This article originally appeared in the Kentucky Kernel.
By Matt Wickstrom
People from throughout the country will flock to the Kentucky Horse Park this weekend, not for a horse auction or race, but rather old-school bluegrass music.
The Festival of the Bluegrass returns from June 9 through 12 for the 44th consecutive year, and features local and national bluegrass acts.
Lexington acts The Wooks and Restless Leg String Band, along with Louisville’s The 23 String Band lead a strong Kentucky showcase at the renowned festival, which includes bluegrass acts Lonesome River Band, Blue Highway and Town Mountain, among others.
The 23 String Band’s performance at the festival will be their first in nearly 18 months. The group took a hiatus from performing to focus on family, day jobs and other musical endeavors, according to guitarist and founding member Chris Shouse.
“With this tour we just want to get back together and play some of our favorite festivals like Festival of the Bluegrass, ROMP — some meaningful, local festivals,” Shouse said. “We wanted to play those, and we really love playing much with each other. We wanted to just play some shows and see how it goes. We might play more next year or we might not. It’s been a while. We’re all chomping at the bit to get back playing together.”
The group will also be performing a hometown show in Louisville at Headliners Music Hall as part of the late-night series for Forecastle Festival in July with local acts The Pass and Niles Foley, which Shouse referred to as the “brainchild” of The 23 String Band’s fiddlist Scott Moore. As for the rest of 23SB, banjoist Curtis Wilson plays in several Louisville musical acts, bassist Mark Stam teaches music in North Carolina, and mandolinist Dave Howard plays in Louisville band Relic and started his own folk music school in Louisville that offers lessons and workshops.
While Shouse’s main focus is with The 23 String Band, he does occasionally sit in with other acts. He’s performed several times with Kati Penn of Newtown and C.J. Cain, formerly of Newtown and currently guitarist for The Wooks. Shouse also played several shows with The Wooks last fall when banjo player Arthur Hancock was sidelined with a back injury. Shouse hinted there may be more of the same this weekend with both bands performing at Festival of the Bluegrass.
“C.J. is always hanging out at our camper or I’m at his playing music together,” Shouse said. “Last year on stage we all got to play a few songs with Town Mountain, the closing act. But as far as doing anything on stage, maybe, maybe not. We like being spur of the moment. It’s one of those things that if it seems like a good idea at the time, we’ll usually end up doing it.”
The rich tradition of Festival of the Bluegrass has curated memories that will last a lifetime, as is expected for any event that has a near half-century history. This ideology hits close to home for Shouse, who has attended Festival of the Bluegrass for 15 years, first performing around campfires to now being part of one of the weekend’s most popular acts.
Music kicks off Thursday night, June 9 with Blue Belles, Hogslop String Band, Lonesome River Band and The Wooks and continues all-day Friday and Saturday. The 23 String Band will perform on Saturday at 2:40 p.m. and again at 10:10 p.m., just before Town Mountain takes the stage.
“I’ve played festivals all over the country, and Festival of the Bluegrass is the best in my opinion,” Shouse said. “The people who run it — AnnaMarie and Roy (Cornett) are great to us… I couldn’t ask for a better place to play.”
Weekend camping passes for Festival of the Bluegrass cost $135 at the gate, with non-camping weekend passes running $115. Individual day passes are also available at discounted prices. Come out to the Kentucky Horse Park this weekend to soak in the sun and make memories, just as music fans have been doing at Festival of the Bluegrass since the 1970’s. To view the full festival lineup, purchase tickets and more, visit festivalofthebluegrass.com.
Read below for full interview materials from Big Blue Tunes sit-down with 23 String Band’s Chris Shouse.
Chris Shouse: The thing about this festival (Matt) is that you meet so many people and become friends with them — every year just keeps getting more and more, so you all get together and cook food and you play music and tell good stories and just have a good time.
Big Blue Tunes: Hell yeah! I’m really excited to get out there — I’ve actually never been to Festival of the Bluegrass before. I was at a festival in Indiana last weekend called the John Hartford Memorial Festival…
Chris: Yeah I’ve played that before.
BBT: There was a lot of late night picking going on at campsites there. I’m expecting much of the same this weekend (for Festival of the Bluegrass).
Chris: Yeah that’s up there in Bean Blossom. They’ve got a big bluegrass festival happening soon too.
BBT: I know you’re one of 23 String Band’s founding members. Other than a few lineup changes, how would you say the group has evolved musically during your time playing together?
