Ed Helms’ musical side pursuits have been well-known for years, if perhaps just slightly shy of being well-known enough to have him commonly hyphenated as “actor-banjoist Ed Helms.” But the shutdown of Hollywood production has allowed him more time now to devote to what he considers his “passion project,” the Bluegrass Situation, an organization focused on roots music that hosts a lively website and, in normal times, would be sponsoring concerts.
These being abnormal times, Helms’ org is putting its focus for the next four weeks into an online variety show, “The Whiskey Sour Happy Hour,” which will be bringing web viewers a mix of musicians like Rhiannon Giddens, Yola, Lee Ann Womack, Rodney Crowell and Chris Thile and comics like Nick Kroll and Jenny Slate. The shows will take place every Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET/5 PT through May 13. They can be streamed at thebluegrasssituation.com, YouTube, and Facebook.
“It wasn’t very long into this stuff that, like a lot of creative people, we were kind of itching for some outlet,” Helms tells Variety, “and then also feeling this very deep, primal urge to help somehow. And with the Bluegrass Situation being such a great platform, it felt like the right thing to do was just to put up a music show. I’ve been running those shows at Largo for quite a while” — the L.A. club that hosts his similarly loose, guest-filled “Whiskey Sour Hour” appearances — “and that just felt like the right kind of vibe: a music variety show. We started talking soon after the lockdown started about, well, how would we do it and and who could we get? And Amy [Reitnouer Jacobs, the BGS’s co-founder and executive director] is just such a dynamo, she started getting great people and it was like: Oh my gosh, we’re off to the races. Let’s do this thing.”
The initial April 22 edition of the show has young roots-music favorites Billy Strings, Madison Cunningham, David Garza and Sean and Sara Watkins of the Watkins Family Hour lined up, along with country-turned Americana star Womack and the daughter who has become a leading light in the scene in her own right, Aubrie Sellers. Previously unannounced non-musical guests popping up on the inaugural edition include comedian/”SNL” alumnus Slate and New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee.
The second show, on April 29, will include Crowell, Sierra Hull and Robert Ellis. Split between the third and fourth episodes in May, which are still being assembled, will be Giddens, Reilly, Thile, Molly Tuttle, Abby Kaplan, Buffy St. Marie and Valerie June.
A few other guests are yet to be announced. “Amy and I are largely on the same page, and are very in tune with each other’s tastes,” Helms says, “but she has taken charge of the music booking and I’ve been also trying to rope in some comedy friends, for the variety show aspect. Besides Nick Kroll and Jenny Slate sneaking in there somewhere, I just got a confirmation from Will Forte, and Andrew Bachelor, aka King Bach, is going to do something for us. So there’s going to be a really good and crazy mix of people.”
Helms confirms that he, too, “will definitely be playing some music on the show.” The tone will be a la the Largo shows he hosts to some degree, but “this show is probably a little heavier on the music than those Largo shows, which are really pretty evenly split on music and comedy. And that’s just because we’re so lucky to have so many great musicians here to participate.”
In fulfilling the Bluegrass Situation’s mission, Helms says, “it’s just another effort to give a platform to some of these amazing artists, and to elevate the music form as a whole — the roots and Americana and bluegrass music genres — which often don’t penetrate pop culture very frequently.” (Although bluegrass informs the org’s name, obviously, their musical reach expands to adjacent genres.) “And it’s really just a passion project. We’re not in it to make a million bucks off this thing. It’s just to hopefully build the community.”
Amy Reitnour Jacobs, for her part, is especially excited to have Yola, who was recently nominated for best new artist at the Grammys, on board for episode one. Yola is, of course, not a bluegrass artist, and helps illustrate the boundaries, or lack of them, of what the Bluegrass Situation as well as the Americana Music Association (whose page is also hosting the programs) represent.
“I’m really excited about the variety of artists and hope we take people by surprise with what roots music really looks like today, if people aren’t familiar,” says Jacobs. “What we try to do on the website eery day and at our concert stages and events is always try to challenge traditional notions of Americana, bluegrass and folk music. Hopefully people can make some discoveries through this.”
The series will benefit MusiCares’ COVID-19 Relief Fund and Direct Relief. Donations can be made at DonorBox.
As for any consciousness-raising or even fundraising, “it’s not just about the charity,” she adds. “I hope that in addition to raising money, people are reminded that they still need to support artists. You can’t go to a show right now, but you can buy that person’s merch or buy that record instead of streaming it.”
Right now, only four shows are planned for the limited series, “but who knows where this will go?” says Jacobs. “We were planning on just doing the first four weeks and having the best show possible. But it has also gotten us thinking, how will people receive music for the foreseeable future? Is there a hub for online concerts to really continue to happen and be a part of this? So whether it’s this or a version of this or some online venue we end up developing through the process, I don’t think it’s the end of us putting this on. But for the time being, we’re focusing on the task at hand, because that’s enough right now.”
And for Angelenos in particular, the show will satisfy some of their Largo craving. “Episode 1 is a real mix of artists we are fans of and also friends with. The Watkins (also of Nickel Creek fame), in addition to being literal family to each other, are musical family to so many people. The same with David Garza, Madison Cunningham and lot of those folks that have come out of the Largo community that’s an extension of our musical family. Even though we can’t be at Largo, everyone comes together in this episode.”