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All eyes on Wallsburg, Utah as the father of bluegrass music readies for a festival of a lifetime

SHARE All eyes on Wallsburg, Utah as the father of bluegrass music readies for a festival of a lifetime

Ted Shupe, the father of Utah bluegrass music.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

The father of Utah bluegrass music has sat through more music festivals than he can count. Which makes sense. They don’t call you the father of Utah bluegrass music for nothing.

But Ted Shupe, 82, can’t remember ever looking forward to a festival any more than the one coming up the weekend of July 9-11 at the Erickson Ranch in Wallsburg, Wasatch County.

Nearly two dozen bands and individual artists will participate in the sixth annual Wasatch Mountain Music Festival (Wasatchmountainmusic.com.) They will perform on two stages Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day, playing a variety of genres.


This year’s annual Wasatch Mountain Music Festival in Wallsburg, Wasatch County, on July 9-11 will feature two champion bluegrass bands, Salt Licks and String Fever, that haven’t played together in a quarter century.

Jerry Ellison, Shupe family

But the headliner, as always, will be bluegrass music. And that lineup will include two champion bluegrass bands — String Fever and Salt Licks — that haven’t played together in more than 25 years.

The bands are coming to Wallsburg to take the stage one more time — and pay tribute to the man who put them together: Ted Shupe.

Old-time fiddlin’

You have to go back to the early 1990s to trace the origins of String Fever and Salt Licks. By then, Ted had already established himself as a man adept at recognizing and developing talent in the music niche known as bluegrass — the country/folk offspring with Appalachian roots that features acoustic instruments and, in particular, old-time fiddlin’.

Ted came by his expertise naturally. His mother’s line, the Robinsons, were fiddlers as long as anyone can remember. His great-great-grandfather was a fiddler, his great-grandfather was a fiddler, his grandfather and father were fiddlers. 

Ted’s older brother Jim was already an accomplished fiddler when he came along, so his mother Merle started him on piano.

Ted also learned to play the fiddle, the cello, the violin, the drums and the bass, which became his main instrument. He’s played in a number of country and bluegrass bands and today plays in a swing jazz band. But by his own account, “I’ve never been a great musician.”

His real talent is knowing how to teach and inspire — and promote — others.

It began with his own family. He and his wife Sandy’s five children — Ryan, Daron, Tara, Bonie and Staysee — were all started on instruments at a young age, with Ted playing right along with them every morning when they practiced.

Ryan, their first son, was a prodigy as a fiddler, a chip off the old family block. At the age of 7 Ryan became part of a band Ted formed called the Peewee Pickers. By the time they honed their craft, the young pickers, with Ted at the wheel of the motor home, spent summers touring the country, playing at venues all over the South, including the World’s Fair in Tennessee and at a political rally for President Ronald Reagan, in addition to a side trip to Europe.

The Peewee Pickers led to another kid band called Powder Ridge that was so good it won the prestigious Telluride Festival in Colorado in 1989. (The Dixie Chicks won the following year.)

String Fever

Ted was just warming up. His next creation was String Fever, featuring two of Ryan’s younger siblings, Daron and Tara. It, too, won at Telluride, in 1993. Then along came yet another kid band, Salt Licks. In 1994 it won Telluride as well, along with the Pizza Hut International Bluegrass Showdown, a quasi-national championship of its day.

Still another Telluride champion was added in 1997 when Ryan Shupe & the Rubberband — a band Ryan formed after he left Salt Licks — took the title.

In a nine-year span, then, four different Ted Shupe bands won four Tellurides. It was like going to the Super Bowl and winning every other year — with four different teams.

With the exception of Ryan Shupe & the Rubberband, still going strong 26 years later, the other Ted bands, for the usual reasons — marriage, Latter-day Saint missions, schooling, careers, etc. — all disbanded.

But no one forgot how to play bluegrass.

Next week they will converge in a rural pasture in the Wasatch County town of Wallsburg (pop. 250) and just like that wipe away a quarter of a century.

The Salt Licks are scheduled to perform at 3 p.m. on Friday, followed by String Fever at 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Rounding out the festival will be Ryan Shupe & the Rubberband at 8:30 p.m. Saturday night. At the end of that act, a “family jam” will include appearances by, among others, Salt Licks and String Fever musicians. The stage will be brimming with former Telluride champs.

The father of Utah bluegrass music already knows how he’ll feel watching this.

“I will be absolutely in heaven,” said Ted Shupe. “I never thought anything like this would happen. If my wife were still alive (Sandy died unexpectedly last September of thyroid cancer), she’d be dancing in the aisles with me. She was a part of it just as much as I was. All of these kids are incredible musicians. In over 40 years, I have worked with more than 75 young musicians who I claim as my own. I don’t think there’s been a music teacher in this state who has had more outstanding musicians than I have. I was the luckiest guy in all the world to be with them.”