Chris: Well, we’ve all become better musicians. There have been some additions to the band — we’ve been very fortunate because Kurt, the banjo player and I who started the band, we really surrounded ourselves with crazy musicians, so we’ve been very lucky to do that. When you’re in a band with such great musicians, it pushes you to be a better musician, so technically our musicianship has improved dramatically. You get more mature — your taste changes over time. You start to play shows and realize what people like and don’t like, so you kind of conform to that as well. It’s a fine line playing what you want to play versus what you think people are going to like, but I think we’ve balanced it well. This is actually going to be our first show in 18 months. We’ve played a few shows but this (at Festival of the Bluegrass) will be our first of the year. We took an 18 month hiatus to focus on other musical endeavors and spend some time with our families and day jobs. Back to your original question — yes we’ve evolved to become much better musicians. Personally with myself I feel I’m much much better now — my timing is better, my playing is better — all around I’m a better musician.
BBT: Gotcha. I know just a minute ago you mentioned the band went on that break in part for some of the guys to focus on other musical projects. Are you in any other bands, or is 23 String Band your primary focus?
Chris: 23 String Band is my main gig. I do a lot of fill-in gigs with C.J. Cain from The Wooks and formerly with Newtown. I do a lot of shows with him — Kati Penn from Newtown, I’ve played a lot of shows with her — Arthur Hancock from The Wooks. I actually sat in with The Wooks for about ten shows last year. Their banjo player (Arthur) was having some medical issues and had to miss some time so I filled in for him. My wife is in a band, so we play some shows around — We live out in London, Ky, so we play some shows around there, some 2-piece and 3-piece shows. The other guys have other musical pursuits if you’d like to mention those in the article as well.
Chris: Dave Howard, our mandolinist, started a Louisville folk school, which is a really cool idea. It’s a school where they give lessons — banjo, guitar, ukulele, and singing, and also have workshops where they’ll bring in bands, so that’s a really cool thing going on in the Louisville area. (Dave)’s also in a band called Relic out of Louisville. Scott Moore, our fiddle player, is in a rock band called Niles Foley. It’s kind of (Scott’s) brainchild. A lot of original songs, some good rock’n’roll music. Martin Stam, our bass player — he teaches music at a school in North Carolina around Raleigh. Curtis Wilson, our banjo player, plays with a guy named Owen Reynolds, who’s been in a lot of bands around Louisville. He’s done some solo work, so Kurt has filled in with him some musically, but you know, we’re all doing different things, but we’re all still really good friends, and a lot of people thought that our 18 month hiatus was because we’d all grown apart, but that’s not the case. We still hang out and play music together even though we didn’t necessarily have any gigs coming up. This is our ten year anniversary of the band, so it’s good to be able to take some time off and spend some time with other interests.
BBT: With this being your ten year anniversary, does the band have any plans to release new material anytime soon? I know your last record came out in 2014.
Chris: We’re not sure. With this tour we just want to get back together and play some of our favorite festivals like Festival of the Bluegrass, ROMP — some meaningful, local festivals. We wanted to play those, and we really love playing much with each other. We wanted to just play some shows and see how it goes. We might play more next year or we might not. It’s been a while. We’re all chomping at the bit to get back playing together, so we got offered a few shows, so we have kind of a ten show tour this summer, with the Festival of the Bluegrass being one of those ten.
BBT: I remember you mentioning earlier that you sat in with The Wooks when Arthur was out with his back problems, and you’ve also done some gigs with C.J.. Can we expect any crossing over between 23 String Band and The Wooks this weekend at Festival of the Bluegrass?
Chris: Definitely at the campsites. C.J. is always hanging out at our camper or I’m at his playing music together. Last year on stage we all got to play a few songs with Town Mountain, the closing act. But as far as doing anything on stage, maybe, maybe not. We like being spur of the moment. It’s one of those things that if it seems like a good idea at the time, we’ll usually end up doing it. I love playing with C.J. and The Wooks and just travelling around playing music. This is kind of like my vacation time. We wife and I, we both come and try to play as much music as we can. Our fingers get sore and our throats get raspy, but it’s all such a great time.
BBT: I know you mentioned you’ll be at ROMP performing later this month. I’ll be there too. I made it to Owensboro for my first ROMP last year and had a blast.
BBT: I know you’re also doing a Forecastle late night show next month at Headliners in Louisville. Is that 23 String Band’s first time performing late-night at Forecastle? I know you’ve played the festival before.
Chris: We did another late-night Forecastle show at Headliners several years ago as well. Louisville’s kind of our big city — that was one of our target cities, and obviously most of the guys are from there so naturally you want to hit the area pretty hard. I feel like we’ve really had a lot of support from the people at Headliners to give us some opportunities, so we’re really looking forward to playing this show at Headliners with The Pass and Niles Foley which is Scott our fiddle player’s band. That entire after party show is going to be 23 String-ish — there’s going to be so many connections with all these bands there. (I think) the drummer in The Pass is also the drummer in Niles Foley. It’s gonna be all in the family. I love Headliners. I love playing in Louisville. I love Forecastle. It’s a really late-night show, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.
