Another year of the Sól Grass Music Festival means another lineup of bluegrass musicians heading to Washington Island.
This year, that list includes Miles Over Mountains, a four-piece band from Illinois that released its first full album, Burn the Ships, in March. To craft its modern take on progressive bluegrass, Miles Over Mountains combines vocals, guitar, mandolin, banjo and upright bass (plus a special guest fiddler during its Sól Grass show).
We talked with Sean Shiel, the band’s mandolinist/vocalist, to get an inside look at the band. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Sam Watson (SW): How did Miles Over Mountains get together?
Sean Shiel (SS): Miles Over Mountains was actually a breakaway from another band. We had been in an Americana group, and four out of five of us split away and started Miles Over Mountains. That was nine years ago.
Even before we started playing together, all of us knew each other from different bands in our local music scene. We were all in different groups, but we’d share bills at music festivals, and we’d show up at the same open mics.
SW: What’s the story behind the band’s name?
SS: When the split [from the original Americana group] happened, we already had gigs on the calendar, so we had to come up with a name pretty fast. I wanted a name that gives you an idea of what the music will be like without being too on the nose. I don’t want to drop the wrong words and accidentally reference one of my friend’s bands, or use a bunch of overused terms and call ourselves something like The Whiskey River Boys.
We thought Miles Over Mountains had a bluegrass feel without being too clichéd. And being from the Chicago area, I was looking forward to years of people asking why mountains are in the name.
SW: Do you get that question a lot?
SS: Not as much as you’d think, but people do ask. It’s a fair question.
SW: Has the band played in Door County before?
SS: A few times. We’ve only ever played once on Washington Island, and that was at the first Sól Grass festival [in 2021].
Personally, I’ve been playing on the island for decades. The first time was when I was 16. My dad and his friends from college would get together on the island in the summer, and one year, they hosted a Bob Dylan tribute show at Red Barn and invited me.
SW: What’s it like going back to Washington Island years after you first played there?
SS: It’s a full-circle sort of thing. It’s gratifying to go somewhere you visited such a long time ago and take your current family with you. Plus, going to Washington Island is always a fun experience – goofing around with your bandmates on the ferry, doing Titanic impressions. I wish we had gotten to spend more time there when we played Sól Grass two years ago.
SW: What was it like playing Sól Grass?
SS: As a musician, I see a lot of familiar faces from the mainland, with some people on vacation who sort of wander in to see what’s going on.
The year we went, it rained like crazy. I would describe the vibe as “positivity in the face of the weather.” We were there to rock and roll, so we did, but holy cow, was it rainy.
I actually remember the exact day I became aware of the festival. The band was playing at Door County Brewing Company, I believe, and someone there told me, this summer, there’s a bluegrass festival on Washington Island.
I was like, “Those are a lot of great words. I have to be there.”
Miles Over Mountains will play the Sól Grass Music Festival on its first day, June 16, alongside other bluegrass bands such as The Millbillies, Long Mama, The Cody Sisters Band, Buffalo Galaxy and Chicken Wire Empire.
If you can’t catch the band on the island, Miles Over Mountains will also play Green Bay and Appleton, among other cities, this summer. To see a full list of appearances, visit milesovermountains.com.