Three Wednesday nights in September 2023 were especially lively on Nebraska Innovation Campus. Local bluegrass fans and families wanting to experience some free fun created a crowd of around 500 people each week.
Locals congregated in the paved courtyard in front of The Mill Coffee & Bistro, bringing their lawn chairs and dogs to enjoy the cool September evening temperatures. Crowds clustered atop The Scarlet Hotel across the street, where the musicians were housed, and enjoyed bluegrass music from the Barred Owl rooftop bar.
The Mill served burgers and drinks, making the event a dinner destination as well.
Each night of the concert series, a local bluegrass group opened for a national headliner. The benefit is twofold. It allows local bands to showcase who they are to their community while out-of-state performers make Lincoln a destination for bluegrass listeners and performers.
September 6 featured the McGovern Stringband followed by The Cleverlys.
The McGovern Stringband features five members, including the familial ties of band lead Kelly McGovern and his son Brian.
The original rendition of the band had McGovern’s sister as a mandolin player. Now, McGovern’s son, Brian, has filled in for nearly a decade.
“It’s very special,” McGovern said. “His high harmonies are exactly what my sister used to sing, so he just filled that spot.”
This is the string band’s first year performing for the concert series.
“I saw this went on last year and never did get a chance to come out here,” McGovern said. “I was so pleased when they asked us to come.”
McGovern enjoys the fun spirit and energy of bluegrass music.
“I’m retired now, and I play lots of different kinds of music, but bluegrass is my favorite because it’s just fun.”
Part of the appeal of the concert series is the expansive, efficient outdoor space on Innovation Campus.
“This is a gem,” McGovern said. “It’s the perfect place for it, with the sun going down behind the building.”
After the McGovern String Band, The Cleverly’s took the stage with their lineup of bluegrass covers from multiple genres.
Digger Cleverly and his “nephews” tour nationally and perform at some of the country’s largest festivals.
The Wildwoods kicked off the second night on September 13. Formed in 2012, the Wildwoods is a soft folk group who embraces ‘American’ music and often gets grouped in with bluegrass bands. They originated in Lincoln and now tour all over the country.
“From playing these last 11 years, we just made so many great friends and met so many great people in the Lincoln scene,” said Chloe Gose, band member and co-founder.
Their cross-country touring began after gaining confidence from a social media following.
“We started touring a lot just to see if the people were real that were following us online,” Chloe said.
“And they’re real.” Noah Gose, Chloe’s husband and Wildwoods’ co-founder and member, chimed in.
Last year, the Wildwoods attended the first bluegrass concert series as spectators and was excited to participate as performers this year.
After the Wildwoods, the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band showcased their talents.
“We don’t consider ourselves traditional bluegrass, but things have changed so much that we’re probably more on the traditional side,” Jorgenson said.
Jorgenson is a fan of the public, free entertainment the concert series offers to the community.
“I like the vibe of this [series] in particular,” Jorgenson said. “I love that it’s free. I think a lot of older people that are on a fixed income can afford to come. Also, people will bring families where they wouldn’t if they had to pay a lot of money.”
Jorgenson is happy to bring bluegrass to the community because it’s not as widespread.
“People are allowed to hear music they might not hear otherwise. Then they might like it and take on a different journey.”
The September 20 headliner was the Appalachian Road Show, an innovative ensemble from the heart of America’s Appalachia.
Before the Road Show took the stage, The Shucks Brothers made an appearance. One of the three members is Dave Miller.
“I’ve played bluegrass ever since I was a little kid. I lived in Nashville for a number of years,” Miller said.
Miller is the regional general manager at ALLO, a major sponsor of the bluegrass concert series.
“One of [ALLO’s] core values is to be local. Part of being local means getting involved in various events and sponsorships,” Miller said.
Miller is in the unique position to experience the concert series from the point of view of an organizer as well as a performer.
“Being on the other end for so many years as a performer and then you say ‘okay, now we're a sponsor,’” Miller said. “You’re able to anticipate what their needs are...you know, just kind of being on the other end and knowing well it would have been nice if someone did this for me.”
Miller has been involved in the series both of its years and is excited for its future growth.
“I was blown away by the number of people attending this thing. It started off really strong and ended even stronger,” Miller said. “I think it’s proven itself that this is something that people want and will continue to support.”
The Nebraska Bluegrass Concert is proudly sponsored by The Mill Coffee & Bistro, ALLO Fiber, Union Bank & Trust, The Scarlet Hotel, Nebraska Nova and Nebraska Innovation Campus.
“We are always excited to activate our outdoor space at NIC in collaboration with great event sponsors,” said Kate Engel, NIC interim executive director. “This concert series is a wonderful way to welcome NIC Partners and the community to the campus.”
Story by: Milana Doné