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Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival a summer staple for musicians, fans

In a season full of festivals, the Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival stands out.

Not only does Blue Waters, set to take over Waterfront Park in Medical Lake Friday through Sunday, give bluegrass fans a chance to hear some of the genre’s top acts, but it also gives those fans a chance to get in on the action through workshops with performers.

Events on the Workshop Stage begin at noon Saturday with a bass workshop with Charles Clements of the Lonely Heartstring Band.

John Reischman and Sharon Gilchrist, of the Harmonic Tone Revealers, and Matt Witler (also of the Lonely Heartstring Band) host a mandolin workshop at 1 p.m., and the Lonely Heartstring Band’s Gabe Hirshfeld leads a banjo workshop at 2 p.m. Patrick M’Gonigle, also of the Lonely Heartstring Band, will host a fiddle workshop at 3 p.m., and Rob Ickes, noted for being the most awarded instrumentalist in the history of the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, will end the day with a Dobro workshop at 4 p.m.

On Sunday, Michael Gifford, of River City Ramblers, will teach a washtub bass workshop at 10 a.m., and Scott Nygaard (Harmonic Tone Revealers) and George Clements, of the Lonely Heartstring Band, will teach a guitar workshop at 11 a.m.

For those looking for something a little more intensive, there will be a Wernick Method Jam Class hosted by Kelly Bogan, a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, instructor and member of the Inland Northwest Bluegrass Association.

Players of any skill level on all bluegrass instruments are welcome to attend this class, which will teach the basics of jamming and playing with others. There will be a class performance Sunday at 11:30 a.m.

The festival, which began in 2002, also offers young bluegrass musicians (ages 20 and younger) of all skill levels the opportunity to work with the performers on guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and bass.

The camp includes two days of instruction on basic songs and bluegrass jamming conventions and etiquette, all leading up to an onstage performance Saturday at 1 p.m.

Special to Blue Waters, too, is its annual tribute show. This year, Jackstraw, plus a few special guests, will combine music and narration from Blue Waters music director Kevin Brown to pay tribute to the Stanley Brothers, following the death of Ralph Stanley last year.

So who are the performers assisting with these workshops, camps and tributes?

Acts like the Panhandle Polecats, a quintet of siblings from Rathdrum, Nashville-based quartet Fireball Mail, the River City Ramblers, from right here in the Inland Northwest, and the Harmonic Tone Revealers, the trio of Reischman, Nygaard and Gilchrist, will warm up the stage.

As will Brett and Janet Dodd, a Spokane-based singer-songwriter duo, Spokane’s Caleb and Jenny Anne Mannan and the Bust It Like a Mule Band, and Portland’s Jackstraw, celebrating its 20th year together.

Headlining this year’s festival is a trifecta of acts, each of which brings its own spin on bluegrass to Blue Waters.

Boston-based quintet the Lonely Heartstring Band, performing Saturday at 9:15 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m., has only been together for five years, but the band is making waves in the scene for the way it melds traditional bluegrass elements with a more modern, acoustic sound. The band released its debut full-length, “Deep Waters,” last year.

Ickes and Trey Hensley, acclaimed performers on their own, are an even bigger force to be reckoned with when they come together. The duo, performing Friday at 9 p.m. and Saturday at 8:15 p.m., came to be after Ickes heard Hensley’s scratch vocals on a song Ickes’ band Blue Highway was looking to record. The pair’s debut album, “Before the Sun Goes Down,” was nominated for the best bluegrass album Grammy, and Ickes and Hensley are still going strong with last year’s “The Country Blues.”

Last but not least is Kaia Kater, who takes the stage Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 2:30 p.m. Born and raised in Canada, Kater combines Canadian folk music with elements of Appalachian music she picked up while studying in West Virginia. This blend and her smoky voice are on display on “Sorrow Bound” and last year’s “Nine Pin,” which Kater recorded in just one day.

With a varied lineup representing every facet of bluegrass and on-site amenities like camping and food vendors, though attendees can also bring in their own picnic food, Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival has established itself yet again as a summer staple for bluegrass musicians and fans alike.