Every Tuesday night or so before the pandemic, Americana band Never Come Down put on a free concert at Ranger Station on Southeast Hawthorne. In the beginning, they played even when no one showed up.
For weeks and weeks, the five-piece band perfected their sound. Crowds couldn’t help but be drawn into Crystal Lariza’s young Dolly Parton vocal stylings, and when she and the boys hit those harmonies? Ears were soothed.
After a few months, the Station was packed every Monday. These days, Never Come Down is winning awards all over the globe, including the 2021 FreshGrass Band Award (they also topped the 2019 RockyGrass competition). And this year, they’re headlining Portland’s fourth Bridgetown Bluegrass Festival on Oct. 8.
“That’s exactly exemplifying what we want to see,” festival co-founder Steve Eggers tells WW. “Here’s a band that’s doing something cool, executing their music really well; they’re professionally writing songs that are funny and modern and relevant. They get people dancing and feeling, and they totally set themselves up as like the bluegrass band in Portland.”
It was important for the festival to keep it bluegrass through and through with just a touch of folk. But there’s one strict rule: No drums allowed.
“It’s not just the instrumentation, it’s the rhythmic values that you’ll see with bluegrass,” says Eggers, who notes that this is the first year the festival has added folk bands to the roster. Still, they won’t be pushing further than that (recall the outcry when the not really bluesy Robert Plant was invited to play at the 2013 Waterfront Blues Fest…though it’s worth mentioning it was the festival’s most packed event to date. But still: not blues).
“Ironically, despite having grown up in Georgia and Western North Carolina, I didn’t get exposed to bluegrass properly until I got to Portland,” says Eggers. “I’d always enjoyed folk music and studied classical guitar performance in college, so when I first started trying to join bands here in Portland, bluegrass musicians were who I hit it off with, and things just progressed from there.”
One of those people with whom Eggers hit it off was Max Skewes. After playing together in the now-defunct progressive bluegrass group Scratchdog Stringband (the group’s disbanding was another music casualty of COVID-19), the two started dreaming up the festival.
Since Eggers worked as events coordinator at First Congregational Church, he realized he had a venue at his disposal. In 2017, the church allowed Eggers and Skewes to use the space for free—and with a modest budget of $3,000 (as Eggers puts it, “How much we were willing to lose”), the Bridgetown Bluegrass Festival was born.
Eggers and Skewes worked hard to recruit bands that stick with bluegrass and folk rhythms and write original lyrics. Some stand-out acts include the punky tonk group Alder Street (an energetic, sassy sextet coming up from Eugene) and Portland’s own Fog Holler, whose catchy-funny lyrics and jug band rhythms make a gal want to start flatfooting.
This year’s edition of the festival will be the first since the pandemic and feature 15 local and regional acts, two stages, and plenty of local beers, cider and food. And now that the Bridgetown Bluegrass Festival is officially a nonprofit, it can pay every act a premium guarantee.
“We’re here to grow a community, to help people find a love for music, and to support our artists’ reach,” Eggers says. “When you’re coming to the festival that’s what it’s really about: supporting the arts.”
SEE IT: The Bridgetown Bluegrass Festival will be held at First Congregational Church, 1126 SW Park Ave., bridgetownbluegrass.com. Noon-midnight Saturday, Oct. 8. $22-$45.