Wildwood Smokehouse & Saloon — Wednesday, Feb. 14 at 7 p.m.
“My concept of bluegrass is a little bit looser than others,” Savage Hearts frontwoman Annie Savage said in a phone call. Her own band is variously self-described as “spicy” and “bluegrass meets honkytonk.” Savage has done some searching to find her personal “looser” brand of bluegrass and others to share in it with her.
Inspired by the psychedelic-influenced bluegrass of Jerry Garcia’s Old and In the Way and the jamgrass stylings of Leftover Salmon, Savage left Iowa (where she co-founded the Awful Purdies over a decade ago) for a long stint in Colorado, exploring that wildly different bluegrass scene. Now she’s back with a vengeance — enrolled in graduate school, directing the orchestra at the newly-opened Liberty High, still touring regularly with her band and reviving old traditions — namely, the longstanding Sweetheart Serenade, now at a new venue with an appropriately tweaked name.
The Sweetheart Serenade, which ran on Valentine’s Day at The Mill for at least seven years, was like a “bluegrass prom,” Savage said. Even people who had never been or participated had heard of it. The shtick, which she has largely kept in tact, was performances from couples on the scene, singing songs of love or love gone wrong. It was started in 2004 by Amy Harron (then Finders, one of Savage’s Awful Purdies co-founders, who still returns to town often to perform with Ms Amy and the Jet Set) and Mike Finders (the pair also co-founded The Mill’s Burlington Street Bluegrass Band regular sessions). The original was so popular that Savage said, “Every single person I asked was available and interested in doing [the revival].”
Savage’s version, dubbed the Sweetheart Saloon, takes place Wednesday, Feb. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Wildwood Smokehouse & Saloon (tickets are $10), and it veers a bit from the original. She said that she’s deliberately blurring the line: What is a couple? What is a sweetheart? What is a serenade? She noted that bringing in an all-female band (the Savage Hearts current lineup) “changes the dimensions.” But each couple will definitely be wearing matching Western shirts! The evening will be broken up into two acts, with sets from the Savage Hearts bookending the evening. Performers include Kristie and Bob Black, Al Murphy and Aleta Porcella, Nicole and Benj Upchurch, Gabrielle Kouri and George Spielbauer, Marc and Brandi Janssen, Sue and Greg Dirks, Craig Klocke and Thia Rolfes, the Great Bluegrass Herons (Paul and Julie Roberts with Mark and Janet Wilson) and more.
The Iowa bluegrass scene, which Savage describes as gospel-inspired and traditional, includes, she said, “a lot of people who have been flame-keepers of the bluegrass scene even from 30-40 years ago.” Savage pays homage to that tradition, but is passionate about pushing the scene forward and inspiring younger musicians to be part of it. During her time in Colorado, where she served as president of the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society and worked with the nonprofit RockyGrass, Savage pushed hard on initiatives to bring bluegrass into the schools. Now, as she works on her Ph.D. in community music at the University of Iowa and directs the orchestra at Liberty High School in North Liberty, she has the chance to push for that again.
Part of that is her efforts to teach the art of improvisation and jamming to youth, especially string players. She coaches the Liberty Fiddle Club, and is working with Iowa City nonprofit Any Given Child to support and expand it. Her Liberty High group is competing later this month in the second annual Bluegrass Music Association of Iowa Fiddle Contest (a raffle at the Sweetheart Saloon, for a quilt by local artist Patti Zwick, will be raising funds to help pay for that trip).
Savage is doing all of this on top of 50 dates this spring with the Savage Hearts. They’ll be touring, providing music in the Iowa City and Muscatine public schools and will feature at the Folk Alliance International 30th annual conference in Kansas City, Missouri — for which they’ll be heading out directly after the Sweetheart Saloon.
“I try to see myself as a musician,” Savage said of her ambitious schedule. “And this is what it takes.”