Utah’s father of bluegrass music has attended more music festivals than he can count. Which makes sense. They don’t call you Utah’s father of bluegrass music for nothing.
But Ted Shupe, 82, can’t remember looking forward to a festival more impatiently than the one taking place the weekend of July 9-11 at the Erickson Ranch in Wallsburg, Wasatch County.
Nearly two dozen groups and individual artists will participate in the sixth annual Wasatch Mountain Music Festival (Wasatchmountainmusic.com). They will perform on two stages Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day, playing a variety of genres.
But the headliner, as always, will be bluegrass music. And that lineup will feature two groups of bluegrass champions – String Fever and Salt Licks – who haven’t played together in over 25 years.
The bands come to Wallsburg to take the stage once again – and pay homage to the man who brought them together: Ted Shupe.
Old fashioned fidling
You have to go back to the early 90s to trace the origins of String Fever and Salt Licks. By then, Ted had already established himself as a man capable of recognizing and developing talent in the musical niche known as bluegrass – the country / folk offspring with Appalachian roots that includes acoustic instruments and, in particular, the old-fashioned violin.
Ted came naturally through his expertise. His mother’s line, the Robinsons, were fiddlers for as long as we can remember. His great-great-grandfather was a violinist, his great-grandfather was a fiddler, his grandfather and his father were fiddlers.
Ted’s older brother Jim was already an accomplished fiddler when he arrived, so his mother Merle started him playing the piano.
Ted also learned to play the violin, cello, violin, drums and bass, which became his main instrument. He has played in many country and bluegrass groups and today plays in a jazz swing group. But according to his own account, “I was never a great musician.”
His real talent is knowing how to teach and inspire – and promote – others.
It started with his own family. He and his wife Sandy’s five children – Ryan, Daron, Tara, Bonie and Staysee – all started playing instruments at a young age, with Ted playing with them every morning when they were training.
Ryan, their first son, was a prodigy as a violinist, a piece of the old family block. At the age of 7, Ryan was part of a group formed by Ted called the Peewee Pickers. As they perfected their craft, the young pickers, with Ted behind the wheel of the camper van, spent summers touring the country, playing at venues all over the South, including the Tennessee World’s Fair and to a political rally for President Ronald Reagan, in addition to a side trip to Europe.
The Peewee Pickers led to another children’s group called Powder Ridge which was so good they won the prestigious Telluride Festival in Colorado in 1989. (The Dixie Chicks won the following year.)
Ted was just warming up. Her next creation was String Fever, featuring two of Ryan’s younger siblings, Daron and Tara. He also won at Telluride in 1993. Then came another group of youngsters, Salt Licks. In 1994, he also won Telluride, as well as the Pizza Hut International Bluegrass Showdown, a quasi-national championship at the time.
Another Telluride Champion was added in 1997 when Ryan Shupe & the Rubberband – a group Ryan formed after leaving Salt Licks – won the title.
In nine years, four different groups of Ted Shupe have therefore won four Tellurids. It was like going to the Super Bowl and winning every two years – with four different teams.
With the exception of Ryan Shupe & the Rubberband, still going strong 26 years later, Ted’s other bands, for the usual reasons – marriage, Latter-day Saint missions, schooling, career, etc. – have all dissolved.
But no one has forgotten how to play bluegrass.
Next week, they will converge on a rural pasture in the town of Wallsburg, Wasatch County (population 250), erasing a quarter of a century.
The Salt Licks will perform at 3 p.m. on Friday, followed by String Fever at 4 p.m. on Saturday.
The festival will be completed by Ryan Shupe & the Rubberband at 8:30 p.m. Saturday night. At the end of this act, a “family jam” will include appearances, among others, by musicians from Salt Licks and String Fever. The stage will be filled with former Telluride champions.
Utah’s father of bluegrass music already knows how he’ll feel watching this.
“I will absolutely be in Heaven,” Ted Shupe said. “I never thought something like this would happen. If my wife was still alive (Sandy died suddenly last September of thyroid cancer) she would dance in the aisles with me. She was as much a part of it as I was. All of these kids are amazing musicians. In over 40 years, I have worked with over 75 young musicians whom I claim to be mine. I don’t think there was a music teacher in this state who had more remarkable musicians than me. I was the luckiest guy in the world to be with them.