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Grass on the Black will bring bluegrass home to Medford

“Paddle faster, I hear banjos!”

While Urban Dictionary and elsewhere that phrase is described as a warning that “hillbillies” are in the area, organizers of the inaugural Grass on the Black music festival are hoping that the distinctive twang of banjos and three and four part harmonies will bring people running to downtown Medford.

Grass On The Black a Medford Area Bluegrass Festival is scheduled for July 9 and 10 with performers at eight different venues featuring a dozen different performers and groups in downtown Medford and throughout the area the event will be sure to be a draw for both bluegrass veterans and those new to this purely American music scene.

As with America itself, the roots of bluegrass stretch back to the musical traditions of English, Scottish and Irish ballads and traditional dance tunes. This was liberally mixed with the blues and jazz traditions brought by African Americans moving north and bringing those sounds with them.

All of these influences came together in the rural Appalachian region in the 1940s where it was tempered with labor struggles, poverty and hardscrabble existence, as well as joy and beauty.

Bluegrass is a music that can find its way into your soul and have you tapping your toes or singing along to the harmonies. Unlike modern country and other styles of music, bluegrass primarily features acoustic stringed instruments and emphasizes the off-beat. Notes are anticipated, creating the high energy characteristic of the music and a style welcoming to each musician taking their turn in improvising and playing with the melody.

“If you’re new to bluegrass, it’s just such a cool genre of music. It’s so relaxing and it touches on everything from country, to gospel, to folk,” said Marilyn Frank, owner of Marilyn’s Fire Station located in Downtown Medford.

Frank said she attended her first Bluegrass festival in River Falls with her daughter in 2016 and has become hooked on the distinctive sounds and general welcoming atmosphere.

Frank has wanted to bring that sound to Medford for more people here to experience it. She has talked to other tavern and business owners and found that the excitement about bringing a festival to the Medford Area was contagious. Working with the Medford Area Chamber of Commerce, the support of the city of Medford Hotel/Motel Room Tax fund and a number of local business and community sponsors, they were able to bring it to realization.

“We, at 8th Street Saloon are very excited to be a part of the inaugural Grass on the Black festival. The opportunity to partner with other local businesses creates a feeling in inclusivity, not only for our community, but also the many out of town visitors this festival hopes to attract. The music lineup is incredible and along with the various other activities, this weekend will not disappoint,” said Heather Strebig of 8th Street Saloon.

“Troy and I are thrilled and honored to be co-hosting the 1st Grass on the Black bluegrass festival at Hacienda. This event was such a great idea for our community! Working on it and watching it all come together has been very exciting. It’s a definite “must attend,” said Jenn Hargot of Hacienda.

The event draws its name from the Black River which has its headwaters a few miles north of the city and flows through downtown Medford while meandering through the rustic countryside of Taylor County.

As interest grew, the number of venues increased beyond the core of downtown Medford to include the entire community. Venues include Uncommon Ground, Cravings, Old School Saloon, Marilyn’s Fire Station, 8th Street Saloon, 64 North, Hacienda and the Grey Dog.

Organizers have worked with Medford Motors to provide a van for a shuttle service around to the different venues in the city as well as working with Krug Bus Service to provide transportation to and from Hacienda and 64 North.

According to Frank, bands will be set up outside under tents wherever possible. There will also be special activities such as line dancing lessons and demonstrations including Gary Edinger doing Square Dance calling in downtown Medford. Streets in the downtown Medford area will be closed for the event with food trucks including Merget’s Mouthwatering Mayhem, Everythang Tacos, The Brunch Box, and Big Papa Bbq serving on Whelen Avenue. 64 North will offer their regular menu as well as the Cravings food truck. All other locations will have food and/or bar available. In addition, Grandpa Choo Choo’s Popcorn and Kiwanis sno-cones will also be downtown. For those who didn’t get their fill of Bluegrass on Saturday, on Sunday morning there will be even more Bluegrass with performances starting at 8 a.m. at Uncommon Ground and at 10 a.m. at Hacienda and Marilyn’s Fire Station who will also be serving up some of her signature bloody marys.

