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Bluegrass Situation: Ed Helms Can Pick The Shit Out of a Banjo

Ed Helms performing at the 2011 LA Bluegrass Situation
Ed Helms performing at the 2011 LA Bluegrass Situation
Lincoln Andrew DeFer

This year's incarnation of the L.A. Bluegrass Situation features comedians Steve Martin, Ed Helms and John C. Reilly. But they're not telling jokes -- they're doing some serious picking.

The annual event has been a hot ticket since it began in 2010; this year it goes from May 3-6 at Largo, concluding with a Sunday night show at Coldwater Canyon Park. You can also expect some special guests: Will Farrell, Will Arnett and Vince Gill have dropped by in the past.

We spoke with Ed Helms, from The Office and The Hangover. An accomplished banjo and guitar player, the Georgia native can impressively deliver an old-timey country tune. He founded the L.A. Bluegrass Situation, and on May 4 will be hosting his variety show called The Whiskey Sour Radio Hour.

How you did become a fan of bluegrass music?

I grew up in Atlanta and I went to summer camp out in North Carolina in the Smoky Mountains. Some of the counselors would play bluegrass tunes and somewhere it just became a symbol of a comforting, appealing sound. I got attached to it in my teens...My high school did a musical called the Cotton Patch Gospel, a bluegrass musical and I asked my guitar teacher to teach me those songs on the banjo so I could be in the band in the musical. That was when I first picked up the banjo.

How did Bluegrass Situation come about?

I lived in New York City for 10 years right after college. There's a lot of exciting acoustic music happening there and a real dedicated bluegrass community. When I moved here, it was a gaping hole in my life. There are little pockets of existing bluegrass fans...but there didn't seem to be anything rooted in the city of Los Angeles that felt like an urban home for bluegrass.

I had been doing a lot of comedy shows at Largo. That was where I started to bump into folks like Sean and Sara Watkins and Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch...and even a few other like-minded comedy people like John C. Reilly. Seeing a lot of great music there, I started complaining to Flanny (Largo proprietor Mark Flanagan) that there wasn't enough bluegrass. . .So we just hatched this idea to start the L.A. Bluegrass Situation as a kind of urban bluegrass event for fans of roots, Americana and bluegrass. We have a very liberal interpretation of the word bluegrass...It's our third year but it feels like we are just getting started. It's growing every year and it's very exciting.

Has anything exceeded your expectations in the past festivals?

 

What exceeded my expectations was the extent of the "hang sessions" -- the late night picking parties. Every night after the shows, the little room at Largo would turn into this big jam session. We stayed in the dressing rooms in Largo until four in the morning some nights just playing tunes and hanging out. That is what it is really about and I think we just picked people for whom that is a priority -- who also happened to be great artists like the Punch Brothers and the Steep Canyon Rangers. These are people who are insane musicians but just love to hang out. Love to play music. That was an exciting revelation. That if we get the right people together, the excitement will grow. Not just for the event but for the community.

Is there something in particular you are looking forward to in this year's festival?

This is the first year we've taken the festival outdoors with the Sunday night show at Tree People (Coldwater Canyon Park). It's also a full moon! Should be a fantastic show and I can't wait. Also, we've put a lot of time and effort into thebluegrasssituation.com blog and we're all excited about launching it.

The Third Annual LA Bluegrass Situation takes place May 3-6. For more information of the lineups, locations and time, visit www.thebluegrasssituation.com

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