Washington, Wintergrass, and Wendy
by Shelby Berry
You may have heard of the annual Wintergrass Music Festival in Bellevue, Washington, and the excitement it brings to the bluegrass fans who attend it each year. However, you may not know Wendy Tyner, the Director of Philanthropy and Publicity and one of the leading ladies of Wintergrass – but you should.
Wendy oversees all philanthropy and publicity for Wintergrass, spending countless hours working with government officials and private and public organizations throughout partnerships that bring you the festival that we know and love.
Of course, every music festival has someone like Wendy in their pocket, but what makes her special is far more than the fact that she is a woman in bluegrass.
While the music of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs engrossed most bluegrass fans in the 1970s, the sound of the banjo in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is what first caught her eyes and ears.
While Wendy grew up in California and her access to bluegrass music was limited, her love for the simpleness of bluegrass and all that it brings began seeping into every part of her life. At age 17, she began dating her husband, and it was all fueled by their equal commitment to music and attending live shows.
“My dad taught me the value of music and how it can wrap around your soul and become part of who you are,” Wendy said.
Wendy’s husband began working at Disneyland in California at 18 years old, and Wendy later at 25 after completing her Master’s degree. Little did the two of them know that stepping through the front gates of the happiest place on earth would lead to their love for bluegrass music in a way they never thought possible.
“There was this section of Frontierland and Adventureland where you could listen to performers play live music, and we loved it!” said Wendy. “That’s where we first really heard bluegrass music. It was there that I first saw members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band play.”
“I was in my 40s when I finally decided to start taking lessons myself,” said Wendy. “I don’t play much, but I love the people in bluegrass music, the feeling of community, and the sense of inclusion.” She explained that the feeling is regional, national, and international, and it all comes from the idea that back porch jams and barbeque picnics founded bluegrass. “I love that idea.”
Wendy took banjo lessons from Wes Corbett, whose tremendous career in edgy contemporary bluegrass playing includes bands like Joy Kills Sorrow, The Bee Eaters, and The Molly Tuttle Band before finding his home with The Sam Bush Band.
“Even at 22 years old, Wes was a masterful player who learned to play by ear, so I was taught from the very best from the beginning. I learned while working in Disneyland always to provide the very best, and Wes had equally high standards.”
While Wendy has mostly just played banjo music for fun over the years, she also dabbled in clogging locally and regionally before Wintergrass found her, and she changed the game for them.
Like all good stories in Wendy’s bluegrass career, all roads lead back to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Wendy was a huge fan of the band and tried to help book them for some local shows while working as a teacher for kids with severe disabilities. She accidentally found herself on a 45-minute phone call with band member John McEuen and booked the band for a Vietnam peace trees fundraiser.
“We sold 250 tickets and turned 250 more away. We raised all the funds for everything, and I did all of the publicity and organized the event,” said Wendy. “The team at Wintergrass attended the concert and asked if I could volunteer to help with publicity for the festival.”
Starting with Wintergrass as a volunteer for three years, Wendy became full-time for publicity and philanthropy. Wintergrass has been a primarily women-led festival since 1994 and Wendy was thrilled to join a group of powerful women in a music industry that she loved for so long.
“I became empowered by Wintergrass and connecting people with the music,” said Wendy.
Many talented women have written, danced, and sung their way to fame throughout music history. Blazing trails for other women to follow is something that women in bluegrass have been known for since the beginning, establishing legacies for years to come. Wendy and the other women leaders of Wintergrass are proud to stand behind a festival that represents this every year.
Founded by a group of ladies in the late 90s after attending IBMA, they felt like that type of festival would fit seamlessly in the Pacific Northwest, especially in the winter when there aren’t many other festivals happening.
“One of the things we have done since the beginning is celebrated diversity,” said Wendy. “This year, eight of the 28 artists for Wintergrass are bands of all female musicians and not because of movements pushing for diversity and inclusion. We have always done this. It reflects our culture and who we are. It’s what we are proud of.”
Diversity for today’s festival looks even more inclusive than the festivals from the beginning – including creative bands that are all Jewish, lgbtq+, and the list goes on.
“Creativeness leads us in the bands that we choose, but we relate to the bands that represent diversity,” said Wendy.
An inclusive, represented artist lineup and the youth education program make Wintergrass special. The education program started with the youth academy and later added teacher training, teacher fellowship, and the award-winning youth orchestra. The festival and its leaders have won and been nominated for IBMA, CMA, and Grammy music awards.
This year, the excitement for Wintergrass is bigger than ever after last year’s festival became an online event titled Pocketgrass due to the pandemic.
“People are yearning for live music! They have to be together and want to be together more than ever before,” said Wendy.
Wintergrass is following Washington state rules for live music. All attendees, volunteers, and musicians must be masked and vaccinated. Each venue is being sold at 50% capacity to keep distancing. Distanced jamming and limited enrollment or education program sessions will take place. If Washington cancels the event, all attendees will receive full refunds.
Sixty workshops led by headliners and regional musicians will be available with the price of admission. They will cover instruments, songwriting, clogging, and harmony. You can still purchase your tickets online at https://wintergrass.com/.
“Community, fun, abundance, and inclusion are imperative for our festival. Anyone is welcome, no matter race, gender, or sexual preference. If we can empower women and foster inclusion and community, we will feel like we have done our job and walk away with a smile on our face,” said Wendy.
“It’s like the Mary Oliver poem titled ‘At Blackwater Pond’ that says, ‘What is that beautiful thing that just happened?’ We want people to walk away thinking that. I hope that when people leave that they are in awe of what they heard, saw, and felt.”