When guitarist and singer Norm Olsen and the rest of the Seattle bluegrass band North Country got to Nashville for a big competition, they hoped they would not be "looked at with a jaundiced eye for being Yankees."
Many of the other bands at the annual Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America (SPBGMA) competition in February were from the southeastern U.S., the traditional heartland of the stringed, roots-country sound.
In the end, North Country placed a respectable sixth place, not bad for a band formed only in 2012.
"We went on a whim and looked into it. It put our names out back East where the heart of this style of music is. And we didn't do too bad. Other than us, the band that was furthest from the Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina area in that competition was from Virginia," Olsen says.
"We were definitely the black sheep. We honestly did better than we thought we'd do and we were pretty pleased with that. All the bands were pretty close but there were a couple that placed behind us that we thought had a great chance in coming out ahead of us, so we were pretty pleased with that result. And we got a lot of feedback."
They hope to compete again next year.
Olsen says North Country started out locally and slowly.
"We kind of put our name in the hat and (started to) publicize the band wherever we could, and evidently our music must have spoken for us because we started getting interest in our music rather quickly, being asked to perform at larger concerts and bluegrass festivals," Olsen says.
Washington performances led to others in California and Arizona.
And North Country is now performing for the first time at the Brackendale Art Gallery's Bluegrass Festival, founded by gallery owner Thor Froslev 13 years ago. The festival takes place on Saturday, May 2.
Olsen says they are coming in order to play with 17-year-old bluegrass musician and Brackendale resident Michael Kilby.
Kilby started playing the fiddle at the age of 10. Squamish musician and Juno Award winner Cam Salay referred to him as a "wiz kid" in an email about the bluegrass show.
Olsen says: "Michael plays with us often and he asked us to go up this time; he's always coming down here and playing stuff with us. He says it's a really neat town.
"He plays anything with strings on it. He's a prodigal son of bluegrass, a phenomenal guitar player. He plays the mandolin, the fiddle. Most of the time with us he plays the dobro (acoustic guitar)... he's incredible."
While Kilby isn't an official member of the band, he performs with North Country "more often than not."
North Country is a young band, with most members in their 20s. Olsen says this is not unusual, particularly in the southeast U.S. where bluegrass remains popular.
"Our bass player Kent is 58, so he's the old guy and gets reminded of it, but it's all in good fun," Olsen laughs.
"We all had separate inspirations but the main thing is that we all shared a love of the music and we have a taste for it. It caught my ear when I was young, it was something that I though was neat. There is an established bluegrass community in the North-West, from British Columbia to Oregon.
"The key demographic for bluegrass is the older folks who grew up with it in the golden age... but we're proof that it is for everybody."
North Country's first album Won't Be Over You is available on their website.
For more on the band visit www.northcountrybluegrass.com.
Local band Southbound Train is also performing, with Salay, Richard Kilby, Michael Kilby, Paul Coulter-Brown and 13-year-old Emily Ashcroft.
Tickets for the night are $20 and available at Xcolatl, the BAG, or from Salay at 898-3333. There is also a slo-jam from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. All skill levels are welcome.
For more information visit: www.brackendaleartgallery.com.
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