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“You’re kinda making your own salad” Ryan Shotton explains artist selection of bluegrass festival

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

by Scott Roos

photos by Scott and Deanna Roos

Michael Taylor looks like a rock star singing with his band Five Guys Named Dave during their tweener slot on Saturday night (photo by Scott and Deanna Roos)

“It was pumpin’. The crowd was eating it up. They were nice and warmed up.”

Mandolin picker Michael Taylor is standing in front of me, reflecting on the antics of his band the night before during their set at the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Festival. What he's saying about being warm is metaphorical, though, because it was literally freezing out there while they were playing. In fact, the powers that be (whoever is in charge of making big festival decisions), decided at some point during the evening to move the final act of Saturday’s portion of Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Festival indoors to the Jack Millikin Centre after the last tweener of the night, Five Guys Named Dave, had completed their performance on the main stage. I’m assuming that this decision was weather based because, as the barometer dropped in degrees, you could see the performers' breath clouding the air.

“We tried to pick some bangers for the end of the evening; one after the other,” chimes in Dave's guitarist Rebecca Hammel, “We closed the main stage technically speaking.”

What Five Guys Named Dave delivered on that previous night was a high energy set of predominantly traditional bluegrass tunes. Alongside Taylor (mandolin) and Hammel (guitar) were Olivia Morelli (fiddle) and Adam Robert (banjo). Whilst much of the audience headed over to the JMC to watch Happy Trails, Prospector rock out a scintillating plugged in country dance set, several die-hards stuck around outside, including me, to watch the Daves do their thing. I had a hunch, being an appreciator of music in adverse weather conditions (some of my favourite all-time concert experiences have been in the freezing cold or the pouring rain), that what the band was about to crank out was going to be epic. I was right.

It had been a little over a year since I had seen Five Guys Named Dave last perform but, in the meantime, they had been playing a lot and the more experience they got under their belts the more they improved, evidently. I'd be remiss if I didn’t also say that this festival itself can be inspiring. The flora and fauna is gorgeous and the stage well lit with a quality soundman at the helm.

You’re also playing in a very supportive environment. It’s inclusive and while the cream of the talent pool does rise to the top like it would in any genre, you get the sense being immersed in the environment, that if you were to exude talent early on that it would be nurtured. When you’re in this bluegrass culture created so carefully by the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Society, that talent shines through and is supported and encouraged, not only by your peers and a growing fanbase, but by essentially everyone around you.

“It’s inspiring to be here around so many amazing musicians. It makes you want to get better and better. It’s a very welcoming community where everybody seems happy to have you no matter what kind of level you are,” says Five Guys Named Dave banjo picker Adam Robert.

Five Guys Named Dave l to r: Adam Rovert, Rebecca Hammel, Michael Taylor and Olivia Morelli (photo by Scott Roos)

This sentiment is echoed by another tweener act from Saturday evening, Gil and Wil. They aren’t necessarily bluegrass per se but their tight harmonies and sweet, simple, hook laden, folk melodies proved to be a popular hit on the big stage. In fact, as they concluded their first song one gentleman in the audience who was standing nearby loudly exclaimed “WOW!”. He was only verbalizing what many of us were thinking. The duo of Holly Gilroy (Gil) and Aiden McRorie-Wilson (Wil) impressed for sure, proving that they are an act to keep an eye on as they continue to play together.

“The two of us come from classical music backgrounds. I’m from Saskatoon and Holly’s from Regina. Both of us sang in classical music choirs for years and have all of that foundational knowledge,” McRorie-Wilson explains,Bluegrass and old time and western swing has been so incredibly liberating. The fact that you don’t have to adhere to everything that’s written on a page of sheet music and you can make it your own is the coolest thing that I have experienced in the last few years. It has reignited my passion for music. I was losing (that passion) and it was gone and I was pretty numbed out about it. I’m right back in it now… It’s pretty special.”

“It’s just such an inviting and safe community to try stuff out and play with other musicians,” the more soft spoken Gilroy adds.

Gil and Wil delighted the crowd with a very tight set of folksy tunes. The duo was formed at the 2022 festival when they entered the songwriting contest (photo by Scott Roos)

Fostering musical growth amongst the local musicians in the scene has always been an important part of what the camp and festival does. Artistic director Ryan Shotton basically confirmed this in an interview we did earlier in the week. Shotton took over the role in 2020 from Mona Goodwin. They were “big shoes to fill” but Shotton, for all intents and purposes, has done a phenomenal job thus far.

“(Mona Goodwin) inspired me and kind of handed over the keys at a time when I luckily felt like I could do it,” Shotton says, “ One of my goals taking the position was that I would showcase more Canadian and local talent. The way I look at it is I come from a musician's perspective and I’ve been a struggling musician where you’re just trying to get in the lineup. You’re just trying to play these big festivals and things like that and sometimes it just feels like it’s this shut door that you can’t get in unless you know somebody kinda thing. So I definitely take pride in the fact that I’m reaching out to some up and coming acts and kinda helping them along.”

Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Society Artistic Director Ryan Shotton pictured here playing mandolin with The Lost Highway Navigators (photo by Scott Roos)

Shotton is also tasked with selecting acts that can hold their own as full fledged festival performers. Many of these performers also serve as camp instructors during the week. So he has to not only find bonafide headliners but also, amongst those headliners, individuals that can teach and instruct. It’s gotta be a tough job being artistic director, but Shotton is definitely in his element. The traditional aspects of bluegrass and Appalachian music this year are fulfilled with bands like the Bix Mix Boys and Martha Spencer and the Wonderland Band. Then there’s the progressive stuff like The Well Drinkers, the folk musings of Steph Cameron… What Shotton has done with the 2023 lineup is provide quality entertainment. That’s a fact.

“We start with traditional old time and traditional bluegrass. We start with those bands and instructors and then from there I start filling in the gaps and kind of blurring the lines between tradition and new music which is where sometimes it takes you to Cajun, Celtic, Quebecois music and folk,” Shotton reveals of his selection process, “It takes you to all kinds of different places and at that point once your needs are met as a festival and camp, then it’s just about having fun. You’re kinda making your own salad. So what other kind of flavour do I want in this thing that’s gonna excite me and inspire me.”

As Shotton has matured into the position he’s making things his own. With the rolodex being healthy from his time spent as a working musician, there’s been a lot to work with and choose from when he first started as artistic director. Now that he’s been knee deep in the waters of meeting the needs of the society, he’s starting building off that foundation. It’s exciting to see and, if this year was any indication, things are only going to keep getting better and better from here. That's saying something too because it's already awesome.

(editor's note: In my final piece about the camp and festival, I'll give a rundown of some of the more memorable main stage acts)

Bix Mix Boys guitarist Logan Sarchfield leans into the mic whilst banjo picker Darcy Whiteside looks on (photo by Scott Roos). They provided a well received traditional sound to the festival proceedings. A great act from Alberta no doubt brought to fulfill Shotton's vision of giving Canadian acts centre stage.

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