BBT: I’m unfortunately not going to be able to make it to Forecastle this year. I’m going to a festival out in Oregon the same weekend called the Northwest String Summit.
Chris: I’ve heard of that. I’ve never played in Oregon, but we have played out west. That should be a good time. They say Oregon is awesome. I would love to go.
BBT: Neither can I. I’ve never been west of St. Louis, so it’s gonna be an entirely new world out there to me.
Chris: Oh dude, you’re in for a surprise! Are you flying or driving?
BBT: My dad and I are going to take around two weeks to drive out and sight-see along the way. We’re planning on dipping down through the Grand Canyon and stopping at a bunch of other cool spots along the way.
Chris: Well try to haul ass to get through Kansas, because from here to Denver is nothing, but once you get in Denver it’s miraculous. We were out in Montana, Colorado, and Wyoming for months on a tour. That was the year we won the RockyGrass band competition (in 2011). We love it out there.
BBT: I’m so pumped to get out west and take everything in. Words can’t do it justice.
Chris: So are you into bluegrass music then?
BBT: Oh yeah! It’s probably one of my favorite genres. I’ve been going to a bunch of bluegrass festivals. I had a blast at ROMP last year, and just a couple weeks ago I was at a festival in Virginia that had Town Mountain, Larry Keel, Jeff Austin, and others. When I was showing my dad the Festival of the Bluegrass lineup he noted that many of the bands playing are very old-timey bluegrass, so I’m excited to check them out.
Chris: There’s a good mixture. People who are into bluegrass will tell you there’s many genres that fall within bluegrass, so you’ve got people that don’t like the lineup at Festival of the Bluegrass this year because it’s too progressive, then you’ve got some people who love it. You’ve got traditional music, progressive, old-timey — you’ve got all these sub-genres within bluegrass that make it cool. For me musically, I like seeing different kinds of bands, and I think that’s why we’ve had good success at Festival of the Bluegrass, because the String Band is not a traditional band — we try to make it a high-energy show. We want people to have fun. We’re very much a live band. Town Mountain we’ve known for a few years. We first played with them up in Montana. I love Robert Greer, Phil Barker, Jesse Langlais, Adam Chaffins, Bobby Britt, all those guys. I love Town Mountain.
BBT: Yeah those guys are great. Their new album “Southern Crescent” is awesome too. I’ve had it on repeat.
Chris: I saw on Facebook earlier this afternoon that they’re gonna be playing the Grand Ole Opry later this month.
BBT: I remember seeing that earlier as well.
Chris: It’s great to see them finally getting some recognition, because they’ve put a lot of time in and really deserve it. They’re a really good band.
Chris: We’ve played probably four or five shows with those guys. The first time we played was at a festival called Bluegrass on the Bay in Great Falls, Montana. So the String Band played and Town Mountain followed, and we had never met before. At the end we were supposed to have a big jam with everybody up on stage. You had about a thousand people — it was a good crowd. We didn’t even know these guys and they didn’t know us so it was like “Ok. What do you guys want to do? ‘Little Maggie’?” So you just think of all these jam tunes. We had a blast and hung out afterwards and ever since we’ve been great friends with Town Mountain.
BBT: I had no idea you guys knew them so well. Well, I don’t have any more questions Chris, but is there anything else you’d like to say about 23 String Band or Festival of the Bluegrass?
Chris: I love Festival of the Bluegrass. I really want to put in a good word for them because I’ve played festivals all over the country, and Festival of the Bluegrass is the best in my opinion. There’s not too many people — the perfect amount. It’s family friendly. It’s jam friendly. The people who run it — AnnaMarie and Roy (Cornett) are great to us, as I’m sure they are with all the bands. I couldn’t ask for a better place to play. They have such a beautiful ideology at the festival — they’ve been doing it for 44 years now. It’s a great festival that I encourage everyone get out to. If you haven’t been to a bluegrass festival then you should come to Festival of the Bluegrass because it’s very relaxing — very good accommodations for everyone. If you’ve got kids, if you want to stay up late playing music. I’ve been coming to this festival for 15 years. It was awesome for me going from playing at campsites to playing on-stage. It was by far one of the biggest thrills of my musical career to play in front of all the people at Festival of the Bluegrass. As far as the String Band goes we just want to have a good time. We just want to have fun and continue playing music. That’s all of our passions. We’ve come this long way and we want to continue to do what we want, whether that means continuing playing together or not. Even if we stop playing we’ll still be friends, because over 10 years you become like brothers from travelling nights on end trying to juggle everything, so it’s very rewarding.
BBT: Thank you so much for your time Chris!