When one hears the playing of a fiddle and the picking of a banjo coming from Flagstaff’s Ponderosa pine forest, it can only mean one thing: Pickin’ in the Pines is back. After 2020’s cancellation of the famous bluegrass music festival, bands and fans from all over the country gathered at Fort Tuthill’s Pepsi Amphitheater once again for a weekend of dancing, fun and top-tier bluegrass music.
Since 2006, Pickin’ in the Pines has been going strong with annual festivities that draw crowds from near and far. However, due to COVID-19, the event was forced into a two-year hiatus before returning with full steam Sept. 19. Anyone who had tickets for the 2020 festival could gain entrance to this year’s events, according to the award-winning festival’s website.
Hosted by Flagstaff Friends of Traditional Music, Pickin’ in the Pines offers a host of activities for attendees to enjoy alongside the main-stage bluegrass lineup. Food, drinks, dancing, vendors and even intimate workshops taught by the performing bands were all enjoyed at the festival.
In their workshop session, Durango, Colorado trio Stillhouse Junkies discussed songwriting methods and techniques they employ while performing to keep themselves and their audience engaged. Guitarist and vocalist Fred Kosak explained how the group stopped using setlists for their shows in order to keep things interesting and in tune with the ever-changing atmosphere. Kosak said even though it can be intimidating to do so, he simply directs traffic while his talented band members keep the good times rolling.
“If you rely too much on the sheet in front of you, you can miss some organic opportunities that arise in the song,” Kosak said.
Kosak listed the range of genres Stillhouse Junkies encapsulates. From composed and classical elements, to swing and traditional bluegrass, the trio’s style is very much its own — what it calls progressive American roots. He described how each musician brings unique qualities to their music.
“We’ve all had to push ourselves on our individual instruments to fill in areas of each arrangement, elevate our rhythm playing and hopefully create a sound that is more than the sum of its parts,” Kosak said.
For Stillhouse Junkies, Pickin’ in the Pines is just the beginning of three weeks of fun, as Kosak explained the ensemble is embarking on a cross-country tour in celebration of their most recent album, "Calamity,” The trio will finish off its tour as showcase artists at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass festival in Raleigh, North Carolina, where it has been nominated for a Momentum Band of the Year award.
Closer to home, Nolan McKelvey & Muskellunge is a Flagstaff-based bluegrass band. Nolan McKelvey explained while the group travels frequently, Flagstaff is where it all started, and the town also serves as the inspiration behind a lot of his songwriting.
“Our band plays my original songs, and I often reference local landmarks and topics in my songwriting,” McKelvey said. “I’ve been told we represent the vibe of Flagstaff for some people.”
After the festival’s absence last year, McKelvey said the group was eager to return to Pickin’ in the Pines.
“The lineup is incredible,” McKelvey said. “The fact that it’s outdoors [and] in the cool open air of Flagstaff at this time of year sounds just about perfect. The promoters are working hard to put the show on in a safe manner, and I’m thankful for their efforts. It’s been a long wait, and we are all excited to perform again.”
Unlike McKelvey & Muskellunge, North Carolina group Fireside Collective made its Arizona debut at Pickin’ in the Pines on Sept. 17. Mandolin player and vocalist Jesse Laquinto said the members of Fireside Collective were surprised by Flagstaff’s beauty and the different atmosphere of the pines compared to when they landed in Phoenix.
Laquinto and guitarist Joe Cicero explained that Pickin’ in the Pines had been on Fireside Collective’s bucket list, and the group was thrilled to be part of the lineup.
“We’re just so stoked we could be here,” Laquinto said. “We talked to the promoter in Raleigh at the International Bluegrass Music Association convention that they do and he was like, ‘We need to get you guys out to Arizona.’ So, he’s the one who made it happen.”
Whether they were from near or far, bands said they were just as excited to perform at Pickin’ in the Pines as fans were to attend the bluegrass music festival, especially after waiting two years since the last one. The event that spanned from Sept. 17 to 19 was one for the books, and bluegrass bands now bid Pepsi Amphitheater a fond ‘until next year.’