Undeterred by dropping temperatures, the fourth annual Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival is celebrating the city's musical roots this weekend and next, showcasing the genres from their earliest iterations to the newest twists. HuffPost Chicago sat down with Mike Raspatello, the festival's founder, Todd Fink of the Giving Tree Band, a local group coming off a national tour who's played the festival since it began, and David Grisman, the legendary mandolin player headlining Saturday's festivities, to discuss the future of this music and why Chicago will always be a part of it.
How did the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival get started?
Mike Raspatello: It really started as just a conversation at the kitchen counter with my friend Mike Mulcahey from Majors Junction -- who's opening the show Saturday on the main stage at Auditorium [Theatre] -- and we were chatting about why there isn't a roots music festival in the wintertime in Chicago. We had recently been to Old Town School of Folk's Roots Fest, but there was nothing like that between September and May. So while we were chatting about this, a talent buyer for the Congress Theater came to ask me for some ideas. So I tried to create that summer festival feel in the only indoor setting that would let us try it. I was completely naive to how the system worked. I got on the phone and called the agents of the artists that were in my dream lineup. I was honest and said, "This is my little pipe dream, and I think it'd be really cool," and they were like, "Well, this guy clearly isn't a scumbag with ulterior motives, so I guess we feel bad saying no." That's how the first one started, and a lot has happened since then.
Do you think that Chicago is uniquely qualified to host a showcase like this?
Todd Fink: I definitely do. I think there's a really strong roots-music scene in Chicago, and I think the festival has just been instrumental in exposing people to the roots culture that's there. Like Mike mentioned, we have the Old Town School of Folk Music. So there's a rich history of folk music in Chicago. And I think there's kind of a burgeoning movement happening over the last several years, where I feel like Chicago, even more than some other markets in the country, seems to be developing faster towards that culture. We tour a lot around the country. and I really feel like there's been a strong movement here.
MR: I'd also have to say that there's kind of a resurgence in respect for the kind of indie folkster that built up the Chicago scene in the '70s and before the John Prines and the Steve Goodmans. People like Devendra Bandhart and even Alex [Ebert] from Edward Sharpe [and the Magnetic Zeros]. I'm not a musician, so I can only speak from the fan's perspective, but I think since that blend is becoming more prevalent and fans are getting into it, it makes Chicago a more logical home for those types of artists.
Todd, you've toured nationally, but your band got its start in Chicago. What's your relationship with the city like now?
TF: I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude for Chicago and the community here. We couldn't be happier that that's where our home base is. Mike has said before that the festival and the Giving Tree Band are almost synonymous, and that means a lot to us. We feel like the growth with our band has been right in line with the growth of the festival. Without the Chicago music community's support, I think it would've been a lot harder for us to build up a foundation that let us share our music with a larger audience. CBB Fest helped us feel like we really had something special, which was necessary for us to push ourselves further.
What about you, David?
David Grisman: Well, you've got great hot dogs and pizza. I have a really good friend, Don Sternberg, here and, of course, memories of the great Jethro Burns from Evanston, one of my heroes and mentors. So I've got a lot of positive associations with Chicago.
Why showcase blues and bluegrass together?
TF: Those traditions are strong traditions in Chicago. Maybe not so much strict bluegrass, but definitely folk music-like instrumentation. I think those two musical cultures are at the foundation of what has happened over the last 20 to 30 years in Americana music. And it makes sense from a musical standpoint to kind of feature, at the place of origin of some of these popular traditions, how they've evolved by showcasing some of the legends and also showcasing some of the up-and-comers.
How have you seen these musical styles evolve over time? Have they been positive or negative changes?
DG: Duke Ellington said, "There's only two kinds of music: good and bad." Bluegrass itself is an idiom that changed old-time country music into a more high-octane form, and it was quite revolutionary when it came onto the scene in the mid-1940s, with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. You know, that was a new sound in country music and in American music, and it was very much a stylistic melting pot of many influences at the very beginning. And it was brilliantly conceived, brilliantly executed by brilliant musicians. As long as music is in those kind of hands, it'll be fine, whether it's old, new, whatever. I think great music is timeless. I don't really buy into the movement of commercialization that has kind of put music as a timely thing.
MR: I think, speaking as a fan, as music gets commercialized in different ways, people's access to music changes. With all the bad comes more access for people who want more of the old stuff that happened long before any of these shifts. So for me, I'm not as into the newest technology as someone 10 years younger than me, but I am into Netflix. And that means I can watch a David Grisman show from 1975 that I wouldn't have access to previously. And then I'm watching 10 more documentaries that I would've never known existed, and learning more about Bill Monroe and learning more about Ralph Stanley than I ever could have, because of the way music consumption and entertainment consumption is shifting. So it does pose new challenges, but for the fan it creates new access. So that's kind of the silver lining.
Do you think new artists do a good job of paying homage to their origins, in a way that compels people backwards to the roots?
DG: All great art, when you come down to it, is produced by individuals. Stephane Grappelli never liked to be called a jazz fiddler or violinist. He was Stephane Grappelli. Bill Monroe called his band the Bluegrass Boys, and bluegrass was a term that started when disc jockeys in the 1950s were trying to describe bands that had been inspired by Bill Monroe. The bottom line is that all great artists, musicians or otherwise, are very unique individuals. Like Thelonious Monk -- there's nobody that plays like Thelonious Monk, and just to call that jazz, to call that by the same name you call Chick Corea, is pretty ridiculous actually.
MR: It creates a barrier frankly for people exploring, because if they're not into Thelonious Monk, if they're not into Chick Corea, they won't give the others a chance when they're lumped together in that way. So the generalization can create a barrier when you're being proactive and exploring. One of my main goals in organizing this festival, I guess quite selfishly, was to share this music that I so appreciate. I felt like showcasing a wide range of interpretations was the type of education I was most qualified to do, because I'm not a musician, I'm just a guy who's a dork about music.
DG: Well, hey, we need more dorks like you! You're not a dork, you're just spreading the word about something you believe in. And that's too often in the hands of people who don't care about those things; they just care about the bottom line. It's difficult, because artists have bills to pay, they have family, they have medical problems, they have to make a living just like everybody else. So it's hard to stay on the aesthetically pure course as well as make a good living. Especially when there's a band down the street, so to speak, that's got a smoke machine and dancing, whatever they do now. Whatever Lady Gaga's got has nothing to do with Mozart, Thelonious Monk and Bill Monroe. But at the same time, thousands if not millions of people are drawn to that. That's a dilemma for culture, for the future of our culture. Because it's just phenomenal ... the art and music that was created here in the U.S. in the last century. You have jazz, you have bluegrass, country music, rock and roll, all originated here. And now it's being pretty much dismantled and stomped on big-time. So hey, stick to your guns, guys.
TF: I'm doing what I can!
DG: I hope you sell enough tickets to keep your aesthetic principles.