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A Conversation With WinterWonderGrass Founder Scotty Stoughton

Fans getting stoked before a set at last year's WinterWonderGrass. Photo: @WinterWonderGrassinstagram

We're headed to WinterWonderGrass at Stratton Mountain with the TGR Stokemobile this weekend, December 14th through 16th! Join us and get tickets here: winterwondergrass.com/stratton

Stratton has been having a fantastic fall and it’s about to get a lot better. The Southern Vermont ski town famous for its maple syrup, farm to table cuisine, and technical tree skiing is kicking off the first 2018 WinterWonderGrass music festival. If past years are any indication, it’s going to be bonkers! Vermont is a state rich in culture and community, so it makes perfect sense that the rootsy bluegrass festival is going to set up shop for a couple days in the heart of the Green Mountains. TGR sat down with WinterWonderGrass founder and musician Scotty Stoughton to learn more about the upcoming event.

The festival will visit Steamboat from February 22-24 and Squaw from March29-31.


How did you first get into the music business? 

Probably going on tour with the Grateful Dead and seeing a drum circle for the first time. I started playing hand drums and touring around with them selling grilled cheeses. I experienced the power of the music community - where everyone is accepted and surrounded by great music. The common thread there is that everyone just wants to get that feeling you can only achieve at a live music show. It’s the spontaneous moment of improvisation that blows your mind. 

It’s a lot like when you're traveling a long distance, like to go surfing or paddling or skiing, and you put in all that work and when you finally get to that distant place you’re surrounded by your friends on the most epic powder day. It’s completely mind blowing. You gotta savor it and appreciate every second of it. That’s similar to that elevated session of a show where the band’s on point, the weather is beautiful, your friends are around you. So long story short, that’s how I got into it. I just kinda like being in the zone.

The Infamous Stringdusters jamming out at last year's festival. WinterWonderGrass Instagram

How would you describe the music at WinterWonderGrass?

It’s music that sounds good if the power goes out. It’s pretty simple. It’s bands that can pick and rip and jam and play music no matter what the circumstances are. Sure, it's bluegrass based, but I have friends who swear they hate bluegrass yet they come every year and go “oh this isn't what I thought it was”. It’s more of a modern spin on bluegrass. We call it Jam Grass. There’s some traditional bluegrass and a lot of meshing of modern styles with authentic instruments played by people who respect the culture of bluegrass and roots music.

Related: How This Surfer From Sierra Leone Ended up Snowboarding In Wyoming 

Are there any artists or events who you’re particularly excited about this year?

Stringdusters, Greensky for sure. The up and comers - Billy Strings and a gal who sings from her soul so eloquently is Lindsay Lou. I got like 5 bands doing all three of the WinterWonderGrasses this year. Billy Strings, Jeff Austin, Fruition, Grant Farm, I love those guys and love that they're supporting the journey. Everyone shreds. I love to see bands that haven't been in the lineup before so that when they come on to the WinterWonderGrass scene, their minds are blown. “This feels fucking amazing, shit yeah it’s cold but this is amazing.” We got 75 acts across all three events this year, some of the same obviously.

The Infamous Stringdusters playing a show in the snow. WinterWonderGrass Instagram

Why do you host WinterWonderGrass in the mountains?

I had done some winter gatherings in the past and I always thought they were fun, but with WinterWonderGrass, I was like “wow this is what it's all about”. When you're dealing with the mountains in the winter, you're dealing with Mother Nature. So she becomes another important component of the festival. It also weeds people out. It’s like a backcountry ski trip. “Hey you wanna go on the back country trip? It’s a 6 mile hike in, 6 mile hike out, pack everything in.” You ask a hundred of your friends and you get the six that you want to be with. It’s an equalizer, and it sure ain’t Vegas, but we don't want to be Vegas. There’s a million summer festivals and they're great, but the winter festivals highlight the mountain culture and community irregardless of weather. We've had the festival in Squaw Valley when they've had one run open and it rained and we sold it out. We've had the festival in Steamboat when they got two feet of snow with bluebird conditions and powder everyday and we sold it out. People want to come and spend time in the mountains. There’s something beautiful about the mountains and it’s not just about the powder day or perfect conditions. It’s about the community, culture, vibe, everyone coming together in the mountains in the winter, and just feeling it. 

