Photo courtesy of Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival
The Delgado Brothers are on the stage Sunday afternoon and will help close the festival that night.

What started as a small event has grown to an iconic musical attraction in Winthrop

By Marcy Stamper

In three decades, a lot can happen at a music festival.

Couples have met and gotten married. Friends scattered ashes after a long-time fan died. And the Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival is now old enough to be hosting its third generation of music lovers, with people who attended as toddlers in the 1980s bringing their own kids to enjoy three days of blues, rock ’n’ roll, zydeco and acoustic music.

Photo by Norm Eder, courtesy of Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival
Sugaray Rayford and his band appear on Sunday.

Despite its deep R&B roots, the festival appeals to people with diverse musical tastes. Erika Olsen, now the festival director, grew up in a family of musicians — her mother was an opera singer and her father, a symphony orchestra conductor — but they all love coming to the festival. In fact, Olsen hasn’t missed a festival since she first attended in 1993, except for the year she was nine months pregnant.

While it took a few years for the festival to get its footing, as it tried out different venues in Winthrop, it now has a permanent home at the Blues Ranch outside Winthrop.

And with several awards under its belt — including the Keeping the Blues Alive from the Blues Foundation — the festival has earned a top reputation among performers. Each year, about 300 bands seek them out, wanting to play on the Winthrop stage, said Olsen.

This year, organizers got in early to book headliner Delbert McClinton, who’s bringing 11 people from Nashville, said Olsen. This is a rare Western appearance for the multi–Grammy award winner. In recent years, McClinton has blended his Texas-bred rhythm and blues sound with a jazz influence.

Over the years, the R&B festival has hosted celebrated blues artists including Koko Taylor, Booker T & The M.G.’s, Elvin Bishop, Ike Turner, Little Feat and Johnny Winter, and introduced up-and-coming acts to audiences.

‘Boutique festival’

Photo by David McClister, courtesy of the Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival
Southern Avenue performs on Friday and Saturday.

While the festival draws about 3,500 to 4,000 attendees annually, it is still relatively small on the national scene, dwarfed by the tens of thousands who attend festivals in Portland and Chicago. “I call it a boutique festival,” said Olsen.

The R&B festival got its start when Jimmy Smith, who owned the Palace restaurant in Winthrop for two decades, and a few friends decided to hold an outdoor concert to promote the Methow Valley.

“The inspiration was to have live music,” said Smith. The first festival was a one-day event at the Winthrop KOA, with Charlie Musselwhite as the headliner. But it overwhelmed the campground, so the organizers moved to what is now the Silverline Resort near Pearrygin Lake for two years.

Photo courtesy of Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival
Rae Gordon & The Backseat Drivers perform Sunday.

In the fourth year, after a long, heated debate, the Winthrop Town Council let the organizers hold the festival at the town ball field, said Smith. After that, the festival spent two years at the resort at Twin Lakes.

By the seventh year, the festival needed a more permanent home that could accommodate the growing crowds and spirited music and dance. The organizers connected with a Seattle-based physician, Michael Scott, who owned what is now the R&B grounds, then an unkempt horse pasture with junk cars on the river and some dilapidated shacks, said Smith.

They negotiated an agreement with Scott and made some improvements to the site, and have held the festival there every year since. Scott, who still owns the land, is now 94 years old, and he and his son are regular attendees, said Smith.

Early on, some people asked Smith, “Why would you hold a rhythm and blues festival in the middle of nowhere in a Western-motif town? Are you out of your mind?”

“Winthrop was a fun party town — it was quite a crazy little scene in those days,” he said. “It’s mellowed out.”

Now a nonprofit

Courtesy of Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival
Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band take the stage Saturday.

The festival has expanded since the early years, with music starting Friday night and continuing through Sunday. In fact, this year the festival is adding music on Thursday, with acoustic bluegrass and vocals by Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley just up Highway 20 at the Methow Valley Ciderhouse.

The management has also changed. The R&B festival has been run by the nonprofit Winthrop Music Association for the past 12 years, which has stabilized the finances and logistics, said Smith. Setting aside enough money to keep the festival going, the nonprofit donates considerable revenue to charities.

Proceeds from Friday night are donated to The Cove food bank in Twisp. The festival also donates money to Room One, Little Star Montessori School, and the Liberty Bell High School music program, said Smith.

Don Ashford, a long-time audience member who’s now on the board, has also served as a festival announcer and helped backstage, which has introduced him to some legendary musicians.

“Here we are in Winthrop — to me, it’s completely normal to be in a horse pasture,” said Ashford, recalling what it was like to talk to blues greats there. “Like Mavis Staples — I felt like I should bow or something, because she’s so cool,” he said.

“I never thought it was going to go for 30 years. We just wanted to promote Winthrop and have a little fun,” said Smith. “We were just a bunch of hippies.”

This year’s highlights

Highlights at this year’s festival include Lukas Nelson, Willie Nelson’s son, who’s played what he calls “cowboy, hippie surf-rock” with Neil Young and Sheryl Crow.

“Marcus King is a young phenom,” said Ashford. He said it was a coup for the festival to book King, who was mentored by the guitar player for the Allman Brothers. King describes his music as “soul-influenced psychedelic southern rock” backed by percussion, keyboards, saxophone and brass.

With their gospel-tinged and roots-based Memphis soul, Southern Avenue will be a big surprise to people who don’t know the up-and-coming group, said Ashford.

The Greyhounds bring a rock ’n’ roll vibe that will appeal to a younger crowd, as will Carolyn Wonderland, with her soulful vocals and virtuosic, seething-hot guitar, said Ashford, who has played many of the artists on his local radio station, KTRT-FM.

Grammy award–winner Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band return to the festival with Carrier’s funky zydeco and blazing work on the accordion. Too Slim and the Taildraggers, perennial festival favorites, will also be back. Also look for the sultry vocals and raw groove of Portland-based Rae Gordon & The Backseat Drivers.


Being there this weekend

The Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival is at the Blues Ranch near Winthrop from Friday through Sunday (July 21-23). Music starts at 7 p.m. on Friday and 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Delbert McClinton performs at 10 p.m. on Saturday, followed by an all-star jam at the beer garden at 11:30 p.m. The jam begins at 9 p.m. on Sunday.

There is a special performance by Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley at the Methow Valley Ciderhouse in Winthrop on Thursday (July 20) from 7 to 10 p.m., with a $5 cover charge.

Weekend passes for the festival are $110 in advance at The Wine Shed in Winthrop or at winthropbluesfestival.com, and $120 at the gate. Separate admission for the Friday night beer-garden show is $20. Camping on the grounds is available for an additional fee.

A complete schedule is online at winthropbluesfestival.com.