Full Circle

On June 12, the Yukon’s annual bluegrass bash is heading back to Kluane Country, where it all began.

After a three-year sojourn in Whitehorse, the Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival will celebrate its 12th anniversary next week in what artistic director John Faulkner calls its “ancestral home” of Haines Junction. “It’s feeling good to everybody,” he says.

In addition to booking the talent and being vice president of the festival’s parent society, Faulkner also plays with the Canyon Mountain band and has performed in every festival from the beginning.

The retired judge is an unabashed fan of the musical genre the late Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys originated in the 1940s. “I love the beat and the energy of it, but it’s also incredibly complex when you get right down to it.”

Faulkner doesn’t agree with those who consider bluegrass “hillbilly music — good for hayseeds” but not for more sophisticated tastes.

In fact, he argues, those who play it professionally are the equal of any jazz improviser. “The music they pull out of those instruments, and the breaks they do, the harmony and everything, it kind of makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck, you know.”

As in previous years, this year’s festival will feature Yukon groups in addition to a variety of highly regarded outside acts. “We’ve been fortunate over the years to get kind of the Who’s Who of bluegrass,” Faulkner says. “We have people coming to perform at this festival who are kind of the equivalent of having the Rolling Stones show up at your rock festival. They’re the top bluegrass bands in the world, without exaggeration.”

Also as in previous years, the musical styles will range along the so-called “truegrass/newgrass” spectrum.

At one end is the highly traditional Mike Bentley and the Cumberland Gap Connection.

At the other end lies the Abrams Brothers, a Canadian bluegrass, country, folk-rock fusion band that uses such non-traditional instruments as a drum kit and electric guitars. “If Bill Munroe could be reincarnated, we’d be happy to have him on our stage, but we also recognize that life isn’t static,” Faulkner says. “Things move on, and music progresses, and I think we have to welcome that as well.”

One group on the more traditional end of things is Flatt Lonesome, a six-piece ensemble from Nashville, Tennessee, whose ages range from 21-26 years.

Half the members are offspring of a guitar-playing pastor from Jacksonville, Florida, who decided to share his love of bluegrass and gospel music by buying each of his young kids a musical instrument. “We were home-schooled, so we weren’t exposed to all the extracurricular stuff like you would be in a public school system, so he wanted to make sure we found some type of hobby, or something we enjoyed doing,” Kelsi Robertson-Harrigill explains. “He picked out the mandolin for me, and gave my sister (Charli) a fiddle, and my brother (Buddy, the group’s guitarist) originally started out on banjo. And it kind of just all stuck.”

After years of playing and singing with their parents, they decided to team up with three musical friends, Dominic Illingworth (acoustic bass), Paul Harrigill (banjo) and Michael Stockton (resophonic guitar), for “something fun” they could do together.

Besides, as Robertson-Harrigill tells it, “Maybe it would be cool to make a little bit of extra money” performing as a hobby.

That hobby quickly turned into a major commitment, especially when the International Bluegrass Music Association picked Flatt Lonesome as its emerging artist of 2014.

This year alone, they have more than 70 performance dates, and their third CD is due out this fall.

The band’s name combines the “high lonesome” bluegrass sound with a tribute to the legendary Lester Flatt, best known for his collaboration with banjo player Earl Scruggs. “We’re all huge fans of Flatt and Scruggs, but Scruggs Lonesome wouldn’t really work so well, so we went the Flatt route,” Roberston-Harrigill jokes.

The singer-mandolinist says she’s curious about one aspect of the Yukon in particular. “The 24 hours of sunshine. I’m not sure how that’s going to work out, but I guess we’ll see what happens.”

The Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival (including the annual Sunday gospel show) runs Friday, June 12 to Sunday, June 14 in two venues, the St. Elias Convention Centre and the nearby St. Christopher’s Anglican Church.

More details can be found at www.yukonbluegrass.com

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