Anytime I begin an article about a bluegrass festival, I’m always concerned about the reader’s perspective. Have you ever experienced a bluegrass festival? For those who have, the following will be a recollection of the times and music. For those who haven’t had the chance, this is a peek into the window of an “underground” community, honestly. I mean, unless you understand the place and the people, you may not fully appreciate the event.
Lyons, Colorado. A one-bar, two-church town that comes alive every so often, on certain summer weekends, but most of the time, it’s a sleepy little front-range village that serves as a passage for those who know the back way to Rocky Mountain National Park. June 25th through the 27th happened to be the dates this year for Planet Bluegrass’ Rockygrass Festival, an annual event that showcases the best Bluegrass this side of the Mississippi. The Planet Bluegrass Ranch is simply amazing, nestled beside the banks of the St. Vrain river beneath steep, rust-colored cliffs. There’s a large, wooden stage at the far end of the field, with a stand of towering poplars to the left for afternoon shade. You can watch the bands play the large wooden stage sitting in a camp chair in the middle of the river, as children of all ages build forts and dams out of the flat, red rocks and slide past on inner tubes.
Planet Bluegrass, who also hosts the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, has been putting on this three-day event for thirty-one years. Rockygrass’ starring acts were imported from the Appalachian heartland, with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder headlining Friday night, and the Del McCoury Band filling the slot on Saturday. Both played their traditional, high-energy sets for the four thousand or so that stuck around for the evening. And Sunday was a special reunion of Old & In The Gray, the remaining members of Old & In The Way. (Everyone but Jerry Garcia is somehow still around). I could go on and on about the bands; there were simply way to many incredible players to go into them individually.
But I do want to mention an old-time band that stole the festival with originals that rang of the Appalachian blues – Reel-Time Travelers.
They played the mainstage early Friday, took the crowd by surprise, then played the second stage Sunday afternoon, filling up every seat under the large canopy and leaving the rest of us crowded shoulder around the sides, listening to music that sounded straight out a deep Virginia holler. It went something like this: Martha Scanlan’s haunting vocals and smooth guitar, Heidi Andrade on the fiddle and doing a clogging demonstration on a couple of tunes, her husband Roy clawhammerin’ that banjo, with Thomas Sneed and Brandon Story filling in the rhythms on mandolin and bass. The Travelers are a truly remarkable band, making a musical history lesson come to life.
The second stage in the back of the Ranch hosts the competitions during the first two afternoons. Each instrument gets it’s due: banjo, mandolin, fiddle, Dobro, bass, and there is a full band competition as well. Many of the musicians competing had been here the entire week before attending the Rockygrass Academy, a collection of seminars, workshops and jam-sessions with some of the gods of bluegrass music. I was fortunate to have a couple friends who attended, which adds a whole new dimension to the show. You get to hang out with the up-and-comers from around the Front Range, as well as folks from all over the country here for the Academy. Many a High Country Bluegrass band has been formed besides the shores of the St. Vrain.
After Saturday’s show, somewhere near two in the morning, Stormin’ Norman and I made our way backstage. Upon the large stone patio built directly behind and below the stage, a circle of approximately fifteen musicians were playing. Some of the greats were arranged in this oval, pickin’ on some of the classics: David Grisman, Peter Wernick, Tony Trischa, Darol Anger, Tim O’Brien, along with those I forget and those good and lucky enough to be in on the jam. This is how Bluegrass was born and is still being created, friends and strangers getting together simply for the love of the sounds. Looking over the shoulders of some of my musical heroes, watching their fingers concocting these rifts, was simply amazing to me.
And just when they ended the third song, I’d heard a little girl, (guessing to be around nine or ten years of age), with thick brown-rimmed glasses and pink dress and pony-tail, pipes up directly to all the circle, “I want to do Mollie and Tembrook!! I want to do Mollie and Tembrook!!” a classic Bill Monroe tune. She’d been in the background on her fiddle all night, and sure enough it was her turn. Peter Wernick kicked it off, and you’ve never heard a woman no matter how old sing with such emotion, power, and honesty. The whole bunch of us standing around behind the group were captivated by every note, and we fell silent for a few instances after she sang the final line. Then everyone busted out in applause and awestruck laughter.
The most amazing part of any Planet Bluegrass event is the community – the commodore of the festivarians, and the love for the music shared by the pickers and the listeners that permeated throughout the atmosphere. The smaller, in-town campground backs up to the venue, filled with the tents and campers of those most devoted fans. To get these tickets, most people get in a lottery held in October. No matter where you were on the grounds, you couldn’t walk ten feet without seeing a smiling person sitting in a camp chair sipping on a beer, or giggling children sprinting up and down the pathways squirting squirt guns and rolling hula-hoops. And of course there are the players, circled beneath tarps, trading licks and stories from early morn to early morn.
This is the stuff Rockygrass is made of.