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Listenin', learnin' and swayin' to the high lonesome sounds

A physiotherapist, an environmental consultant, a school teacher, a business consultant and a retiree seemingly had nothing in common. But because of the Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival, they now do.

A physiotherapist, an environmental consultant, a school teacher, a business consultant and a retiree seemingly had nothing in common. But because of the Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival, they now do. They’re all part of a local band called Second Cousins that formed out of the festival.

Thane Phillips, a former organizer of the festival who does vocals and plays mandolin, asked the other members if they were interested in forming a band after meeting them at the festival’s music camp. They performed on the showcase stage in 2010, won the competition, and stayed together since.

“The band just basically grew out of the efforts of the (Yukon) Bluegrass Society to support local musicians out of the camp and get out and play live music,” double bass player Scott Wilson said.

Wilson describes Second Cousins’s music as a “crossover” of genres, by creating bluegrass covers of classic rock songs and composing their own eclectic mixes. Rock songs they’ve reinterpreted include Bruce Springsteen’s I’m On Fire, Guns ‘N Roses’s Sweet Child Of Mine and Prince’s Kiss.

The band name conveys “a playful take on that whole idea of hillbillies and small towns,” Wilson said.

Second Cousins is one of three local groups performing this year that were formed through winning the showcase in previous years. “It was kind of like a farm team for bluegrass,” Wilson said.

Phillips echoed Wilson’s enthusiasm of the showcase. “It was great for us that we did (win the showcase) because it definitely gave us the confidence and a boost to keep going.”

Wilson said that despite the band members’ hectic schedules, save for himself as a retired physician, they always find time for bluegrass. “They’re all working full time and have got young families but music is sort of a big outlet for them. So we’ve managed to keep together because it’s a bit of a passion and an outlet.”

Another group that emerged from the showcase competition is the Bennett Sun, a band of five women who practise religiously on a weekly basis, just like Second Cousins. The Hinterlands, a group that won the 2012 winter showcase, is also featured in the local performers lineup.

Despite the support for local emerging artists, attendance atthe bluegrass festival has been declining in the last two years.

“We have the same calibre of bands,” if not higher, said two-time festival producer Steve Gedrose, who has been involved since the festival’s inception in 2003 as part of the selection committee. He said he couldn’t explain why sales were down.

Gedrose said that their survey last year revealed that attendees actually preferred Whitehorse over the former Haines Junction location, which changed in 2011. “That doesn’t address the people that didn’t come but certainly is the reaction from the people we got last year,” he added.

To spice up the menu this year, Gedrose said the festival is offering new workshops. In the past, the festival offered more individual-based workshops on weekend mornings of the performances, such as mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and guitar classes.

This year’s workshops “focus more on how a group interacts,” Gedrose said. For example, The Chapmans, a Missouri-based family band which has more than 20 years of experience in the industry, will be teaching vocal harmony and the different roles of instruments.

Another highlight is 21-year-old American mandolinist and singer Sierra Hull, whose album Secrets placed second in the Billboard Top Bluegrass Albums chart when she was 16. Hull will be featured along with the Gibson Brothers, an award-winning bluegrass/gospel band.

Hull is also teaching the fully-booked intermediate mandolin class during the four-day music camp succeeding the festival, which will be held at Sundog Retreat.

Gedrose is hopeful this year that the new workshops and Hull will cast a wider net. Asked if the digitization of the music industry might be taking over roots music, Gedrose said, “It’s funny because I think it’s the opposite. People are battling against that kind of machine-made music.”

Fighting the machine is ingrained in this music genre. “The cult of bluegrass culture is strictly an oral tradition. You hardly ever see a sheet of music or a book or anything,” Gedrose said, “A lot of these guys that are coming to play have all learned by hearing their dads and their uncles and their neighbours playing music on the front porch.”

The Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival runs from Friday, June 7 to Sunday, June 9. The camp will take place thereafter from Sunday evening to Thursday, June 13.

A package including instruction, concerts, meals and camping costs $450. Tickets for performances - which start at $20 for the gospel concert at Whitehorse United Church to $130 for a full weekend pass - are available at the Yukon Arts Centre.

Contact Krystle Alarcon at