Missouri River Bluegrass Festival
By Cheryl McCormack
Bluegrass music and cottonwood trees – the two go together like peas and carrots. In about a week, feel free to munch on the healthy veggies while you kick back and relax at Cross Ranch State Park (CRSP), listening to bluegrass bands perform live under the cottonwood trees.
The 25th Annual Missouri River Bluegrass Festival is scheduled for June 19-20 and bands are traveling from near and far for a weekend of “jamming” at the park, which is located southeast of Hensler.
History of the festival
Former CRSP Manager Jesse Hanson initiated the very first Missouri River Bluegrass Festival a quarter of a century ago, as a way to draw people to the park for Labor Day weekend, 1990.
After listening to the Bluegrass Association play at Bismarck’s Gateway Mall one Sunday afternoon, Hanson contacted the association’s president, John Andrus, to see if it would be possible to round up a few bands to play at CRSP.
With the support of the Center Community Club, the first festival went “off without a hitch” and the event has taken place every year since, with the exception of 2011, when the festival was cancelled due to the Missouri River flood.
Andrus, with the support of his wife, Arlene; their children, Joe and Evie; and many friends, successfully organized the event for the past 24 years. Just last summer, the Andruses retired, leaving the festival in the hands of Bob and Jill Wiese, Washburn, and members of the local bluegrass band, Cotton Wood.
“This event is a solid event that has been well-organized for the last 24 years,” Jill said. “We (Cotton Wood) have taken part in this festival for about 20 years and have learned from the best – the Andrus family. We are very excited to be a part of this and hope to bring great bluegrass music to North Dakota for many years.”
She said years of playing bass and guitar and singing vocals for Cotton Wood, as well as organizing numerous state-wide bluegrass events helps her to feel confident about chairing this year’s festival. She said the event just wouldn’t be possible without the help and support from the many volunteers, sponsors, bluegrass bands and CRSP staff. “Altogether, we make up the 25th Annual Missouri River Bluegrass Festival,” Jill said.
About the bands
Headlining this year’s festival is The Special Consensus, a bluegrass band formed in the Chicago area in 1975. According to a review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange, “Their (The Special Consensus) vocals are spotless, their playing is as shiny as a newly-minted penny, and music like this is the reason people come to love bluegrass...”
Greg Cahill, banjo player and leader of the band, has traveled to North Dakota to play for nearly 20 years and although he’s previously played at CRSP, he’s never before “jammed” at this particular festival.
Noting the band is “incredible,” Jill said, “The Special Consensus has a love for North Dakota and has been a favorite up here for a long time. We feel kind of ‘special’ having them at our festival.”
The Special Consensus recently released a CD featuring John Denver tunes. Band members will be teaching Saturday’s 1 p.m. workshop, “Learn a bluegrass song.” Visit (specialc.com) for more information and performance clips.
Saturday’s 2 p.m. workshop, “Learn bluegrass harmonies,” will be taught by The Wood Picks, a bluegrass band based out of Thief River Falls, Minn. Noting the band members are “incredible teachers,” Jill said, “We (Cotton Wood) have become great friends with them over the years, playing festivals together in Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana. They played at our Blizzard Bluegrass weekend two times and they just ‘wow the crowd’ with their performance style.”
Chuck Suchy, Mandan, is set to perform twice on Saturday – 3:30 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m. Jill called Suchy “our own North Dakota troubadour” and noted the musician has been singing and writing songs most of his life. “His songs sing true to North Dakota and he is an amazing story teller,” she said. “We are thrilled he is able to play this festival.”
Keeping with tradition, The Center Community Band and The Pfliger Sisters will once again open the festival on Saturday afternoon. Also performing throughout the festival are The Musick Family, Grassy Butte, and the Larsen Brothers, Taylor. And, of course, Cotton Wood.