Catching up with WinterWondergrass Founder Scotty Stoughton

Winter Wonder Grass
Photo by Tobin Voggesser © WinterWonderGrass Festival All Rights Rerserved 2019

This year’s WinterWondergrass Festival, held at the resort’s Noll Parking Lot with satellite shows around town, will be held Feb. 25-27, to much fanfare from a fanbase that was forced to forego last year’s show during the pandemic. At its helm is Steamboat local Scotty Stoughton, a musician himself (Bonfire Dub ring a bell?) who’s also behind the ever-popular River Wondergrass river trips through Dinosaur National Monument with his rafting company Adrift Adventures. Swillin’ caught up with Stoughton for his take on this year’s show, Steamboat and slice of heaven he’s carced out for himself and others in the Yampa Valley.

Photo by Molly McCormick © WinterWonderGrass Festival All Rights Rerserved 2019

Swillin’: How’s this year’s lineup looking? 

It’s looking great; each and every band on the lineup is absolutely shredding. We just added 14 additional bands and two more headliners. I know everyone wants to see their favorite bands, and often the same bands, and while we go after everyone, we like to shake things up each year. I never want to be complacent or take the easy road; we collectively work hard as a team to find emerging acts, acts that are working hard releasing records and touring, and of course the legacy bands. 

How hard was it having to skip a year?

It still feels like a hole in my heart. There is the personal sadness and, at times, the despair over what is happening in our industry. Add into that the intense messages we get, I get, personally attacking our COVID protocols or that we cancelled. It’s difficult to understand why some people are so angry at the music world and what we have to do to survive, but it can be incredibly stressful and heartbreaking. I mostly feel for the touring bands, who are just maxed-out on stress and anxiety. Which is why I’m fighting harder than ever to stay true to the original intention of WinterWonderGrass — provide a platform for artists and fans to connect in nature. I care so deeply and passionately about creating community; I could probably learn to be a little less sensitive.

Are you excited to host a live event here again? 

Peak excitement. It’s part of what I am meant to do in this life — hold space for people to gather.

Any particular COVID protocols you’ll be following?  

As with the Renewal Event we hosted in September, we are following local health mandates and guidelines. We are not making any decisions on WWG until early next year; hopefully we are in a much better place. In addition, we already hired a cleaning team to make sure all the spaces are sanitized and cleaned regularly. We will have extra toilet cleanings scheduled, there will be hand sanitizer everywhere, and more. WWG has been outdoors since 2013, so I’m feeling very positive about the existing safety of our event. I am personally a huge believer in personal responsibility — be kind, wear a mask if you like or need, and generally let’s respect and take care of each other. And if you are feeling sick, reach out to transfer your ticket.

Let’s move onto the river…how are your RiverWonderGrass trips doing and are people loving them?  

It’s really beyond anything myself or our team could have envisioned. We knew they would be special — taking folks that were mostly new to the river down the beautiful and unspoiled Gates of Lodore and The Yampa River through Dinosaur National Monument. As anyone who has ventured overnight along a majestic waterway can attest to, there is just pure magic there. The greatest joy has been to connect with our fans and artists intimately, having the time to sip coffee in the morning while Linsday Lou sings acapella to the canyon. It’s where we are meant to be, where we are in our pure form, where there is no right and left, just forward.

You did a podcast with the NFL’s Joe Hawley, and took him and some other players on a RiverWonderGrass trip…how’d that go? 

It was a very unique experience in my life, a huge honor. I met Joe when he was a random guest at RiverWonderGrass 2020, and we clicked. On a hike up Jones Creek we talked about his vision to help professional athletes transition from a somewhat artificial, star-studded life, into a meaningful, spiritual journey, and there is nowhere better than on a river to accomplish that. We all went very deep emotionally and spiritually, and helped each other feel vulnerable and safe amongst the brothers. There were tears, laughs, hugs, smiles and uninhibited dancing under the universe to the sounds of hand drumming.

When did you move to Steamboat and what do you like about it?  

I moved here officially in September of 2019 with my family, but I’ve been playing here since the late ‘90s, at The Inferno and Heavenly Daze. I lived in Vail for several years, plus did stints in Boulder, Denver, L.A., and Central California, but I must say, I absolutely love Steamboat. It has been hard building a community since we were in semi-lock down soon after we arrived, but we are slowly building our circle and looking forward to expanding it deeply. I’m grateful for the very positive support we have received from business associates who have quickly turned into friends. 

Do the bands like playing here? 

They do, and many are also skiers and snowboarders — although many opt to sleep in after performing. When I set out to create a winter festival, I knew I had to find artists that were inspired and excited about winter culture. It’s a testament to the bluegrass culture that they all show up and face the elements with a smile and softness, even while getting pelted by snow. There is nowhere else I know of where Mother Nature plays such an integral role in the concert. The crowd gets excited and rises as the snow falls, the band feels that and plays to the weather, smiling at each other and unleashing jams unique to WWG. People just have to come to feel it. It’s pretty special.

Any insider tips for attendees as far as how to get the most of the show?

Come early, go see the bands you never heard of, and taste the local beer during the beer sampling hours. Dress in layers and, oh yeah, bring extra socks. An old school onesie is the greatest outfit. Be ready to meet new people, make new friends, dance your ass off, get lost while we are here. More than anything else, participate. We’re building a community and everyone is equally important in raising the energetic bar. Lastly, if your favorite band is not on the lineup, it’s okay; go outside the box. This is bigger than any one act or person. Once you come, you’ll know that.

Favorite spot to hit on a powder day?  

I honestly love skinning up and finding empty spaces. My inner self needs to be alone in the powder, ideally tucked into the trees, away from people. I gravitate mostly to where I feel people won’t be, and I’d rather hike all day for one run of untracked bliss. Honestly, I’m still finding my way around the mountain and need some local guidance to discover the true stashes. But I’ll wait for my turn.

Inside This Year’s Wondergrass Lineup

Feb. 25: Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Reel, The Travelin’ McCourys, Sierra Hull, Cris Jacobs, Drunken Hearts, Sticks and Thorns, Jay Roemer Band, The Sweet Lillies, Buffalo Commons, WWG All-stars. 

Feb. 26: Trampled by Turtles, The War & Treaty, Molly Tuttle, Dust Bowl Revival, Kitchen Dwellers, Morsel, Tejon Street Corner Thieves, Buffalo Commons, WWG All-stars.

Feb. 27: Woods Bros, Yonder Mountain String Band, Kitchen Dwellers, Pickin on the Dead, Ghost of Paul Revere, Morsel, Lindsay Lou, Dust Bowl Revival, Big Richard. 

Swillin’ Wondergrass Tips

Going to the show? Following are a few time-tested tips from the Swillin’ trenches on how to have a good time:

You can volunteer to get free tickets!  

Dress in layers; you’ll get hot dancing and cold drinking.

Bring gloves and a hat (stuff them in your jacket sleeve when you get warm).

Drink water, lots of it. Your ski legs will thank you.

Hit the off-venue shows, whether they’re at midnight downtown or at the top of the mountain.

Don’t overlook the side tents; that’s where some of the best jams happen.

Eat food. Don’t rely on beer carbs to get you through the evening.

Walk, carpool (with a DD) or bus — no use driving after dancing.