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Steamboat Magazine

Music on a Mission

03/02/2023 08:00AM ● By Sophie Dingle
(Photo: The Infamous Stringdusters perform on stage at WinterWonderGrass in Steamboat Strings. The band will return in March to headline this year’s festival. Courtesy of Dylan Langille.)

From Steamboat Magazine Mountain Edition 2023. 

Ten years ago, in a parking lot in Edwards, snowflakes swirled as The Infamous Stringdusters strummed the first notes of their headline set. This was the beginning of WinterWonderGrass: a blizzard, 12 bands, a sold-out show and a path to the future of the festival.

On that snowy night in the Vail valley, the festival’s founder, Scotty Stoughton, knew he was in the right place at the right time.

“It was a time when places were disappearing in the valley which had a big music scene and I felt like there was a hole,” Stoughton says. “People were upset and sad. This was when a new generation of bluegrass and jam was coming around, and I felt like it was a good time to try a wild idea.”

That wild idea turned into a sold-out, two night show – and it stuck. He later moved the festival to Avon for more space but realized that something was missing. 

“I was really seeking more integration on the mountain and the opportunity to do shows on the hill and around the town,” he says. “I wanted a more cohesive partnership with the community and the resort.”

He fell in love with Steamboat Springs during a site visit, first moving the festival here and then moving his family.

“The first year in Steamboat was pretty special,” Stoughton says. “I had a sold-out festival in the Vail valley and I moved it – like, that’s crazy! But I was on a pursuit to find the right answer and this felt really right.”

This March will mark the festival’s sixth year in Steamboat and 10th year in Colorado. Along the way, Stoughton has expanded to create WinterWonderGrass events in California and Vermont as well as other festivals like Campout for the Cause and Revival as well as RiverWonderGrass and his latest, BajaWonderGrass.

At the heart of each event is authenticity, community and of course, the music that ties it all together. 

“We never want to grow just to grow,” says Stoughton. “We’re all about quality, not quantity. With Steamboat and Tahoe, we have two communities that are happy to support growth but we also commit to them that we’re not looking to grow but rather to be an impactful event in both of those communities. We want to be better, but not necessarily bigger.”

That concept – paired with Covid-19 – led Stoughton to pause some of his events, like WinterWonderGrass in Vermont, Campout for the Cause and Revival, while adding new ones that, as he puts it, “felt right.”

Several years ago, when Stoughton became involved in the river community, he paddleboarded the Grand Canyon and lived on the river for 21 nights. 

“I was enamored with how good I felt and how clear and healthy I was,” he remembers. “I wanted to figure out how to share that.”

And so RiverWonderGrass was created with artists like Buffalo Commons, Lindsey Lou and Tyler Grant signing on to participate in the guided river trips. Now in its fourth year, Stoughton says the plan is “more purpose, less party.”

It’s about shedding layers and having really sweet, vulnerable conversations with one another,” he says. “We’re very one-way communicative with social media and in life we’re so busy – this is a chance to slow down.”

The newest iteration, BajaWonderGrass, is also a chance to slow down. The already sold-out event is a small gathering of about 350 people with a few bands in a remote location along the Sea of Cortez. 

“It’s no thrills, no hype, midweek, one bar, no hotel packages,” says Stoughton. “Just strip it down.”

(Photo: The Infamous Stringdusters dobro player Andy Hall flanked by bandmates Jeremy Garrett on fiddle and Chris Pandolfi on banjo at WinterWonderGrass in Steamboat Springs. Courtesy of Dylan Langille.)


Back in Steamboat though, there is a fair amount of hype – because this year’s WinterWonderGrass marks the 10 year anniversary of the festival. Stoughton has brought his two original headliners, Greensky Bluegrass and The Infamous Stringdusters, back for this year’s anniversary event.

“This is one of the coolest and most interesting festivals that we play,” says Travis Book, who is the bass player for Infamous Stringdusters. “We’re really honored to be headlining and it’s nice that we’ve kind of grown up together – our band and the festival have come a long way in the last decade.”

Book points out that the festival hasn’t drifted far from its ethos of positivity and musical exploration in the past decade. 

“Scotty [Stoughton] and his team have cultivated a really unique and positive environment and the lineup is always  just stacked with contemporaries and  good friends of ours,” he says. 

A positive environment is exactly what Stoughton is aiming for.

“What really gets me is when we bring new bands into the fold and they see the power of our community and the love that these bluegrass players exude,” he says. “Lack of ego in a hugely ego driven music industry – it’s really what gets me inspired.”

This year, Stoughton has added Neal Francis to the lineup, an up-and-coming alternative singer/songwriter who has been touring for most of 2022. Stoughton says that he adds bands and musicians to the lineup based on a feeling rather than who is selling a lot of tickets.

“Neal is out of the box,” he says, “but it’s authentic music. At the end of the day, you’ve got to be a real artist. If the power goes out, you can keep playing. If the snow comes down, you’re gonna embrace it. And more than your song and your talent - although that’s hugely important – it’s your desire to promote positivity and kindness and love and camaraderie. Those things get you booked at WinterWonderGrass.”

One decade later the festival that has moved parking lots, added bands and fans, and cultivated kindness and community returns to Steamboat Friday - Sunday,  March 3-5. And while some things have changed in the past ten years, some remain the same:  good times, and of course, snow. 

For tickets and more information on WinterWonderGrass, visit: