Behind The Scene: WinterWonderGrass Founder Scotty Stoughton

Dean Budnick on April 4, 2024
Behind The Scene: WinterWonderGrass Founder Scotty Stoughton

photo: Alison Vagnini


“I think all of us who are in this industry share a passion for the intangible energy and connection that occurs at a show,” Bonfire Entertainment founder Scotty Stoughton observes. “For me, it began with that moment seeing the outside of a Grateful Dead parking lot in the early ‘90s. There was this beautiful energy that occurred outside the gate, with all these different kinds of people and this organized chaos or chaos in the flow. That drew me inside the gate and definitely inspired me to want to be a part of that energy.”

Stoughton grew up in New Jersey, attended college in Rhode Island, then lit out for Colorado in 1993 after graduation. That became his base of operations when he began the life of a touring musician, contributing percussion to a couple groups. Then, he gradually segued into the life of a music promoter, initially working at the revered State Bridge River Resort. After that facility was gutted by a devastating fire in 2007, he focused his energies on new ventures, including WinterWonderGrass, Renewal, RiverWonderGrass and BajaWonderGrass. His production company also shares a portion of its name with his current band, Bonfire Dub.

He explains that the reason he selected “bonfire” as the common word in both of these appellations “goes all the way back to State Bridge. It’s the feeling you experience when you’re at an event: You find your way through the woods, you see the fire, then the people and you hear the drums, and you’re speaking the same language. There’s nothing like the power of a bonfire and it’s been connecting humans since we started walking upright. Playing the skin of an animal on a drum around the fire is the most primal thing. It’s something that connects us, which is at the heart of what I’m trying to do.”

You grew up on the East Coast. What initially led you to Colorado?

I graduated from URI with a marketing degree and was getting ready to go to Boston to get a job and be in the machine. I bought my first suit—I didn’t buy a second suit until 25 years later. Then, just as I was about to go get a job, at the last minute I was like, “I’m going to peel out to Colorado.”

In 1993, I was seeing a lot of Grateful Dead. I had bought myself a pair of bongos and then a pair of congas. I set them up in our cottage and cranked Cornell ‘77 on repeat for days to learn how to play the percussive parts in those transitions. It drove my parents absolutely insane, but I finally tapped into what was going on. I taught myself how to play the hand drums, and I was like, “Whoa, this is fun.”

So right before I went to Boston to do the mainstream thing, I loaded up my little Honda with my skis, surfboard, drums and everything, then drove to Colorado. I had friends who were on the URI ski team— it was more like the beer team— and they had come out to Vail.

I landed in Vail and immediately got into a band [Short Term Memory]. Then out of nowhere, the band got really popular because we were playing Dead, Widespread Panic and the Allman Brothers and it was just striking a chord. The next thing you know, we were playing all over Colorado. I never really looked back.

How did you end up working at State Bridge? Was that your transition point into the non-performing side of the concert industry?

It occurred there and also throughout my touring career with my second band [Sucker].

I’d heard of the place, the lore of State Bridge. They did shows on Sundays, and one day I finally decided to check it out. I drove out there in my old car, came around the corner and saw the Colorado River. Then when I saw this little lodge, all these cabins and all the parked cars, I was like, “What is this?” It felt like the energy of a parking lot at a Grateful Dead show. I rolled in there and the band was Zuba, which was this huge Colorado band at the time, and I absolutely loved the show. Then, after the show, we all got into sitting around the fire playing drums, finding community, feeling this freedom and this wild sense of unleashed spirit. So on that day, State Bridge became a part of my story and my soul that has inspired everything I continue to do.

I met the owner that day and I begged her to book our band. So a year later, we played there and it was absolutely incredible. Then, for years, we’d play and I got to know that place. I loved that I would party with hippies, river rats, ski bums, yuppies, cowboys and fishermen. Everybody was welcome there and everybody came and just got after it. It was a wonderful mixture. We were all isolated—there were no cell phones—and just jammed as one beautiful organism. That really stuck with me.

So then I was like, “I want to be more involved with State Bridge.” I manifest things, and the next thing you know, I was bartending out there. When I was touring, I was pretty broke, so I put up a tipi and lived there in the summers when I wasn’t on tour. I built this awesome tepee up on the hillside and then I built a deck where I hosted late-night jams up there at the fire. Then that evolved into booking bands for the first time and learning that side of it—learning how to send an offer and how to advance a s how and deal with the other side of the business.

Then, when a new owner took over, I became the general manager and ran the whole venue. I moved the stage and upped the sound system and added yurts. I was dealing with the county, understanding permitting and hiring the police. That was my learning curve there.

The next thing you know, I was involved with a group that bought it and we evolved again. We took it from a Sunday music spot to where we were doing music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday—anything from Burning Spear to Stockholm Syndrome, Dark Star Orchestra, Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain and Stephen Marley.

This was before there were a million festivals and State Bridge was this hub. Every weekend you’d see people from all over the state who would come together and get their State Bridge on. It was like no other culture I’ve been a part of.

Then it burned down and there was a massive hole in all of our hearts for a long time. That’s what inspired me to try to build something with the spirit of State Bridge. There are people who work for our festival today who I met at State Bridge and worked for me back in the day. It’s pretty cool.

How did you transition into WinterWonderGrass?

When I set out to do this, I’d come from producing a couple other big festivals that were all about the bands. I would constantly hear “Who’s playing?” or “This lineup sucks.” And I was like, “Have some courage to go find some new music. Remember the feeling of the event and not necessarily that top line.” It kind of discouraged me a little.

So I left that and created WinterWonderGrass. I wanted to create something with great music, in a place where you had to be a little crazy to want to go to during the wintertime. It’s that combination of music, outside and strings. Anders Beck from Greensky always says, “This is the best worst idea.”

