The coming-of-age story of Duluth's music scene could easily be called "North by Northeast." Now in its 15th year, the annual Homegrown Music Festival is a far cry from the late 1990s in Duluth, when there were hardly any local bands playing original music and even fewer places for them to play.
The festival kicks off Sunday in Duluth, and over the next eight nights features more than 180 local bands playing 25 venues.
Trampled by Turtles is arguably best-known band. The group's acoustic instruments, frantic strumming and haunting melodies have landed them CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" and other late-night stages.
Mandolin player Erik Berry recalls the second gig the band ever played was the Duluth Homegrown Festival in 2003.
"We were kind of nervous, you know, what are Duluth crowds going to think of hillbilly music at two in the morning," Berry said. "What we found, was they like it! So, it was kind of an affirmation that we were on the right track of something cool."
Eleven years later, the bluegrass band has released eight albums and played huge festivals like South by Southwest. The Austin, Texas festival, with its multiple stages spread throughout the city, felt similar to Duluth's, Berry said.
"Even though South by [Southwest] is mammoth compared to Homegrown, that was the only thing that came close, I'd never been to anything like it," Berry said. "But at the time it gave me this real sense of pride about the Duluth music scene."
When Scott Lunt started the Homegrown Music Festival 15 years ago, he modeled the showcase after South by Southwest, partly because he wanted an excuse for his new alt-country band Father Hennepin to play.
"We just started off with one venue, one stage, two nights, and it's just kind of grown every year since," Lunt said.
It had to start small. Brad Nelson, drummer for Father Hennepin, said there just weren't that many bands in Duluth in the late 1990s.
"There weren't very many places to play. There wasn't any publication writing about the music," Nelson said. "Most of the stuff fell in the cover band category."
Nelson now works as the "Minister of Culture and Propaganda" for Fitger's Brewhouse and two other Duluth restaurants he owns with his brother. He's also one of only about five people who have played all 14 Homegrown festivals. In 2000, Nelson started up an alternative weekly publication called The Ripsaw, now defunct, largely to help promote Duluth music.
"It sounds simple to people living in a bigger urban area, when those institutions are in place, like City Pages in Minneapolis, The Current," Nelson said. "But living in a place that didn't have any of that, it was really hard for a band. If you played a bar and you were playing original music, it just happened in a vacuum."
Nelson says Homegrown became both a celebration and a driver of the burgeoning scene. At Homegrown, bands often play to the biggest crowds they'll see all year, said festival director Walt Raschick.
"That kind of gives them the spark to say, 'I should make an album, people really like this,'" Raschick said. "Or, new fans are like, 'when are you playing next?'"
About 5,000 people attended last year's Homegrown, mostly from the Twin Ports area, but also hailing from Minneapolis, Chicago and Madison, Raschick said. Despite the festival's growth, he said it will remain strongly local.
"It's a homegrown festival for a reason: we're unique," he said. "I don't know of any other festival that's eight days, this many bands, and only has bands from that specific region."
The bands all receive $50, whether they're an international touring act like Trampled by Turtles, or a local musician like Sarah Krueger.
"I look forward to it all year, and I say this from the bottom of my heart, it's my favorite week of the year," Krueger said.
She calls the festival part musical celebration, part networking event. This will be her seventh Homegrown, she said.
"All week long, the people are everywhere, the venues are crowded and just bursting at the seams, and it's what everyone's talking about," Krueger said. "Everyone's taking off work, celebrating our city."
The celebration starts Sunday night with a proclamation from Mayor Don Ness, who served as festival director for two years before he ran for office.