WinterWonderGrass Founder, Chris Pandolfi & Tim Carbone Talk Inaugural Vermont Festival
Only two days remain until WinterWonderGrass Festival’s inaugural event at Vermont’s Stratton Mountain Resort. Ask anyone who has been, there’s truly no event quite like it. Every year promises the finest bluegrass, jamgrass and roots music, breathtaking mountain scenery, local and regional craft beers and thousands of extremely happy people who know they are exactly where they want to be.
Since the festival began in Colorado seven years ago, WinterWonderGrass has prospered with repeated sell-outs and expansion to Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows in Lake Tahoe and now in the Northeast. This success is no coincidence.
Throwing a festival is no easy feat these days. The wildly oversaturated market is dominated by mainstream acts and corporate powerhouses. The music festival bubble has burst, and only the most loved and most authentic survive.
A fan’s decision about where to spend their hard-earned money is no longer an easy one. Both festival creators and attendees tend to approach music festivals with tunnel vision. Fans want to know “what’s this music festival going to do for me?” And what the creators want is very simple: to maximize profit and minimize risk. It’s plain to see that this model is not working anymore. There’s got to be a shift, and WinterWonderGrass’ founder and producer Scott Stoughton recognized this nearly a decade ago.
“The original idea for WinterWonderGrass came together because I saw a lot of different music festivals happening,” Stoughton explained. “I saw the beer culture expanding. I was also living in a mountain town at the time, and I saw corporatization of mountain communities, influx of people, everything was branded, and it wasn’t feeling right. It wasn’t authentic.”
So Stoughton did what any savvy entrepreneur would do: he saw a void in a particular market that he viewed as an opportunity. But rather than dollar signs in his eyes, Stoughton saw something far more beautiful and far more authentic. He set out to build WinterWonderGrass as a bridge between the resort community and the local community. His personal commitment to sustainability and humanitarian work became the foundation for the brand, and the rest began to fall into place.
WinterWonderGrass is so very much more than just a music festival. To not understand that would be to miss the entire point. It would be like going out to see a movie in a theater wearing earplugs and an eye mask. Every detail of the festival is crafted with the intent to bring people together, both inside and outside of the event.
“We should hold our artists, staff, volunteers, and partners to a higher standard, to raise the bar in terms of maximizing the ability to make people feel better when they leave than when they came,” Stoughton said. “It’s not about showing up, watching the show and leaving.”
Tickets to certain large-scale festivals can cost as much as $400, and the idea that you might have a real conversation with one of your favorite artists on the lineup would probably never cross your mind. You’d have to pull strings, literally hop fences and dodge security guards in order to do so. The WinterWonderGrass lineup features hand-selected artists who seek something greater: a real connection with their fans and fellow musicians.
“Our artists are all about community,” said Stoughton. “They’re about staying in town for more than a day. People always ask, why do I book that band. I book them because they’ll play if the lights go out. They’ll play if the power goes out. They’ll stay in the community for more than one day. They’ll want to get on the mountain. They’ll want to hang out in the coffee shop, have a conversation in the gondola with some random fan that spent his entire savings to come on a 1 week trip to Tahoe and now they’re in the gondola with the guys from the Stringdusters who are being cool to him. I know that these artists will give people a reason to feel good about themselves. And that’s a huge part of this, it’s a huge component.”
“WinterWonderGrass is just one of those events that I think we’ll [The Infamous Stringdusters] be involved with for a really long time, not only because it helps us reach a lot of people, but because it really feels right,” said Pandolfi. “It fits into the energy, the community, that we’re trying to foster around our music, and around our fan base. All of that just really shines through at the event. It translates to the audience, and to the people who are working backstage, the staff, the crew, then it rubs off on the bands. Everybody just has a great time at these events, and they have since the very beginning. We’ve been doing them since year 1 and I hope we’ll always be involved. Scott has really put his stamp on things, and it shines through. He’s a huge part of what has made Colorado ground zero for the bluegrass and acoustic music that is thriving so much right now.”
When Stoughton first turned to the drawing board for the WonderGrass brand, he reached back into his early days of skiing in Vermont.
“I remember why I got into skiing, which was Vermont. As a little kid, we’d ski all day,” Stoughton recalled. “At the end of the day people would gather at the end of the runs, there’d be people picking music, guys throwing down barbecue, beers, kids running around. It wasn’t about the conditions, what you did on the mountain, or how great the day was on the hill. It was about getting together, and really rallying around the fire.”
When he paid his old stomping grounds a visit and knew the moment he got there that it was “the right time, the right place, and the right people.”
“If there’s an opportunity in a place that welcomes that, where it feels right, we do it. I felt Vermont was prime for it because of the cultural elements that come out of Vermont,” Stoughton added. “They’re really ahead of the curve in terms of creating opportunities for people to get great food, locally sourced, non-GMO, things that are good for people. That really inspired me. So here’s an opportunity for us to bring in our team, and our artists, and say we appreciate you, we’re glad to be here, let’s shine a light on how freaking amazing your community and your culture is.”
The WinterWonderGrass team has been working for months and months to ensure that when they arrive, they’ve already engaged thoroughly with the local community as well as the resort itself. Scott accomplished this by going to door to door, talking to people, asking them questions and getting to know them. When it came time to decide which non-profit they would be partnering with, the first question Stoughton asked was, “Who is doing the best work?”
Scott’s boots on the ground approach led him to the Stratton Foundation, a non-profit which provides low income families with food, education, health care, clothing, and financial assistance.
“Throughout the Colorado and Tahoe festivals, we’ve worked with seven different nonprofits over three years. Same with Squaw Valley,” said Stoughton. “With Vermont, it’s smaller, so I ask around…who’s doing great work. I found the Stratton Foundation. They’re out there in the communities that people don’t see. Many in Vermont are living below the line. So their efforts go in and support kids getting great food in schools, without shining a light on their challenges. What kid needs help? How do we help? How do we get to the family? Is it clothing? Is it food? They’re doing the real work. They were really stoked that we were interested in them. The more that we conversed and got along, we saw a really great opportunity to do deeper projects in the future. We’re always about figuring out who’s doing the real work in the communities.”
“I couldn’t really think of a better person to do what he’s doing than Scott,” said Tim Carbone of festival headliner Railroad Earth. “He’s such an open person. Right at the moment you meet him, you know he’s got a big beautiful heart because he just exudes it. Someone like Scotty is exactly what the Northeast needs.”
WinterWonderGrass is not just fluff; they are not setting out to maximize profit and minimize risk. They’re willing to take huge risks and sacrifices to ensure this event is authentic down to the very core.
“It’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than all of us,” Stoughton concluded. “It’s happening. It’s a movement, it’s a cultural revolution in terms of all things authentic, and things you can feel good about doing.”
The inaugural Vermont installment of WinterWonderGrass runs from this Friday, December 14 – Sunday, December 16. Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Keller & the Keels, Fruition and Billy Strings are among the acts scheduled to perform. WinterWonderGrass Colorado will take place in Steamboat Springs February 22 – 24, 2019 featuring Trampled By Turtles, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters and more. The Tahoe festival is scheduled for March 29 – 31, 2019 in Squaw Valley, California. Greensky Bluegrass, Trampled By Turtles and Leftover Salmon headline in California.