For the second year in a row, actor and banjo player Ed Helms will bring his Bluegrass Situation brand to Bonnaroo for a curated stage and a Superjam. This year's lineup includes Sarah Jarosz, Shovels & Rope, The Lone Bellow, Black Lillies, and Lake Street Dive. We spoke by phone today to Bluegrass Situation co-founder Amy Reitnour about their ongoing relationship with Bonnaroo, the bands performing on this year's Bluegrass Situation stage, and what to expect from this year's Superjam.
This is your second year working with Bonnaroo on The Bluegrass Situation. How did that relationship begin?
We were introduced to Bonnaroo co-founder Ashley Capps a couple of years ago. Ashley is involved with the Americana Music Association and, through a mutual friend, it was recommended that we were on the pulse of what was going on that it could be a good joint venture. Bonnaroo's never had a branded stage before, they'd done a Tennessee Shines stage but that was non-profit related and just Tennessee artists that were featured. So it was something new for them and something new for us for sure. It was a huge deal for us too because we were really just taking off, the Sitch was just taking off. After last year it worked so well and we got such a good reaction, we had probably 12,000 people at the Superjam, so it was a no-brainer that we'd be back.
You're taking a slightly different tack this year. Last year, you had two huge roots legends, Sam Bush and Del McCoury, to anchor the show. But this year's lineup is really a pure showcase for the scene's youth movement.
You know, we're in a time right now that we're so lucky to be surrounded by so much unbelievable young talent. It's undeniable. Yes, there are legends out there that we look up to and love like Del and Sam, but more and more what we seek to represent is the younger generation and how the genre is shifting and what that represents and where it can go.
We feel the artists on the stage this year, whether it be Sarah Jarosz or Lake Street Dive or Shovels & Rope or whoever, they're taking elements of roots music and making it their own and figuring out what it looks like in the future. That to us is exciting and knowing we have the support of legendary artists like Del and Sam and we had Jerry Douglas and Tim O'Brien at our jam at Americanafest is great. But this year is all about what's new and what's coming next. But don't discount the Superjam! We might have some tricks up our sleeve for that one!
I doubt I'm going to get details, but maybe a surprise or two?
There will definitely be a surprise or two. Bonnaroo will make an announcement soon about Superjam guests and that'll be some of them, but not all of them. We're keeping a few surprises for ourselves.
How does the selection process for the Bluegrass Situation go? Do you guys suggest band or do they book bands and you guys pick who fits?
It's a balance between the two. It's us... we have certain people in mind we feel strongly about and say “yes, we absolutely want to work with them. We want to give them a stage.” And Bonnaroo listens to us. Their team is so awesome and so organized. Sometimes they'll come to us and say “hey, look who we're booking this year.” They'll be really excited about someone they're booking and they'll say “does this make sense to you guys for your stage?” We kind of go back and forth but they've been really receptive to everyone we've brought to the table. It's been great.
What do you have coming up in the future for The Bluegrass Situation, both the site and shows?
The Sitch has gone through tremendous growth over the past couple of years. We'd been going for just over a year when we did the first Bonnaroo stage. Prior to that, Ed had his L.A. Bluegrass Situation Festival, which is where this all stemmed from, he'd been doing that for 3 years. After Bonnaroo, we just found our footing as far as what our role is. We have our own festival here in L.A., but we've also found a niche in going in and working with other festivals and events to curate stages and jams and workshops that are really special and unique. When people see that BGS logo they know it's going to be a combination of artists that they hadn't imagined before and that they probably won't see again.
We just hosted the Merlefest Midnight Jam just a few weeks ago. That's been going on for a long time but this year it was just awesome. We had 25 bands show up to jam from Della Mae to Bryan Sutton to Allison Brown to Steep Canyon Rangers to The Steel Wheels. Everybody just wanted to show up and take part and got really excited about it. It wasn't just the usual jams, it was different covers and it was so much fun. That's really center to what we do at The Sitch. It's about the community, it's about the people, it's about having a really good time. It's not just the music but the lifestyle that comes with it.
We've also got a huge web expansion coming up. We'll have more content, more videos, that kind of stuff. We also just announced that we'll be a Newport Folk Fest, we'll be doing the workshop stages on Sunday. It's our first year there. We've got a couple of more festivals we'll be appearing at but we can't announce those just yet. We've got some cool stuff up our sleeve.
How much rehearsal goes into the Bonnaroo Superjam?
We start planning out the setlist pretty early. We work closely with the bands. That's kind of an expectation that if you're playing the BGS stage, you're participating in the Superjam and bringing your own elements to the table and suggesting songs. We start an e-mail chain pretty early in the game and then Ed and some of our friends kind of whittle it down and fill in the gaps to see if we need to bring someone else on or if we're missing some songs that we really like to do.
The great thing about Bonnaroo is a lot of artists are there for a lot of the weekend. So you've got folks there so we're always hanging out either at the campsite or backstage, working through songs and working through ideas and having a great time. Then the day of, it all just comes together. We're so excited to be back!