After a blue-ribbon performance at Colorado's RockyGrass Festival Band Competition, The Wooks return home ready to shake up the Bluegrass.
The Wooks had modest expectations when they headed west from Kentucky for the 44th annual RockyGrass Festival in Lyons, Colorado.
The Lexington-based band planned on playing a few gigs they'd lined up at small venues in Colorado and Montana, doing a little fishing, seeing the sights and maybe, just maybe, finding a way to wrangle their way into the prestigious (and completely booked) RockyGrass Band Competition.
The RockyGrass Band Competition has long been a proving ground for up-and-coming bluegrass bands to make their mark. Steep Canyon Rangers, Chatham County Line, Town Mountain and The Railsplitters are all past winners. The competition is also capped at just 12 bands, and entries fill up faster than a Mike Marshall mandolin solo when registration opens in December.
The Wooks were way late in the game.
"My thought was 'well, at least we'll just pick in the campground and hang out at RockyGrass," says guitar player CJ Cain.
Cain had attended the RockyGrass Music Academy, a weeklong camp held before the festival, as a teen. He was excited for his fellow band mates to experience the festival, which was founded in 1973 by members of the Colorado Bluegrass Society with help from Kentuckian Bill Monroe and is today one of the top bluegrass festivals in the country.
"There's a lot of people who grew up in that festival, either going to the Academy or at least it was one of their first decent-sized gigs," Cain says. "RockyGrass has launched a lot of people."
The 23 String Band, from Louisville, won the RockyGrass Band Competition in 2011. They advised The Wooks to keep checking in with festival organizers in case someone dropped out of the competition, which is how they'd gotten in.
The Wooks kept calling without any luck, but that didn't keep them from having fun.
You know how Kentuckians always manage to find each other, no matter where they are? That happened to The Wooks time and time again.
At a packed show at The Gold Hill Inn in the foothills above Boulder, a man who'd played basketball for CJ's grandfather in West Liberty, Kentucky, in the early '60s came up and introduced himself. They ended up hanging out for the better part of the evening after the show.
Walking out of dinner on Boulder's Pearl Street Mall, where The Wooks had spent some time busking earlier that afternoon, the band struck up a conversation with a group of people wearing Kentucky for Kentucky shirts. Turns out they'd seen The Wooks perform just a week before at Lexington's Manchester Music Hall.
And, at a gig in Colorado Springs, The Wooks met another former West Liberty resident who invited them to play a house concert in her backyard in Denver the following evening, which they did.
"Up to that point, there was much success," says bassist Roddy Puckett. "We fell into some good grooves, had some good crowds and met some really good people."
We fell into some good grooves, had some good crowds and met some really good people.
But still no slot in the RockyGrass Band Competition.
They decided to try one last time and called from the van after touring the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheater.
"We all figured it would be the routine 'no,'" mandolin player Galen Green wrote in a blog entry on the band's website, "but we tried to put as many Wook vibes out there as we could, crossed our fingers, all that jazz … and, to our surprise, there was a cancellation and we were in!"
There was much rejoicing. But that's also when the nerves started to kick in. The competition was only four days away. Thank the bluegrass gods for those warm-up gigs.
Competitions rules require each group to play three songs — a fast vocal, a slow vocal and an instrumental — in each round. No plugged-in amplification is allowed and bands perform around one microphone old-school bluegrass style.
The competition was so tight that judges couldn't decide on the finalist and let four bands through to the last round instead of the customary three. You can guess who came out on top.
"I was so excited I kissed Roddy's bald head," Cain says of the moment the winner was announced.
The Wooks credit their decision to play all original songs — ranging from traditional bluegrass to old-time string music, jamgrass and beyond — with lots of three-part harmonies and instrumental variety, as contributing to their strong showing.
Additionally, Galen Green placed second in the solo mandolin competition and Jesse Wells placed second for fiddle.
Aside from winning the competition, Green says the most exciting moment was "probably hanging out with [Bowling Green native] Sam Bush backstage and talking about Kentucky."
Bush, from Bowling Green, played on "Sunday Silence," a song written and recorded by Wooks' lead vocalist and banjo player Arthur Hancock's dad, Arthur Hancock III, back in the early 2000s. But that's a whole other story.
The Wooks will return to RockyGrass during next year's festival, this time for a performance on the main stage.
Their debut album, Little Circles, is scheduled for official release on September 23 via their own label, Gnar Vector Records. It's also currently available at shows and on iTunes. Check it out!
8/13 Sat – Warren's on Route 60 – Middletown, KY
8/14 Sun – Crave Music & Food Festival – Lexington, KY
8/21 Sun – Willie's Locally Known – Lexington, KY
9/14 Wed – Jefferson Street Soiree – Lexington, KY
9/15 Thu – Poppy Mountain Bluegrass Festival – Morehead, KY
9/17 Sat – Kickin' It On The Creek Festival – Irvine, KY