Wisconsin (and especially Milwaukee!) might not be the first location that comes to mind when you think about hotbeds for bluegrass music. However, Badger State-based bluegrass—along with stylistically neighboring genres and sub-genres like folk, Americana, and jamgrass—is currently in an exciting and all-around good place. A wide variety of Wisconsin venues, festivals, and breweries are regularly giving local and national bluegrass artists platforms to perform. Meanwhile, bluegrass acts in Milwaukee and all across the state are popping up like never before and are appealing to more listeners than ever.

Joe Wais is an undisputed part of the ongoing evolution of local bluegrass. In addition to playing in The MilBillies and Valley Fox, the Milwaukee musician is also one of the founders of the Bluegrass Whatevers series and a member of its “Sugar Bush” house band. Originally started as a socially distant jam session in 2021, the weekly series has grown and developed over time by bringing in a range of accomplished guests musicians, dialing in its format, and changing homes since its origin. Before Bluegrass Whatevers starts its April residency at Nashville North this week, Milwaukee Record asked Wais about the series, what listeners can expect to hear this month, and the state of Wisconsin bluegrass.

Milwaukee Record: Can you explain the origin or Bluegrass Whatevers? How’d the series come to be, and how would you explain its concept?

Joe Wais: Bluegrass Whatevers slowly formed while Jordan Kroeger and I were playing socially distanced duo shows together during the pandemic. We started playing semi-regularly on Thursdays on the patio at Cafe Centraal, and in the process, started bringing some of our friends and fellow musicians out as special guests. It was always a super loose format, just calling tunes as we thought of them, and I think the “Whatevers” name started to appear as a joke after we would play a song that was a little too loose and we would shrug our shoulders and say, “Eh, whatever,” into the mic and keep on pickin’. We try to keep the concept as loose, fun, and laid back as possible, so actually calling it “Bluegrass Whatevers” both lends itself to the laid back weeknight vibe we try to create, and the traditional bluegrass circle jam of taking turns and calling tunes that we’ve sort of formalized with it.

MR: How has the series evolved and changed through the years?

JW: After some loose and irregular beginnings at Centraal, we worked with Grant Steskal who was running the Indeed Brewing taproom at the time to formalize it into a bonafide weekly event in 2021. They really helped with promo and getting the word out, and we were able to generate some solid excitement around having some regular music happening again as pandemic restrictions eased. We also brought Ernest Brusubardis IV in to create “The Trinity” of co-hosts with me and Jordan. With the consistency, we were able to start bringing in even more guests from out of town to keep shaking things up. We established the full band version of The Trinity that we’ve dubbed “Sugar Bush,” so as it kept growing, it turned into a well-oiled machine of booking guests each Tuesday. Then the last Tuesday of the month is always Sugar Bush, which is still the format we follow now.

MR: After a lengthy stint at Indeed and a few installments elsewhere, it seems like you’ve found a home at Nashville North. What brought you to Brady Street and what makes it a special space for Bluegrass Whatevers to take root?

JW: We had a fantastic run for about a year and a half at Indeed, but after some leadership changes there, we needed to move elsewhere. After trying a couple other spots, we got some feedback from our regulars who mentioned how nice it is to have a casual, non-formal setting where you can come and go as you please, while also having a full bar and some snack food as a plus. We started talking to Nashville North and ultimately locked in to bring it there. We were super excited to bring regular, live music back to Brady Street, and have a nice built-in stage. We’ve been there for over a year now and, after a period of transition and building back up the regularity—and people getting used to East Side parking—it’s become even better than ever. It truly is so cool to us to bring this regular, high-quality live music to such a storied building. With so many East Side small music venues phasing out, it’s special to bring it back to the old Up & Under and keep live music alive on Brady Street.

MR: What are some of the highlights so far? Any particularly memorable guests or collaborations?

JW: Every week is so special and unique. It’s just so fun to bring in our friends from out of town and other bands that we don’t get to see or play with as often as we’d like. One of the more recent highlights was definitely bringing in local troubadours Dandy L. Freling and Derek Pritzl for a “Songwriter’s Night,” as we did a bluegrass take on their original tunes. Ben Wright from Henhouse Prowlers was fantastic on banjo as always, and it was even more special as we brought his wife and fellow bluegrasser from Fox Crossing Stringband, Cassie Lynn Wright, on stage as well. We had Wisconsin bluegrass legend Art Stevenson down a few weeks ago with Jon Peik on banjo. Playing with Art is such an inspiration. His command of the music and the crowd is just unparalleled.

MR: The series returns April 2 and runs every Tuesday night this month. What are some things folks can look forward to seeing and hearing this spring?

JW: Plenty of amazing guests! That truly is the best part, bringing in different guests from different bands and backgrounds doing different songs. I always say it’s always different, always good, and always Whatever. Ben Majeska will be amazing as usual, and we’re particularly excited to bring the Sullivan Sisters up from Chicago. They are a couple young guns taking the bluegrass world by storm and we are super excited to back them up. There is so much to be excited about as we keep this series rolling and make it different each and every week.

MR: Beyond Bluegrass Whatevers, it seems like Milwaukee bluegrass, Americana, folk, and even country are in a pretty good place these days. In addition to your projects—The MilBillies and Valley Fox—who are some other local projects readers should check out? And are there any other places in and around Milwaukee where people can check out music in those realms with any regularity?

JW: Bluegrass, folk and Americana are in a great place in Wisconsin. We are so fortunate to have such a vibrant community of bands and musicians supporting each other, and we are so honored to be a part of helping to promote that. What we have simply doesn’t exist in most states. I keep myself nice and busy with The MilBillies and Valley Fox, but you just have to go to the source to find it. The venues, and the festivals, and the promoters who work to promote this music are all you need to find the tunes.

In Milwaukee, The Gig and Thurman’s are so good about bringing different bands in both from Milwaukee and from out of town. Wisconsin festivals, venues, and promoters like Wise Farm Productions, Driftless Music Gardens, Flatrock Bluegrass Jamboree, Ope! Brewing, and so, so many others are always bringing in different local bands to feature the fantastic local talent from these genres that are all over the state and the region. We want to keep working with all of these venues to keep getting the word about the amazing local, original music that is happening.  There is also a huge push to bring in more diversity to this particular scene. Seeing so many more bands pop up with so many different backgrounds and styles is so encouraging for the growth and longevity of our community. I am so excited to watch and help this growth over the coming years.

MR: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

JW: Come hang on a Tuesday, make some friends, talk to the musicians, follow them, and come be part of our wonderful, welcoming community!

The Bluegrass Whatevers series takes place at Nashville North (1216 E. Brady St.) every Tuesday night. The performance begins at 7 p.m. There’s no cover for these events, but cash tips—which are given to the guest performers— are always appreciated. You can check out the full April schedule below.

About The Author

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Co-Founder and Editor

Before co-founding Milwaukee Record, Tyler Maas wrote for virtually every Milwaukee publication (except Wassup! Magazine). He lives in Bay View and enjoys both stuff and things.