The Magic of Strummit: Talking with Skye McDonald, co-owner of the Northwest String SummitMarch 27, 2017
Northwest String Summit is a bluegrass, roots and Americana lover’s paradise: Four days of July (13-16 this year) in stunning North Plains, Oregon, with some of the greatest artists from around the country. Not wanting to miss out on the magic, this year Nectar Lounge is partnering up with NWSS for the Road to Strummit 2017. But we wanted to learn more about the unique boutique festival, how it started, and how it’s grown. We sat down with co-owner and promoter, Skye McDonald to ask a few questions.
Nectar Lounge: Who’s idea was it to start the Northwest String Summit? Where’d the inspiration come from?
Skye McDonald: So, the story goes that String Summit actually began as another event outside of Eugene for a year at Dexter Lake. It was called the Dexter Lake Music Festival. The founder of the Dexter Lake Music Festival was a former promoter in the area and he had a good relationship with Yonder Mountain String Band, along with their management company with whom I worked. I was there, I attended the Dexter Lake Music Festival and it was outgrown right away. About the same time, this place, Horning’s Hideout, popped up on the map as a potential venue space. That same promoter, in conjunction with partners in music management, founded the Northwest String Summit as an annual gathering for Yonder Mountain String Band and their extended musical family and friends, who they call the Kinfolk. They had the first year in 2002 at Horning’s Hideout and since 2003 my business partner and I have been steering the vessel, so to speak.
NL: So you’re a co-owner and promoter, what does that entail? What is your day-to-day work?
SM: It entails absolutely everything you can think of. My business partner, I and a very small team are doing the work around the calendar for the most part. As we progress toward the event a lot of our other staff members hop on the planning and coordination of their department. There’s actually planning going into 2018 already! It may only be four days consecutively in July, but the festival has grown into a year long planning process to constantly find ways to help make an even better experience.
NL: Did you ever expect the festival to become what it is now, a national destination for progressive bluegrass lovers?
SM: In the birth of the event, in deciding upon the name, we planned for potential expansion beyond the Northwest String Summit. We could have had regional events, like the Northeast String Summit, Southeast String Summit. But with hope to garner the crowd that we have and the support that we have, the focus became not dilute the event or sell it out, just to have expansion. To really give 100 percent of the focus to this one event in this really special location.
In regards to that, we always hoped that it would become one of those events where we were not worried. We’re always hoping to have the ongoing loyalty, and it proves that every year. So many people have come back for the extent of the event. It’s amazing, it’s absolutely amazing that probably 25-35 percent of the patrons are not just returning patrons, but 10 or 15 year returning patrons. I mean, sure you’ve got some of that in other events, but these people are hardcore. They don’t go to any other events! A lot of them are saying, “this is my one and only guys.” That’s very special, we want to achieve that every year.
NL: You mentioned that it might do a with a special location. Why did you choose Horning’s Hideout? Why is it such a great location, and do you think the event will always be at Horning’s?
SM: You really got to lay eyes on it. I know that sounds trite, but you really have got to see it to understand the magic of the location. It is unbelievable, you’re 25 miles from Portland, and yet you seem like lightyears away. You go into these foothills of the coastal range, out of the plains of the central valley and you go into these mountains. As you descend into the valley, it’s surrounded by old growth doug firs and spruces and enormous trees, incredible under canopies of ferns and other growths. With the big trees and the hills, it takes the 150 acres that we use and makes it seem like a whole other world. You have all these sections and areas that just stand apart from the others. It’s not a field, it’s not like you see the whole footprint standing any one place. You have to go out and see all the different areas. The amphitheater is a natural amphitheater, it’s a bowl that backs up to a lake. It’s absolutely amazing. We’ve built this amazing stage over the years and there’s no standing place that can see better than any other.
NL: I’m guessing the response from both patrons and bands that have played is amazing, what do they say?
SM: Oh yeah, aside from the majestic beauty of the location and the amphitheater setting, we really focus on having high end production. The sound, being mostly acoustic music, is as top notch as it can be. That appeals to everyone, specifically the artists. They can absolutely tell the event from others by the level of production.
We, the event, prides itself on a few other aspects. In addition to being a pristine location with these amazing surroundings that are honestly unmatched anywhere in the country, when you get down there, you have to disconnect. There’s no phone service. There’s nothing. One of our favorite sayings is, “you disconnect to reconnect.” And that’s really what it’s all about. You get down there, you can’t bury yourself in your phone, you have to talk to people, you have to meet my neighbors.
