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An In-Studio Session with the Mars Hillbillies Celebrating 10 years of Pickin’ in the Pines


This weekend is the 10th anniversary of Flagstaff’s Pickin’ in the Pines Bluegrass and Acoustic Music Festival. In that time, hundreds of national and regional artists have taken the main stage, including the Mars Hillbillies. They’re as local as it gets. An acoustic string band from Flagstaff, they’ve been together for more than a dozen years and have played Pickin’ in the Pines many times. They’ll do it again this anniversary weekend. The Hillbillies recently stopped by KNAU for a jam session and an interview with Arizona Public Radio’s Ryan Heinsius.

Ryan Heinsius: Pickin’ in the Pines is in its 10th year this year and it’s become an undeniable local institution. What’s been the staying power of this festival?

Bill Vernieu: I think what has happened with the Pickin’ in the Pines Festival, it was organized by a group of local musicians here in town. It’s been a long-held dream and people have wanted the kind of bluegrass festival where some of the top talent in the nation, and possibly even the world can come to. But also where there’s a big campground scene, where there’s a lot of jamming and homemade music as well.

Credit Ryan Heinsius
Flagstaff's Mars Hillbillies playing at the KNAU studios. From left: mandolinist Rusty Tweed, bassist Keith Gomora, multi-instrumentalist Reno McCormick and guitarist Bill Vernieu.

The Mars Hillbillies' live session at the KNAU studios Mon, Sept. 14, 2015: “I’ll Love Nobody But You” by Jim and Jesse McReynolds, “If I Had Known” by Greg Brown, “Snowin’ on Raton” by Townes Van Zandt, and “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” by Johnny Bond.

RH: What’s fostered that community?

Keith Gomora: The community has been pretty hungry from something of this ilk for a long time before this festival even started. So I think that it was sort of a natural that people would gravitate toward a fun, end-of-the-summer, outdoor festival.

Credit Rob Dutton
The New Reeltime Travelers perform at the 2014 Pickin' in the Pines.

RH: Pickin’ in the Pines every year is such a great combination of these great national and regional bands with the locals. How has the contingent of Arizona musicians and bands dictated or affected the flavor of Pickin’ in the Pines?

BV: I would say that the local music around here reflects a lot of that diversity of the town of Flagstaff. So, it’s not really a traditional bluegrass scene here.

KG: Sure, take a walk around the campground any night of the festival and get quite a wide diversity of different kinds of styles out there: gypsy jazz to bluegrass to folk and rock ‘n’ roll.

Credit Rob Dutton
A young festival-goer at the 2014 Pickin' in the Pines.

RH: Northern Arizona in general and specifically Flagstaff has become a real haven for traditional musicians. Why is this area such a place where people who play roots music coalesce?

KG: Maybe we think we’re already half way out into the wilderness here, and so (for) us folks in Flagstaff (it’s) easy to see the beauty in the bucolic and that might include its music. 

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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