“When you descend down on Horning's Hideout for String Summit, you pretty much give up everything else,” says Northwest String Summit co-founder Skye McDonald. “You don't have cell service and you're engaged in the present with everyone else down there. You're all in it together.”
Before moving to Horning’s Hideout in 2002 and taking the name it goes by today, Northwest String Summit began as a small event called Dexter Lake Music festival near Eugene. Back then it was known as a charming, community-oriented affair headlined by Yonder Mountain String Band (two important qualities it holds on to today despite a larger following).
“It has a family dynamic to it,” McDonald explains. “The artists feel that energy and we try to invite them to stay and enjoy themselves for longer than just a 90-minute set where they're back on a plane flying somewhere else. We try to get them there so they can unwind, relax, feel that vibe, and create music that's unique to our event, either collaboratively on the stages or in the campgrounds. Our artists like to go get lost and play with all the pickers on the grounds.”
Parallel with the rise in popularity of bluegrass and acoustic string-based music in recent years, the festival has grown while maintaining a cozy “home-spun” feel that’s fostered lasting connections with fans and musicians alike. An important date on the calendar for many who make the trip every year, half of the weekend’s tickets are sold within minutes of going on sale, before the lineup is even announced.
The feeling of community on the festival grounds spills over to the stage as well. Lines between bands blur as artists routinely hop on stage with other acts during guest appearances. The fan-musician dynamic is similarly softened as many performers make a weekend of it and camp right along with everyone else.
“It's a reunion,” Yonder Mountain String Band guitarist Adam Aijala explains. “We try to get some friends up there every night if we can. Get some of the Railroad Earth dudes up there... or Leftover Salmon, Greensky Bluegrass or Stringdusters.” He continues, “Friendships have been made up there and there are some people I virtually only see there once every year. One of our member’s father’s ashes are spread up there in the woods, too, so it’s definitely a special place for us.”
For String Summit’s 15th year, organizers have made sure the reunion will be extra special. In addition to putting together what many perceive as the strongest lineup in the festival’s history, they will also be unveiling an intimate new stage focused on the art of songwriting.
“The Troubadour stage is going to take individuals that are in these bands and put them in an environment that's either solo or them in duet/trio form to concentrate on the art of songwriting and what it means to be a troubadour in a very intimate, living room-type setting,” McDonald explains. “That's going to turn on a whole new dimension of the event.”
Yonder Mountain String Band have something special planned, too. During a late-night Saturday show, they will treat fans with a rare electric set featuring Pink Floyd's 1977 album Animals played in its entirety.
“Since we've been doing three shows every year, the idea was to mix it up a bit and do something that's fun for us but also something fun for the crowd,” Aijala says. “We've been playing Pink Floyd’s ‘Dogs’ acoustically for years now, and Animals is my favorite album of theirs (or at least top two). We’ll be joined by Jay Elliot, the rippin’ drummer from Boulder, and Asher Fulero (keyboardist). I’m psyched.”
Whether you’ve been migrating out to Horning’s for the last 15 years or are checking it out for the first time, be prepared for a celebration.
“This is our 15 anniversary and we're really going to celebrate this subgenre [of] neo-bluegrass,” McDonald says. “That's what we're celebrating. Yonder Mountain String Band pretty much blazed that path back in 2000 and 2001, and the contemporaries around them, like Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, The Stringdusters, Keller Williams and so forth, have all taken a similar path and trajectory. They've all touched people's lives, and that's what we're celebrating.”