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Bankable bluegrassBluegrass Battles Hunger brings lauded acts of the genre together for a good cause
St. Joseph News-Press
Kentucky’s just going to have to deal with it. St. Joseph will be the bluegrass capital of the world this weekend.
Not only will Ironweed Bluegrass perform at the Missouri Theater on Saturday, but Bluegrass Battles Hunger will play host to some of the nation’s greatest bluegrass acts at Felix Street Square on Sept. 24 and 25.
A total of 11 acts will perform at Bluegrass Battles Hunger, a free two-day event to which patrons are encouraged to bring a non-perishable food or cash donation to support the Second Harvest Community Food Bank. Of the acts, three have gained national attention and lots of fans along the way.
Head for the Hills will be the last band to take the stage at the festival, but the Colorado quartet is probably the first name on the Bluegrass Battles Hunger roster that music fans would recognize. After all, the band has shared the stage with the likes of The Avett Brothers, The Flaming Lips, My Morning Jacket, Yonder Mountain String Band, Ween, Bruce Hornsby, Emmylou Harris, Dr. Dog and Nickel Creek.
A favorite at many festivals like Wakarusa and Telluride, Head for the Hills also was chosen as a “SXSW Critics Picks-Must See” at the 2011 SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, earlier this year. “That was an incredible showcase for our band,” says Adam Kinghorn, guitarist for Head for the Hills. “People really responded to our music.”
Head for the Hills doesn’t play your daddy’s bluegrass. Rooted in progressive acoustic music, the band delves into contemporary and funk grooves, with occasional forays in the gypsy realm. In fact, the quartet doesn’t have a banjo player — something that some traditionalists would consider as a bluegrass sin. However, Kinghorn argues that the absence of the banjo allows the group’s music to breathe a little bit.
“I think that what does make our band unique is that we don’t have that constant twang going on,” he says.
Kinghorn says guest banjo players step in with the group occasionally, but if Head for the Hills were to add an instrumentalist, it would be a Dobro player. Kinghorn says the instrument has more of a “slidy twang” than the banjo. Fingerpicking isn’t part of the group’s M.O. Neither are long jams, Kinghorn says.
“If there’s something I can’t stand these days, it’s needling — kind of doing the same thing over and over,” Kinghorn says. “Our compositions are a little more jazz-oriented, so there’s not a lot of jamming.”
Those are the kind of things that have set Head for the Hills apart from the rest of the genre. Of course, a critically-acclaimed album doesn’t hurt.
Head for the Hills’ self-titled 2010 sophomore release boasts heavyweights like longtime bluegrass aficionado Drew Emmitt (of Leftover Salmon) as producer, as well as studio engineer Gus Skinas, who digitally remastered Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” In addition, Vance Powell — who owns a Grammy for his work on the Raconteurs’ wildly successful “Consolers of the Lonely” — mixed the record.
Right now, the band is gathering material for a live album, but Kinghorn says the group would like to work with a well-known alternative rock producer for the next studio record because, frankly, the members have bigger plans. Head for the Hills wants to make a mainstream splash with an eclectic style of bluegrass.
“That’s kind of where our heads at,” Kinghorn says. “We’ll keep the essence of what makes it bluegrass and use that as the vehicle we get to other genres with.”
Those wanting to see an experienced bluegrass veteran might want to check out 20-year-old Sierra Hull on Saturday.
Nope. That wasn’t a typo. Sierra Hull is a 20-year-old bluegrass veteran. She has been playing the mandolin since the age of 8. By the time she was 10, she released the album “Angel Mountain.” A year later, she was befriended and mentored by country superstar Alison Krauss. Krauss has since produced Hull’s albums “Secrets” (2008) and “Daybreak” (2011), which both reached the Top 5 on Billboard’s U.S. Bluegrass chart.
As Hull grew up, she leaned more toward country compositions but began attacking her solos with newfound spontaneity — as if she were playing with a point to prove. Her lyrics also became more open, honest and powerful.
Today, she is one of the most sought-after names in bluegrass. She has already performed in renowned venues like Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Next week, she’ll perform at the world-famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. So it’s a pretty big deal that Hull will be doing a free show in St. Joseph.
“Sierra Hull was an incredibly good ‘get’ for us this year,” says Bluegrass Battles Hunger founder and organizer Chad Higdon.
Two pretty good acts will be following Hull on Saturday.
The Chapmans are one of the finest Missouri Ozark bluegrass bands out there. The family band relocated from Colorado to the Ozarks in the late ’90s and jumped into the national spotlight when they won the International Bluegrass Band Championship held by the Society For the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America (SPBGMA). Since then, The Chapmans have recorded several critically acclaimed albums and has won or been nominated for several SPBGMA and International Bluegrass Music Association Awards.
“The Chapmans are very talented, and they have a great following in Missouri,” Higdon says.
Lawrence busker Tyler Gregory will follow The Chapmans. The guitarist frequents many Kansas City and Lawrence venues like the Record Bar and the Replay Lounge, but he has also become a favorite addition to festivals across the country. This year, he performed at the Weston Bluegrass Festival as well as the Walnut Valley Festival in Winchester, Kan.
Local musicians Jason Riley, Sean Cleary and Tracy Huffman also will get a chance to strut their stuff at Bluegrass Battles Hunger.
For more information on the event, visit bluegrassbattleshunger.com.
BLUEGRASS BATTLES HUNGER SCHEDULE
Saturday, Sept. 24
•1 to 2 p.m. — Liberty Highway
•2:20 to 3:20 p.m. — Sean Cleary and Tracy Huffman
•3:40 to 4:40 p.m. — The Gray Family Band
•5 to 6 p.m. — Jason Riley’s Funky Folk
•6:20 to 8:10 p.m. — Sierra Hull & Highway 111
•8:30 to 10 p.m. — The Chapmans
•10:15 to 11:25 p.m. — Tyler Gregory
Sunday, Sept. 25
•1 to 2 p.m. — The Gray Family Band
•2:20 to 3:20 p.m. — Willow Creek Bluegrass Band
•3:40 to 4:40 p.m. — Windy Ridge Revue
•5 to 6 p.m. — Biscuits and Gravy
•6:20 to 8 p.m. — Head for the Hills