Another thing; we only sell 4-day and 3-day passes and only later on if there’s availability will we sell Saturday-Sunday passes and maybe a day-only Sunday ticket. You can’t just come Thursday, in and out, or Friday, in and out. We sell 95 percent of our seats as 3- or 4-day passes. People are committed to being down there and camping and hanging in huge campground pits.
Another aspect that we’re very very proud of is the family feel. It’s become a family reunion, it honestly has with all the return patrons, but it’s palpable for any newcomer and all the artists. That energy that people come back every year, they see these people again, the new people feel welcome, the artists feel welcome, and that energy swells. We don’t have VIP up-sales to anyone, everyone’s a VIP. You can get front row to your favorite band without much trouble.
NL: Do you have a most memorable performance in the past 15 years?
SM: I will tell you this: Last year was our 15th anniversary. When we were talent buying, we wanted to have all the biggest names and connections of the jamgrass community. And we had all of them! And all of their friends on the next tier down, which created a whole other community. Musicians playing in unique workshops, unique formats, campground jams, it was out of control.
Musically and sonically speaking, Saturday last year was my personal favorite day of music in all of those 15 years. It started early with our Cascadia daytime set and then moved to noon at the mainstage with Billy Strings just shredding. Then we had MarchFourth, all 22 of them, come out and do their shenanigans on stage. Right after they played they did not stop! They hiked off stage and took their Flow Arts school for young kids from ages eight to 18, called the Joy Now Arts Project, who were all there practicing their flow arts from stilt walking to juggling to hula hooping, you name it. There goes MarchFourth and there goes Joy Now and they led this two thousand person procession around the whole grounds. It was a huge spectacle and it was phenomenal. That got the energy up so high right away and it stayed up. Then it was Leftover Salmon and Greensky [Bluegrass] and then Yonder Mountain String Band. But Yonder Mountain String Band took on an enormous task of covering Pink Floyd’s Animals in it’s entirety for their second set. They nailed it.
Oh! How can I forget, then there was the late night shows with Keller Williams, which crushed. That was an amazing day.
NL: So what are you most excited about for the festival this year?
SM: I am so pumped up on the lineup because it is so…it’s different. We have some of our core bands and the repeats but we’ve mixed it up with a lot of new stuff this year. I am stoked to have new types of music, it’s not all the jamgrass like we had last year. We have JJ Grey & Mofro and the California Honeydrops, stuff that is so danceable. We have Todd Snider back on the program, he’s a hometown hero from Portland, backed up by Great American Taxi. Del (McCoury) and his crew are going to do a very special set. Fruition is just going through the roof, and they tell me that some of their first gigs were in the campgrounds at String Summit, that they were nearly founded at this event!
We have Blitzen Trapper for the first time this year, they’re staying local this summer, we’re one of their only gigs, so that’s pretty special. Finally we have the Dave Simonett, and his new Dead Man Winter thing is just crushing. He’s going to be an artist at large. I can’t even tell you how much stuff. There are a lot of independent artists and individuals that kids might not recognize, but who are legends in and of themselves that I think will take it over the top into a unique place, in this workshop and collaborative environment we set up.
NL: Final question: For anyone who is just hearing about NWSS for the first time, what would you say in a nutshell is the best part of this festival? Why should people come?
SM: For any of the above reasons, and also, one of our themes every year is about the connections made at String Summit. You’ve got to disconnect to reconnect, it’s all inclusive environment, anyone from any walk of life, any political leanings, you basically come and all are welcome. You connect through music and you connect through the environment and it’s really about the community that is created and the camaraderie that is forged. I’ve been to a lot of events in my days, and all of them are very special in a lot of ways. But being in this local with the type of people, the family focus, the Kinfolk community, the staff that brings the same respect and love year after year, it just permeates everything. And you do leave feeling better than you came. No matter how hard you party, you walk away with that elation and love and that’s really the magic! The magic of Strummit. There are so many choices and so many types of music as well that it’s appealing to everyone.
We’re pretty convinced! Find tickets for the Northwest String Summit here, held on July 13-16, and keep your eyes peeled for all of the special #RoadToStrummit2017 giveaways!