Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Big Joe on Challenging the World of Bluegrass

This past Labor Day weekend, Richland’s Tumbleweed Music Festival hosted more than 100 performers for the festival’s 27th year. One of those musical performers was Whitman College’s very own bluegrass band, Big Joe. On this week’s episode of the “Whitman Wire Podcast,” editor Tali Hastings sat down with band members Aidan Tribolet, Tessa Schwartz, Mya Snyder and Gwen Marbet to talk about their experience playing in the local bluegrass community and at events like Tumbleweed. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Wire: How did Big Joe Come to fruition? 

Tessa Schwartz: I brought Gwen and Aidan to this weekly jam that happens in this area on Friday nights. It’s a bluegrass jam that’s mostly older folks and I brought these two to it, so that they could play with other people, meet the bluegrass people in town and we could play together a little bit. 

We [played] a little, the three of us, and then I met Mya a couple weeks later. We just started playing [not quite] gigs, we weren’t getting paid or anything. It was mostly just like hanging around town, playing music together wherever we could.

If you’re a young person playing bluegrass, people want you to play places. Bluegrass is sort of known as this music for old people. It’s boring, it’s old, for hicks, whatever.

Wire: How was your experience at Tumbleweed?

Aidan Tribolet: It was a joy to see all different types of music. There was bluegrass represented, but also acoustic renditions of more rock and pop focused tunes. There was a great open mic event with some French music even.

Gwen Marbet: You look out into the crowd and see people dancing. You can bring a smile to people’s faces and talk to other people in bluegrass bands afterwards. They would come up to us and [say],“I’m so glad you played Nellie Kane. No one ever plays Nellie Kane.” [We’d have] those nerdy bluegrass interactions with people. 

Wire: I want to talk more about what you said earlier about this perceived demographic of old white people. Is that who you find enjoying your music the most? And what do you make of that? Do you see the future of bluegrass being that same group of enjoyers?

Mya Snyder: The people who are predominantly coming to these events are definitely older white people, but there are some younger people and a more diverse audience.

 I always find that [audiences] are also realizing [they] had no idea what [bluegrass] was … and [they’re] a fan now of the genre. I think it could definitely expand into being much more than that stereotype. 

Tessa Schwartz: The thing with bluegrass is that it’s one of the few genres where almost all of the fans are also musicians themselves and so if you exclude people from your stages, and from your workshops and from your musical opportunities, you’re also going to exclude them from listening to the music, because you’re pulling from the same people.

We were backstage … talking to one of the MCs, and she said, “you guys play bluegrass, traditional bluegrass.”

We said, “You know, traditional, but we break some of the rules.”

And she said, “Well, you’re already breaking one rule, too many women.”

And [that’s] true. I’ve grown up in the bluegrass world, specifically in the California bluegrass world, which is really at the forefront of a lot of sort of diversity initiatives. There are a lot of really important discussions going on [about] racial, gender and all kinds diversity and inclusion movements in the music … It’s a conversation that we’ve been having for a really long time in the bluegrass world and I’m excited to bring that to a community that doesn’t know a lot about bluegrass.

We can just come and be like, “This is who we are.” We’re not a bunch of old white dudes playing bluegrass. We can just present it as who we are. 

[Because of] the name, I think we got a few stares. There were a lot of people at Tumbleweed that came up to us and they said, “Oh, when I saw the name, Big Joe, I did not think it was going to be, you know, four teenagers, only one of whom is a guy. I thought it was going to be one old dude. It’s not that.”

This is only a small piece of The Wire’s coverage of Big Joe at the Tumbleweed Festival. To hear the rest of this interview and from the past director of Tumbleweed, listen to this week’s episode of the “Whitman Wire Podcast,” releasing at 11 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 15, online and airing on KWCW. Full episodes of the podcast can be found here, and below.



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    Laura HallSep 14, 2023 at 11:02 am

    I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing 3 of the members of Big Joe on my Acousticity Radio Show on KWCW this Monday. Tessa and I have been trying to coordinate our schedules since I met her and her dad when they were checking out the Whitman campus, before she decided to come here as a student. Walla Walla has had a few Bluegrass bands over the last decades, as well as bands in New Acoustic, String Swing, Dawg (David Grisman), Old Time and Americana that cross into the Bluegrass lane. We “oldER people” (really, just big kids…lol) are thrilled that Tessa chose our community and college, and is enlisting other young musicians to play in these genres, and to join the contra dances in Reid Ballroom with Walla Walla community members. Many of those belong to the Walla Walla Friends of Acoustic Music. My former bandmates in Swing Set, The Blarneycats, and The Rosettes participate in the contra dances as musicians and callers, and I attend the regional Mythical, Movable Blue Mt Bluegrass Jam when it is held here. Tessa and Big Joe members always bring the playing level up beyond a song circle to playing some faster tunes, which I love. I will have the band on again, maybe in the spring!