Jill Weise counts herself lucky for getting kicked out of piano lessons when she was in fourth grade. The piano is not a bluegrass instrument, so it would not have helped her find her calling like the guitar she picked up afterward did. She would only play to herself until she volunteered at a bluegrass festival in Washburn, ND in 1990.
“I found out that people really start to jam after the show is over,” said Jill. “There were always plenty of guitar players around, so I picked up the slack by playing bass. So long as you have an instrument in your hand and know how to play it, everyone will listen at a jam session. I loved everything about bluegrass — the harmonies, the gospel, people just singing and playing together — and I never wanted to stop.”
Jill met Lee Benjamin, a banjo and Dobro player, at one of those jam sessions. The two formed Cotton Wood, North Dakota’s own bluegrass band. A bassist and a banjo player don’t make an impressive duet, however, so they recruited Keith Cook to sing and play the guitar. They then discovered Dan Foster while he was playing the mandolin on his front porch and snapped him up. The band recently added a talented young fiddler named Reid Buckley as well. (Being Jill’s son-in-law didn’t harm his chances of getting in.) Jill’s husband Bob oversees the sound equipment, which qualifies Cotton Wood to play smaller venues.
“O Brother, Where Art Thou? was very helpful early on in Cotton Wood’s career,” Jill continued. “It introduced a lot of people to bluegrass who’d never appreciated it before. People would call us up and say ‘Hey, you play that bluegrass, right?’ Then they’d hire us for a gig. One gig has a tendency of leading to three more — in all these years we’ve never tried to look for gigs.
“We’ve played in North Dakota and four other states now, and have become a staple at a lot of great music festivals around the area. We even made four CDs. Don’t ask me anything about making a CD — I’ve got nothing to say about the process but a whole lot of four letter words, but you have to do it so you can share your music with people, and the money really does help a small band like ours keep going down the road.”
Cotton Wood puts on three signature events of their own every year: Blizzard Bluegrass at Bismarck State College, and the Missouri River Bluegrass Festival and Bluegrass Goes Pink at Cross Ranch State Park. The last of those concerts is especially important to Jill and her bandmates. “I lost my sister Barb to breast cancer at the age of 50,” said Jill. “After Barb had been gone for ten years I still wanted to help, so I asked the guys about doing a gig at the park to raise money for the Bismarck Cancer Center Foundation. We couldn’t have been happier to get 300 people at the first Bluegrass Goes Pink, and the concert is now on its eighth year. We do a lot of other fundraisers because we love working for worthy causes, and we just love performing, too.
“We always look forward to playing at churches. If you only go to one your whole life then that’s all you know, but going to a lot of churches lets you see what’s special about every one of them. Coming up with a good gospel set is exciting. A lot of the songs we normally play are kind of downers — you don’t exactly get inspired by ‘Jolene’ or ‘Banks of the Ohio.’ Gospel is uplifting, though, just like the time we all get to spend together. We’re beyond blessed to know that we have each other, because other people are all you’ve really got in this life.”
To learn more about Cotton Wood and the upcoming shows they’ll perform at, as well as how to hire the band for your own special occasion, please visit cottonwoodbluegrass.com.
By David Scheller