How has WinterWonderGrass changed with the music business over the years?

I think it’s changed and evolved with the demand and the response from the crowd. Every year we dig into what worked and what didn't work. Even though we've been selling these things out, we would never just sit on our asses. We evolve. And at the end of the day the number one thing for us is to put on an incredible event for the people that work really hard and pay a lot of money to make it to the show. I’ll never forget that. I don't care about the band, I don't care about the ego, I don't at all. If you don't want to play because of that, that’s fine. But I don't care. Volunteers and headlining acts are of the same value to us. They're both responsible for bringing a great deal of intention, integrity and enthusiasm. So we highlight the elements that work really well and the people that work really well and the vibes that we create within those structures and we amplify those each year. So I think our reputation is that we’re an authentic hard working community of dedicated organizers first and foremost and that’s what shines through. That’s what makes us unique.

A festival-goer having a blast at WinterWonderGrass. WinterWonderGrass IG

How did you choose Stratton this year?

Stratton is legendary. It’s small and in southern Vermont, but it’s got this allure, this vibe and history. From the Stratton Mountain School to Jake Burton and the culture in Southern Vermont, it’s really like no other place man. I dig it down there, it’s true Vermont. It’s covered bridges, dirt roads, maple syrup, back woods, farm houses, it’s just amazing. And that’s what I want to tell people and show people. As well as go out and ski and ride Stratton and hear the music, take an afternoon and just go explore Vermont and it’s culture and community. It’s really magical.

You’ve seen a lot of music over the years, what are some of your favorite memories on all the WinterWonderGrass festivals?

Definitely the Tram Jams in Squaw are up there. We throw a bunch of artists in the tram, and many of them have never been on a ski lift before and we jam going up the mountain and the whole thing bends and some of the facial expressions are just priceless. Getting on the gondola at Steamboat right after the festival ends and going up and up through a snowstorm to Thunderhead Lodge for one of our late night jams, and we’re all walking out into a room that’s getting pelted with snow at 11pm and seeing the bands shredding. It’s just crazy. Those moments are so sick. Being on the mountain and just seeing your favorite band, that’s everything to us. Human touch points are what really make us feel satisfied. Greensky bringing the house down last year, Trampled By Turtles, or Billy Strings in the side tent destroying it so hard that the walls melted off, those moments are awesome, but nothing makes me happier than having a fan come up and say “oh I was just skiing and went up the lift and String Duster was there, we got to chat and it was so cool.” That’s what I’m all about. 

Leftover Salmon rocking out on stage in Truckee last year. WinterWonderGrass IG

If someone is going for the first time, what should they know?

Bring your best ski gear. It’s an outdoor winter music festival and we have several heated beerhalls. All side stages have heat and are in awesome tents. Tasting starts at 2 o’clock. Come early, because there’s free beer tasting from 2-5 everyday. Sample local craft brews from Vermont and see some of the hottest acts you'll ever see. Come early, wear your one piece suit, and know that there’s spots to get warm, there’s great food, and come with an open heart. Be a human.

Don't forget to bring your skis and snowboards, Stratton has had a great early season. Stratton IG

What does the ski and snowboard community bring to a music festival?

The mountain culture man. People travel around the world to get a great powder day, we’re all crazy; but it’s the feeling that only us people that ride on the snow get and understand. It’s a thrill, it’s a risk, it’s an adventure, it’s bohemian, simple, connecting with the roots of humanity. So that ski and snowboard culture and community are the perfect partner on this experience, because we all have the same mindset. It’s been so fun to see people skiing and boarding, or whatever it is you do. We don't care what you ride or how good you are, it’s the dedication to the craft and your respect of the mountains which is the most important and crucial thing. I don't care what style of music you play, it’s your ability to deliver a really positive intention into the formula to help explode the resulting cocktail into a sphere that you can’t create on your own. And I think we all share that with the ski and snowboard community.

Last question: If there was one artist, dead or alive, who you could have play at WinterWonderGrass, who would it be?

Bob Marley, acoustic, unplugged.

Here's a couple songs from some of the bands playing at this year's WinterWonderGrass:


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