There’s an energy at WinterWonderGrass that’s different. So many things contribute to that. It’s not easy to get to, it’s in the middle of the winter and it’s outside. That really sets the tone for who wants to come. Nothing against going to Vegas and partying and going to your hotel room—that’s great—but that’s not us. You’ve got to be prepared. You’ve got to be hardy; you’ve got to be a little nuts. You’ve got to have the adventurous spirit of days gone by, when people would brave the elements and they would venture out into the night, into the cold and into the snow.

You’re seeing music and experiencing the vibe when a band’s playing and the snow starts falling, so there are 5,000 people laughing and looking up and putting out their tongues and letting the snowflakes land in their mouths. They’re smiling up at the sky and listening to the music but closing their eyes and feeling the collective energy of the community. That’s what it is. That’s the thing.

It’s certainly about the bands, but it’s not about any one band. It’s about everyone coming together. My favorite part of WinterWonderGrass is when I create the schedule and think about who’s going to be sitting in with each other. We have four stages. They are under huge tents and they’re heated. The energy in those places was inspired by my early days going to New Orleans and running around late-night, going band to band to band—just popping in and seeing big bands on little stages and being like, “Holy shit, that just happened. Now let’s run over there and see who’s sitting in.” That was the foundation and it’s managed to attract some incredible artists who are now friends and they come back time and time again. They keep delivering and that’s the energy of WinterWonderGrass.

Can you talk about the challenges of producing live music outside during winter?

What have you learned over the years? People are always like, “What do you do if it snows?” or “What do you do if it’s cold?” or “What if it’s warm and it melts?” I just think about this quote, “Relax, nothing is in control” because it’s not. Mother Nature is going to do her thing and we never try to hold it off or worry about what’s going to happen. Now the challenges that exist because of Mother Nature are very real. So we’ve learned how to deliver specific heating elements to the bands onstage because our number one concern is the pickers and their fingers. That’s come a long way. I remember, year one, the heat went out and it was cold and it was snowing and the bands kind of gave me shit.

So each year I used to text my friends in the bands and show them what we’re working on to keep the stage warm. They’d laugh, and to their credit, they’d still keep coming. They’d come because of that energy.

The weather’s a challenge, but the weather’s also an opportunity. Where else can you watch a show or perform a show in a snow globe? You’ll never get cooler lighting. You’ll never get a better backdrop. You’ll never see a greater connection with the fans because you’re all in the same boat being challenged by a snowstorm or the cold.

We’ve also evolved, so we have three really big tents that are heated really well. Your experience can be in and out. We do want to make sure that the fans have an opportunity to warm up. We go from outside to inside to outside to inside.

Sometimes a big storm has come in and the parking lots are covered with two, three feet of snow. When that happens, we rely on our volunteers and our team, and we put out messages to the fans to be patient and wear their big boots. Everybody participates and contributes to make it work. Our fall festival is Billy Strings Renewal and we don’t have that, but I’d rather deal with the snow than the rain.

You debuted BajaWonderGrass in 2023. How did that come about?

My wife has Lyme disease and it’s been the biggest challenge of my life over the last five years. She went to Mexico a couple years ago and the weather made her feel better, so we decided to become a part of this community we found down there. There are a lot of expats, but it’s a Mexican fishing village on the Sea of Cortez. The energy we found was absolutely spiritual—in the middle of an ancient cactus forest in this beautiful bay with this gorgeous island, along with dirt roads and grit.

I love creating events, so I said, “Let’s figure this out.” I found this tiny little beach bar and met the owner who’s just a lovely human being. I was like, “I’d love to bring some bluegrass and some roots and integrate with the community.” We work with the local recycling and trash, and make sure we invite the families in the area who can’t afford it.

So we did it and it reminded us of State Bridge in many respects. There were a couple of little cabins above the venue where the musicians stayed. Everybody was picking and playing and practicing and sitting in. It was totally loose—no shoes, kids running around.

Our town isn’t an easy town. It’s two and a half hours from the airport. It can be windy—it’s one of the best wind sports areas in the world. It’s not sitting on the beach and in the pool, just floating and drinking. There are no hotels. It’s not all inclusive. You’ve got to choose your own adventure. It’s not like, “Here are the shuttles, here are the hotel packages, here’s where to stay.” We’ll answer your questions, but I’m not here to do everything for you.

However, once you get there, you feel connected. You’re in an ancient cactus forest surrounded by the Sea of Cortez and these huge mountains, and you’re on a dusty dirty road going, “Where the fuck am I?” [Laughs.]

You’ve been very selective when it comes to putting your own band on your events. How does Bonfire Dub inform and relate to what you do as a promoter?

I’ve been extremely mindful to not put my band on my festivals unless we’ve earned it. The bands that make our stages at WinterWonderGrass and get to play to all those people have earned it. They’re out there grinding, they’re writing songs, they’re in the van, they’re touring around the country, they’re evolving. I love playing, but my purpose is much bigger than that. It’s about supporting the artists who are working to make this their career.

The only festival we do is Baja because reggae is a big thing down there. I thought it was OK to put ourselves on the bottom line of that little festival and have fun.

Bonfire Dub is a nice complement and I still pressure myself to write new songs. It keeps me mindful of how difficult it is to continue to evolve as a band and as a songwriter, and how vulnerable you need to remain even after you’ve built your foundation.

Our drummer, Mark Levy, is in Circles Around the Sun, and the other guys in the band are all really good, but the band is a hobby for me. With everything else I have going on as an independent promoter, I don’t want to spread myself too thin and lose my relationship with life.