Take Her To The River: Lindsay Lou On A Unique Music Fest
Summer 2021 has come and gone, and as we take stock of memories of that precious season of renewal and relative freedom, few among us will have better stories than Nashville’s Lindsay Lou. In late July, work, play and worship became indistinguishable when the singer and songwriter was part of the exclusive talent lineup for RiverWonderGrass, multi-day excursions down ancient and wild western rivers with little but life’s essentials - food, shelter and live acoustic music.
Combining the intimacy of a folk house concert with the natural grandeur of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, RiverWondergrass grew out of WinterWonderGrass, a series of epic, cold-weather, mostly outdoor festivals at ski resorts. Founder Scotty Stoughton, a musician, promoter and naturalist, launched the series at a Colorado brewery in 2013 with the Infamous Stringdusters throwing down in a snowstorm. Since then, the festies, expanding to ever-larger venues, have been an ideal platform for Greensky Bluegrass, the Sam Bush Band, Billy Strings and the rest of the jamgrass nation.
“Scotty responded to the pandemic shutting down his life’s work, basically,” Lindsay Lou told me sitting on her front porch in East Nashville. “He said, you know what? I'm gonna do small groups, outdoors, bring music into nature - still doing what he what he does, but on a smaller scale, in a way that's safe in the context of what's happening in the world.” And having played and hung out at WinterWondergrass, Lou was eager to participate in the summertime river version.
Lou grew up in Michigan surrounded by campfire jams and the rugged natural beauty of the upper peninsula. She also took road trips to the west with her father to visit an uncle in Montana. “I'll never forget the first time I saw the Colorado Rockies lit up at sunrise,” she said of one of those trips.
With that in her background and a spirit that’s always looking for a new angle on existence, she signed on eagerly to be an artist on RiverWonderGrass - a floating festival of six or seven large whitewater-ready rafts piloted by guides from Jensen, Utah outfitter Adrift Dinosaur. The audience is limited to about 20 people. The talent lineup consists of two or three musicians who have history together and who understand the spirit of the journey, in this case Colorado based guitarist and bandleader Tyler Grant and Nashville multi-instrumentalist PJ George.
I knew about none of this when I started seeing photos and videos emerge in late July of Lindsay Lou with Tyler and PJ picking in a stunning river canyon. When I reached out about it, she confirmed that it was as enthralling as it seemed. “It really just steals your heart, the beauty of this area” says Lou. “And it just makes sense. Music and nature just make sense. They're really fundamental parts of the human condition, of things that connect us to ourselves. So I did one trip last year. This year, I did two trips back to back.”
The trip shown here covers 44 miles of the Green River from western Colorado to Jensen, UT through the Gates of Ledore canyon in Dinosaur National Monument. The musicians do some serenading at breakfast on one of the many wide beaches along the untouched waterway. Then the instruments go in dry bags with all the other gear and the days are spent paddling or hiking as the expedition makes its way downstream, sometimes over class III-IV rapids.
“So you're just floating all day, looking at the canyons and seeing the bald eagles and the bighorn sheep and going through rapids,” Lou says. “And then you get to where you're going. Everybody stands in a fire line and gets everything up to the camp site. We set up another circle. After dinner, the musicians set up around a little fire and everybody would play for a couple hours.”
On the third day, she remembers, the expedition passes the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers and a place called Echo Canyon. “That's where there's this huge rock wall that comes right up against the water, and you're surrounded in such a way that it's very resonant. And it's very flat, still water, so we actually take our instruments out.”
For the second of Lou’s two trips, her musical partner was Mimi Naja, co-founder of the band Fruition. The clientele was entirely women. “It was just like a really intense all-women's trip, and here I was with Mimi, who's a really important close friend of mine,” she said. That one ended with an 18-mile day of rapids that Lou did in a solo inflatable kayak. “I was just reeling, just reeling with joy. And, you know, because of this transitional part of my life, I've been living in some real shadowy darkness. (Lou divorced her husband of almost ten years recently.) And this trip just totally, totally ripped me out of it. I mean, it felt like it was just like a shot to the vein of perspective and joy. You know, and I carried that with me.”
Organizer Stoughton says Lindsay Lou has been a repeat artist at his events because she fully embraces the ethos he’s been shooting for. “I really think bigger than just putting on a show,” Stoughton told me by phone this week, referring to both WinterWonderGrass and RiverWonderGrass. “I want everyone to feel like they’re connected. And we hold them responsible for the success of our gatherings. It’s not a party. It’s a purpose-filled event. We don’t promote drinking. It’s more like we’re honoring ourselves and our families and friends and mother nature here. Certainly, you can have a beer and kick your heels up. But that’s not the point. We need more intention in our world to provide people with an opportunity to rediscover themselves.”
Lou absolutely glows telling the story of RiverWonderGrass. “Being on the river with Mimi and all these women on the full moon and just singing all of these love songs and songs that that honor our connection with nature, I was built for this situation.”