Grenades. All bluegrass shows have become huge draws for venues across central Wisconsin area. And there are a few theories why.
New music halls
Jimer Soukup, of Sloppy Joe, at Jackpine Jamboree
Kelly and Leslie Patterson, the sisters behind Wausau’s newest concert venue, Whitewater Music Hall, are quick to point out that they don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a bluegrass venue. In fact, Whitewater just hosted a series of metal bands over the weekend, and has booked other musical genres since it opened this spring.
But make no mistake about it — the Pattersons are bluegrass fans through and through. It’s a genre they both enjoy and the type of music they’ve primarily booked so far. Kelly says she first came across bluegrass after seeing a Bad Livers show in Austin, Texas and has been hooked since. “We’ve always been open to everything (music styles) but bluegrass was a good, natural start,” Kelly says.
Whitewater’s music hall is a good one for bluegrass. It’s a staged concert room, but small enough to create an intimacy between performers and musicians, Leslie says. And other musicians love being able to see the bands up close, watching their fingerings and technique.
It’s probably a good genre to focus on, even if they do branch out from it. Other venues say bluegrass seems to draw some of the best crowds.
Grand Theater Executive Director Sean Wright says the style has been a strong one for their 10×10 series, which features up and coming acts at an affordable price.
“Bluegrass has always done well in the 10×10 series, even as the rest of the series was developing,” Wright says. “I do think that part of the reason is that audiences get to see artists emerge and be able to see them as their career evolves. Horseshoes and Hand Grenades is certainly an example of that.”
Another example is Them Coulee Boys. Wright says the Eau Claire-based act started playing in Wausau at The Intermission and Malarkey’s, then played as an opener for the 10×10 series. They later headlined Whitewater Music Hall, and sold out their performance at the latest 10×10 series show. “If you are an emerging country/rock artist, you immediately head to Nashville or another big city, whereas I think bluegrass bands/artists grow their careers more organically,” Wright says.
Bluegrass has been a mainstay for Granite Peak’s new concert series, says Lisa Zilinsky, director of marketing. Their venue never has fewer than 200 people attending shows when a bluegrass band plays, she says, and while the series aims to have a variety of music, bluegrass is definitely a mainstay. “Horseshoes will always remain as the show that sells out every year,” Zilinsky says. “We’ve had to turn people away at the doors almost every time.”
Greuel says he’s also grateful for places such as Sconni’s, which, as a successful restaurant and craft beer destination, wouldn’t need to hold live music. But Greuel appreciates owner Ben Swanson’s dedication to the genre. “I see him at bluegrass festivals across the state,” Greuel says. “I think he holds bluegrass music here because he truly loves the music and wants to support artists like Horseshoes and other Wausau-based groups.”
Swanson says that besides the genre being one that he particularly enjoys, the style of music tends to fit his genre of business. Those who like bluegrass also tend to like craft beer and the outdoorsy throwback vibe of Sconni’s. “When we book bands that aren’t familiar with our place, like from outside Wausau or outside Wisconsin, we say we’re a gastro-pub with a craft beer focus,” Swanson says. “They’re always happy with that. That’s the kind of place they like to play.”
Tyler Vogt, owner of Malarkey’s, which has been one of the biggest music venues in Wausau for some time, says he’s actually been booking bluegrass acts less these days— but that’s a testament to the genre’s popularity. He cited a night in which he booked a bluegrass band and later learned it was one of four bluegrass acts playing in the area that night. That of course means he’s competing for the same audience.
“It’s a constant evolution. We’re peaking on bluegrass right now,” Vogt says of the music scene.
Longtime musicians who carried the fire
Dig Deep performing at Granite Peak in 2018.
As a member of the longtime local bluegrass band Sloppy Joe, Jimer Soukup has been an integral part of bringing bluegrass to the local masses for more than 20 years. He even remembers the bluegrass festival in Mole Lake, which ran from the mid-70s to 1992 and featured plenty of the “old-timer bands,” as he put it.
Soukup started his own festival, Jackpine Jamboree, in Wittenberg in the mid-90s. Around that time, he says the folk-Americana-bluegrass festival typically drew about 500-600 attendees. Not a bad crowd for the middle of Wisconsin.
Now those crowds are 2,5000-3,000 strong, Soukup says, and the audiences have gotten a lot younger.
There are a lot more local bluegrass bands these days, Soukup says. And the popularity of the genre has meant not only a bigger audience for the festival, but more playing opportunities for Sloppy Joe.
It’s also led to appreciation of long-time acts like central Wisconsin’s Art Stevenson and High Water. In addition to creating Bluegrass in the Pines, Stevenson also hosted a Wednesday night open mic and bluegrass jam at Northland Sports Bar and Grill for 20 years, which is now led by Sloppy Joe.
Audiences at bluegrass shows are a good mix of age ranges, Soukup says, because the music has such broad appeal. It’s grown in a more organic sense, Soukup says, and has avoided a commercialization, spreading in a more grassroots way (no pun intended), more recently with social media. Wausau bluegrass fan Paul Field founded Central Wisconsin Bluegrass Devotees Facebook group mainly as a gathering point for fans of bluegrass and a way to share upcoming shows with other devotees.
Field says bands such as Horseshoes and Hand Grenades and Trampled by Turtles helped grow bluegrass’ popularity. Trampled by Turtles came from Duluth, where Bob Dylan was also born. Both espoused a revolution from the ground up, Field points out. That could be used to describe the rise of bluegrass in a very organic, natural way.
Greuel has a couple of theories on why bluegrass has become so popular.
One is that it represents a rejection of electronic music and production that has dominated modern popular music. Bands such as Mumford and Sons, from England, brought Americana back to American popular culture and put something like bluegrass into the heads of younger music lovers.
Vogt agrees, and adds The Lumineers to the mix. He also mentions several possible sub-genres one could define as bluegrass, including jam grass bands such as Burnt Toast and Jam (based in Shawano), or Sloppy Joe (eastern Marathon County), both of which have been around for more than 20 years.
The genre has been around a lot longer than that, of course. Its origins go back to a band called Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, and has its roots in the Appalachian region in the 1940s.
The genre in the 1980s became popular in Japan of all places. Nintendo creator Shigeru Miyamoto, known for video games Super Mario Brothers, Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda, plays bluegrass guitar and banjo and the genre influenced the soundtrack of Super Mario Brothers.
Another launching for bluegrass pointed out by Greuel and Soukup was the Cohen Brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000, starring George Clooney), which included a heavy bluegrass soundtrack. That included the song “Man of Constant Sorrow” sung by the characters in a seminal scene in the film.
Whatever the reasons are, they’ve come together to create a new wave of music that, unique among genres, tends to attract all ages, from 20-something hipsters to families to old-timers. Bluegrass has even become a mainstay of local bar bashes, like the third annual Boograss Festival at Main Street Taps in Stevens Point for Halloween. Before Bernard’s in Stevens Point closed and became a mini-golf area, it hosted an annual New Year’s Eve bash, featuring a night (and two nights toward the end of its tenure) of bluegrass bands. A survey by this reporter of attendees at one of these shows revealed that folks traveled from across the state and farther to attend the big festival.
Some big local bluegrass shows to keep in mind: Horseshoes and Hand Grenades will play at Central Waters on Oct. 26, with Pat Ferguson, and on Nov. 1 at the Silver Dome Ballroom in Neillsville with Chicken Wire Empire. Sloppy Joe will play Nov. 8 at Stoney Acres Farm in Athens.
Greuel says the band is particularly excited to play at the Silver Dome, which once hosted music legends such as Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.