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Frostbitten Grass at Gopherwood Concert Series

April 16th, 2004

Marta Hepler-Draho

CADILLAC - The elk head mounted opposite the stage should help make Frostbitten Grass feel right at home when the group plays at the Cadillac Elks Club Saturday.

After all, the self-described "Northern stump pluckers" hail from the Upper Peninsula, famous for moose, hunters and seven-month-long winters.

Part of the Gopherwood concert series, the 8 p.m. show marks the string band's first performance in Cadillac. On its only other forays into northwestern Lower Michigan, the quintet has appeared at Aten Place in Boyne Falls and at Union Street Station in Traverse City, though guitarist and banjoist Matthew Sayles and his family have vacationed in the area for years..

Known for bluegrass-influenced acoustic music, the Marquette-based band performs four-part harmonies and brother-style duets reminiscent of Bill and Charlie Monroe to original and traditional music. Its tunes and influences range from early bluegrass, country blues and contemporary bluegrass to acoustic jazz, swing, Celtic and country.

While song titles like "Cold Road Home" and "November Rose" could have been inspired by frosty nights in the U.P., the band's sound brings more southerly climes to mind. In fact, Frostbitten Grass is a favorite at MidSummer in the Northwoods Bluegrass Festival, famous for traditional bluegrass acts hailing from places like Kentucky and West Virginia.

"It's like you imagine a bluegrass festival would have been in the '50s," said Sayles of the annual July festival in northern Wisconsin.

The band's only full-time member, Sayles became enamored of bluegrass music as a philosophy student at Northern Michigan University and began chasing down the great bluegrass recordings. In 1998, he and mandolin player Ryan Olthouse met at a party in Marquette and formed their first group, the Clampoons.

Soon after adding another member, the name changed to Frostbitten Grass to embody the musicians' northern roots.

Today the group also includes Sven Gonstead, dobro and guitar; Ken Thiemann, woodwinds, guitar and mandolin; and Bob Guidebeck, up-right bass.

Though their backgrounds are as diverse as their musical influences - Gonstead is a luthier who was once into the blues, Thiemann is a fluid dynamics graduate student who has delved into heavy metal and classical music - the players are bound by a common denominator: a deep respect for roots music.

"If you chase any kind of music far enough back, you see that they all started back in the same pool," Sayles said. "And the core of that was the blues and gospel. The B side of Elvis (Presley's) first record was 'Blue Moon in Kentucky,' a Bill Monroe tune."

Together, the musicians play throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, where they are a hometown favorite at Marquette's Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival. They also expect to do frequent dates at the Cabbage Shed in Elberta this summer.

Besides a self-titled 2002 CD, they recorded a track on the compilation "Iron Country," featuring musicians from the Cuyuna, Mesabi and Gogebic Iron Range region. They're currently working on a new CD - tentatively scheduled for release May 15 - that will feature 14 original songs.

The band is also watching with interest the career of fellow string band and friends "Steppin' in It," who got their first big break this month in the form of an invitation to play a live set on West Virginia Public Radio's "Mountain Stage."

"We have no aspiration to become anything too grand," Sayles said. "You can't play bluegrass in hopes of becoming the next rap star. But if we can make a living at music or only work part-time to do it, we'll be happy."

Tickets for the band's Gopherwood concert are $10 for adults and $5 for children. They're available in advance at the Cadillac Newscenter or from Gopherwood at 775-2813 or

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