By Emily J. Weitz
When Blue Highway takes the stage at the Shelter Island School this weekend, they will not be the first Grammy-nominated bluegrass band to do so. Rather, Blue Highway is entering into an elite group of bluegrass greats to make the trek to the island in the dead of winter. Why? Because the bluegrass scene on the rock is as alive as it is in the hills of West Virginia.
Bluegrass music, which usually consists of stringed instruments including banjos, mandolins, fiddles, basses, and guitars, is quintessential American music. And while its roots are in the South and it has flourished in the West, it is not so common to find good ol’ fashioned hoedowns in the Northeast. But Shelter Island begs to differ.
“Bluegrass has taken hold here because we’re an island,” says Bennett Konesni, Executive Director of Sylvester Manor and member of the Free Seedlings, the band opening for Blue Highway on Saturday. “Most people here are aware of the isolation from the mainland, and they like it. They are very independent-minded and at the same time care about community, family, landscape and the culture of their place. Bluegrass music is independent minded music that talks about those things and helps you feel good even when times are tough. It matches the mindset and ways of life of an island community.”
These annual bluegrass shows began in 1994 when Shelter Island School put in a beautiful 300-person auditorium. Back then, Tom Hashagen and his acoustic band Homespun thought it would be a good idea to get some talent from off the island to take advantage of the space.
“We started with sponsorship from the Shelter Island Historical Society,” says Hashagen, “and had our first show, Phil Rosenthal and the Stockwell Brothers, in the spring of that year. The response was so good that we started doing annual shows, and as the reputation for the venue grew, it became easier to book quality acts.”
Some of bluegrass music’s most prominent names, including Tim and Mollie O’Brien, Nickle Creek, and The Steep Canyon Rangers have since graced the stage.
This year’s act, Blue Highway, has been nominated for two Grammy awards and has been laden with numerous IBMAs (International Bluegrass Music Awards) since they first took the stage on New Year’s Eve of 1994. The group — which consists of Jason Burleson (banjo, guitar, mandolin), Rob Ickes (dobro), Shawn Lane (mandolin, fiddle, vocals), Tim Stafford (guitar, vocals), and Wayne Taylor (bass, vocals) — is still completely intact, producing original music and garnering fresh accolades. This year, they came out with their tenth album, Sounds of Home, and Rob Ickes won IBMA’s Dobro Player of the Year for the 13th time.
For Burleson, bluegrass music is about “playing from the heart. There’s so much commercial music driven by money,” he says, “and I think when people hear bluegrass music they hear people singing for the sake of music. Not many people get rich playing bluegrass. Most people just do it because they love it.”
This love, he promises, translates into a rollicking good time for the audience.
“There’s such an intimacy between the audience and the musicians,” he says. “We always have lots of fun. It’s really family oriented and fan oriented.”
Burleson grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, and bluegrass music spoke to him.
“A lot of early bluegrass was about mountains and cabins,” he says. “I got into it at a young age. I was 11 when I started playing the banjo, and I grew to love it. It’s a part of my heritage.”
But as the community on Shelter Island is proving, you don’t have to have a southern drawl to be moved by bluegrass music.
“A very dedicated group of people has cultivated this music on Shelter Island for decades now,” says Konesni. “I’m lucky to have found these friends because I’ve been a lover of bluegrass and islands for my entire life. It’s a wonderful match!”
Tom Hashagen points to Konesni for his role in growing the bluegrass culture on the Island.
“Sylvester Manor is sponsoring this show in large part,” he says. “Bennett has brought to the Island a tremendous musical component, which has people coming in from all over the place playing banjos, making banjos, and doing workshops. He’s really helped out with the Island waking up to this type of music. He loves it like we all do.”
Hashagen believes that between the Shelter Island Town Rec Department and Sylvester Manor, “It looks like we’ll be providing quality musical entertainment for years to come.”