Editor’s note: This article first appeared before WinterWonderGrass 2016.
Some things in life just make sense and the second WinterWonderGrass Festival in Tahoe, returning to Squaw Valley this weekend, continues to be a celebration of everything that makes a perfect spring day in the Sierra: skiing, beer and bluegrass.
The formula is guaranteed to bring people together in a smiling, laughing community out for a good time. It seems that was the inspiration all along for musician and Bonfire Entertainment leader Scotty Stoughton, who started the event in 2013 in Avon, Colorado. An effervescent spirit, easy with a laugh and quick to espouse the virtues of togetherness, Stoughton is the perfect ambassador for the campfire lifestyle from which the event is born.
Stoughton had been a musician in Los Angeles who played in numerous bands, most notably Sucker, which released four albums and toured across the country. He said he realized he was still missing something in his musical and spiritual quest. That’s when he found the original ski-bum slammers, Leftover Salmon.
“During that time I started producing some events and some benefits and I was really good at organizing people and connecting people. I was into the results of bringing people around the campfire and that is kind of what it’s always been,” he said.
“I also got asked by Leftover Salmon to get up on stage and freestyle with them. I’m freestyling over bluegrass music and playing with them coast to coast and I got excited about bluegrass, and Sam Bush, actually, invited me to sit in. And all of this was 15, 16 years ago and it was crazy, but I got inspired by the way all those musicians would support one another and play with one another. … So when I got into their scene I thought, ‘This is what I’ve been after all these years.’ ”
After being burned out from years of playing in bands and putting on events, Stoughton had to dig deep down and re-evaluate his life’s path in life. About six years ago, after some soul searching, he realized he wanted to get back and place his feet firmly in the type of space that he grew up loving on the East Coast: the apres ski parties that evolved into late-night singalongs around the campfire.
“It was going to be back to the roots of skiing all day and rallying around the campfire at night with acoustic instruments and kids running around. … I was driving across the desert in Utah and I was like, “Winter, winter, bluegrass — and a light bulb just went off and it was WinterWonderGrass,” Stoughton said, laughing.
WinterWonderGrass has a lot of things going for it, from being nestled in the historic Squaw Valley with world-class skiing and boarding at everyone’s fingertips to filling up on great beer and food while you dance to some of bluegrass’ heavy hitters in Greensky Bluegrass and Leftover Salmon. But for Stoughton, it’s not about having any one aspect of the festival stand above the rest but rather that the whole experience be a unifying factor.
He wants both the fans and the musicians to be involved in the event and integrate themselves into not only the WinterWonderGrass vision but also the greater community. Stoughton was struck by the beauty of Lake Tahoe and the community when he worked the SnowGlobe Music Festival and he wants to make sure the community is involved and respected in the process so it can grow in an organic way.
“I think that is what makes my position unique,” he said. “I’m not a promoter, I’m not a producer, I’m not a partier. I’m all about connecting, really connecting with the root of all of this and this opportunity to inspire one another and leaving people more connected than disconnected. I hold every one of the attendees to the standards of my staff and my volunteers and the security and the artists, because we are all creating this thing together.
“This is a beautiful palette that Squaw Valley has been gracious enough to work with us on and deliver. So many people are inspired by that area. … It’s gotta feel right and it’s gotta feel good for the community and for myself and for the health of the process, not just to do it.”
Stoughton’s motive is to involve the greater community as much he can because ultimately the event is devoid of connection without the locals. Stoughton was excited about all of the different local businesses, partners and volunteers that have become involvedover the last two years. Last year, Stoughton skied around the resort handing out free tickets to lifties and ski patrol members to act as a little pick-me-up for people affected by the depressing state of ski conditions at the time. “How can we support, how can we spread the love? That is what stands apart — integrating the mountain and having a more unique, solidified experience with the surrounding area,” Stoughton said.
Stoughton also noted that community is a huge factor in picking the artists and bands. He choose artists who wanted to stick around for a couple days and enjoy the festivities and sit-in with other bands, not just one-and-doners here for a paycheck and attention.