The quiet was not meant to last. Ruffling its feathers, the Grey Jay perched above me seems perturbed by the sudden unmistakable twang it doesn’t recognize. The sound comes again, a fifth lower this time, and the Jay takes flight from what it (correctly) perceives to be a rapidly changing scene. It’s too bad: My feathered friend is about to miss a helluva show.
Moments later, random notes begin to ring out into the cold air. Adjustments are made as the mandolin, banjo, and guitar are all tuned to their players’ satisfaction. Halfway up Steamboat Mountain seems a precarious and frigid place to bring such instruments, yet the musicians seem unfazed. A quick nod and wink passes among the bandmates and their instruments come to life. The warming sounds of bluegrass ring forth. Clad in ski gear, ale in hand, I grin from ear to ear as the annual WinterWonderGrass Bluegrass Festival gets underway.
Each February, Steamboat Springs, Colo., plays host to WinterWonderGrass, a weekend combining award-winning craft brews, skiing, and, of course, bluegrass bands. The three-day event, taking place Feb. 23-25 this year, touts a stacked musical lineup at the base of Steamboat Resort, including names like Leftover Salmon, the Infamous String Dusters, and Elephant Revival. Despite temperatures dipping below freezing and occasional snow flurries, the bands play with exceptional vigor. The crowd is no slouch either. The festival has sold out for the past few years with attendees traveling from far away to dance up a storm, spreading a contagious winter stoke.
WinterWonderGrass' main stage is conveniently located within a snowball’s toss of the slopes. With music starting in the early afternoon, it’s easy to cut trenches through Steamboat’s corduroy all morning, tear up the dance floor in your ski boots after lunch, and sneak back to the hill for some afternoon groomers before the gondola stops spinning.
Smaller, pop-up stages can also be found around the mountain and down in the historic town itself, providing up-and-coming bands with some much-desired exposure. Venues range from intimate to rowdy, encouraging all styles of musicians and fans. In addition to your tickets, be sure to bring your instrument. Numerous workshops and impromptu jam sessions take place around town, so aspiring musicians can develop their skills alongside the best in the business.
And what better pairing for a bluegrass festival than Colorado craft beer? The state is home to a multitude of craft breweries, fueling festival-goers. Bold, intriguing flavors such as coffee stouts and dry-hopped IPAs pair well with the bluegrass tunes. Suds not your style? Whiskey, cider, and mulled wine tastings are also on tap throughout the weekend.
As the festival winds down, I’m not sure if my legs hurt more from carving turns or dancing late into the night. As the final notes ring off the mountains and the band’s music gives way to thunderous applause, the skiing and music all meld into one unbeatable mountain experience.