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Winter means downtime for bluegrass, a genre that would have gone to sterile seed decades ago were it not for the network of warm weather and outdoor festivals like Bean Blossom, Telluride and Merlefest, to name a few. The seasonal, often paltry pay of the festival circuit; funky buses -- hell, the dry-cleaning bills alone -- taking bands to unevenly attended shows; and months of interstate and the moral and aesthetic codes of strict leaders -- such are the forces leading to high attrition rates in a genre that has always prized continuity and legacy. Dying to pick the banjo in a working bluegrass band? Consider picking peaches. The hours and benefits are better.
But bluegrass festivals feature moments of magic, mirth, fellowship and more brilliant musicianship than you ever thought possible. Why St. Louis has no major summer bluegrass festival remains unclear, though perhaps the imposing excellence of what has become the major winter gathering, the Gateway City Bluegrass Festival, explains the mystery.
Held at the Henry the VIII Hotel and Conference Center, 4690 N. Lindbergh, the Gateway fest features a killer lineup. Friday features Little Roy and the Lewis Family, a hilarious powerhouse gospel-based act; Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, one of the most influential bands in the biz; Larry Sparks, one of the great bluegrass tenors; and St. Louis's own Smokehouse All-Stars, a Cicero's-friendly sextet who are also deeply committed musicians. Saturday brings the James King Band, fronted by another great mountain-style tenor; the young Mountain Heart, considered by many to be the future of bluegrass; longtime Rounder act the Lynn Morris Band; Lost & Found; and New Tradition. Sunday is rounded out by the Sitze Family and the Harmon Family.
If you can only attend one day, then Friday, with Larry Sparks, Little Roy, and Doyle Lawson, is a must. The 56 year-old Lawson is a dominant figure in bluegrass: There has been no more significant leader since the passing of Bill Monroe. Lawson has been at every major turning point in bluegrass in the last 40 years; he played mandolin along side J.D. Crowe in Jimmy Martin's greatest band; lent his Pentecostal tenor to the innovative Country Gentlemen, defined the '80s sound with Tony Rice and Jerry Douglas in the Bluegrass Album Band. More recently Lawson has restored a cappella gospel arrangements to the stage, still playing and singing in the thrilling old-school style: just one mike; just banjo, guitar, bass, fiddle and mandolin, plus a gale of harmonies that could rip the frescoes from the Sistine Chapel. If you've never had your head spun and your heart broken by a full weekend of live bluegrass, then your time has come. For more info, call 217-243-3159.