Organizers hope that the success of Grass on the Black will make it an annual summertime tradition in Medford to be held on the weekend after the 4th of July. Next year’s event is already scheduled to take place on July 8 and 9, 2023.

More than a dozen bands and groups will be performing 17 sets of music between Saturday and Sunday, July 9 and 10.

Bands are as follows: Sewer Pigeon — Sewer Pigeon a band of two, D. Janakey and Smallchainsaw. Is music that is characterized by emotional intensity, a wide variety of influences, and raw honest folk music.

D. Janakey — World traveler David Janakey shares his experiences and reflections through his authentic folk music. Eau Claire based folk journeyman draws from the depths of traditional American roots. His music is characterized by his cutting tenor voice, emotional intensity and lyrical obsessions with life’s ups and downs.

The Good Time Gals — The Good Time Gals have Miss Myra and Debbie Briggs perform featuring guitar with tight two part vocal harmonies. Peppered with influences of blues, hot club jazz, western swing, old country, and popular music of the 20s, 30s, and 40s. The Good Time Gals was founded in late 2020 by Debbie Briggs (of Debbie Briggs Vintage Jazz) and Myra Burnette, “Miss Myra” (of Miss Myra and the Moonshiners). Briggs and Burnette met in a speakeasy of all places back in 2019 and became fast friends bonding over their shared love of old jazz. They began inviting each other to sit in on their respective gigs and their band took off from there.

The Ottersons - The Ottersons are a family with 7 children. They love Bluegrass gospel music. They perform with the fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin and upright bass. Their interests include music, homeschooling, horses, and Gospel Fests. They come from Colfax, Wisconsin.

The Blue Drifters - The Blue Drifters Bluegrass Quartet plays traditional bluegrass and anything they can craft into interesting, exciting arrangements. With trio harmonies and prodigious soloing on fiddle, 5-string Scruggs-style banjo, upright bass and acoustic guitar. They show off their harmony vocal arrangements on mostly traditional bluegrass instruments. The players include Tony Smith on fiddle, mandolin, guitar, vocals. Paul Porter on bassist and vocals. Jim Lally on fiddle, mandolin, guitar, vocals. Steve Howard on banjo/guitar/ vocals.

Doug Kroening - Doug Kroening has been a musician for as long as he can remember. Been working musician for 20 plus years. Plays on the guitar and sings himself.

Central WI Line Dancers - Central WI Line Dancers are passionate about music and they enjoy bringing music to any event. Their building is located at Rembs Celebration Center, 250 S. Oak Ave, Marshfield WI. They consider themselves as country style dancers and wish to teach others the style.

Fennec Fox - They are Fennec Fox, an original indie rock band from Wausau, WI. On vocals and rhythm guitar, Keli’i. On harmonica, Jon. On violin, Naomi. On bass, Jeremiah. On drums, Jimmy.

Tuck Pence - Tuck Pence is a musician, singer, songwriter, performer who has been in the music business for over 30 years. With a repertoire of over 2,000 songs, 4 albums and more on the way. Tuck has a voice that will make you get up to dance.

Hemlock Chasers - Hemlock Chasers have Sylas Schaberg on guitar and vocals. Luke Moat on bass and banjo. Al Vuorinen on mandolin. Sheilagh Dandy Lyon on fiddle.

Jared Hubbard — Jared Hubbard is a Northwoods native of Wisconsin. Drawing musical influences from Appalachia and the mining regions of the industrial revolution mixed with modern folk. Dave Walters Old Pine Road - The Old Pine Road Band emerged from the woods of northern Wisconsin to entertain its many fine inhabitants. For nearly a decade, David Walters and the old pine road boys have been combining a crowd-pleasing blend of soulful funk-grass with a taste of twang and jam-band experimentation that’s sure to be unique. David Walters is on vocals, guitar, banjo, and bass. Thor Gunderson is on drums, washboard, and vocals. Chris Skinner Chapman Stick is on harmonica and bass.

Foragers — Featuring a rotating cast of Wisconsin musicians plucking acoustic and bluegrass inspired tunes, and tossing them together in a euphonious basket. — Kevin Rosales contributed to the story.