LYONS, COLO. — At the edge of this town just north of Boulder, a sign announces that the Lions Club of Lyons welcomes visitors. Instead of the population, the sign lists the altitude — 5,375 feet — for this laid-back, western hamlet, backed up against the red peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. On the last weekend in July the population grows another 3,500 or so, with the coming of the RockyGrass, one of the nation’s premier bluegrass festivals.
Previously known as the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival, RockyGrass has been in existence 27 years says Steve Szymanski, vice president of Planet Bluegrass, the group that stages both RockyGrass and its big brother, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Held in June, Telluride attracts more than 10,000 “festivarians” each day for bluegrass and roots-oriented Americana music.
“RockyGrass moved around over the years and was last run by the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society, a non-profit group who came to us in 1991 to see if we would be interested in running the festival. We took it over in 1992, renting the property that is currently our site,” Szymanski explains.
“Planet Bluegrass took the Telluride Festival’s constituents and lured them to a more traditional event,” comments RockyGrass headliner Tim O’Brien, of the Flatheads. “You see the Hacky Sack crowd there along with those who normally avoid the ’hippie’ scene.”
RockyGrass is decidedly a bluegrass festival. The lineup last weekend (July 28-30) included Doc Watson; Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys with Jim Lauderdale; the Nashville Bluegrass Band; David Grisman; Peter Rowan; Sam Bush; Jerry Douglas; Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder; Blue Highway; The John Hartford String Band; Rhonda Vincent & the Rage; Nickel Creek; Phillips, Grier & Flinner; The Flatheads; and Sugarbeat, among others.
In its annual directory, Bluegrass Unlimited magazine lists more than 500 bluegrass music festivals in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan. This year, 155 events will take place west of the Mississippi, compared to 317 festivals east of the dividing river. Longitude isn’t the only difference between them, however.
At the typical southern bluegrass festival, the music focuses more on the traditional, or at least the tradition-based spectrum of contemporary bluegrass. Concession stands serve hamburgers, hot dogs, black coffee and candy bars. The crowd’s median age often hovers between 50 to 60. Fans sit quietly in lawn chairs to listen to the music. More than half arrive in RVs, and the events take place in wooded areas, pastures or fairgrounds.
Things at RockyGrass are a little different. Ninety percent of the crowd appears to be under 30. Many wear batik dresses, some have dreadlocks, and an enthusiastic remnant of the Grateful Dead’s legions swoop-dance and twirl brightly striped hula hoops near the stage. Food runs to burritos, gyro sandwiches, stir-fry, fish and pizza. It’s a sprouts-and-tofu crowd, with lots of black beans and salsa. This is the West, after all.
Along with the culinary diversity, the audiences at most bluegrass festivals in the West have eclectic musical tastes. Sara Watkins is the 19-year-old lead singer and fiddler with progressive acoustic band Nickel Creek, whose video, “Reasons Why,” is airing on CMT. “The audience is different,” she says. “They’re very accepting of a lot of material — anything that they consider musical or different or intriguing, they seem really interested in.”
Her guitarist brother, Sean, 23, explains. “I think it’s because here there are no real cultural roots in bluegrass. Back in the South, that’s their culture, that’s part of who they are, so the (traditional music) is sacred ground.”
Luke Bulla, 20, fiddle player with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, agrees. “It’s kind of hard to classify the audience here … They seem to love everything. They like Doc Watson and Ralph Stanley and Ricky Skaggs as much as they like Phish and Shawn Colvin, and people like that.”
This open attitude can be a good thing for bluegrass artists, believes Barbara Liebler, owner of instrument case manufacturer Colorado Case Company whose booth was situated between Goddess Gear clothing and Gypsy Wind windsocks and chimes. “Some of the young people come into liking bluegrass through some of the more progressive music,” she said. “Then, as they get farther into it and discover all the traditional [sounds], they love that, too.”
Dobro player Sally Van Meter, who moved from California to Colorado several years ago, agrees, although with reservations. “There’s more of an open-ended, youth-oriented atmosphere here. It’s a younger crowd. The festivals west of the Mississippi are more willing to put in a few groups with drums. They reach bigger audiences that way, and then bring them into more [traditional] music. When they come across someone like Ralph Stanley, they freak out and say, ’Oh, this is where all that came from.'”
O’Brien offers additional perspective. “It seems like the festival mirrors its location in some way,” he muses. “The people expect different things in North Carolina than they do in Colorado. There are so many ways to skin the cat. The Midwest has the SPBGMA-style events (Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America), and there are the contest events that other people like.
“But then you have the dichotomy of, say, the very eclectic Strawberry Festival and the more narrowly focused, traditional bluegrass Grass Valley festivals in California. Heck, the [eclectic] Grey Fox (formerly Winterhawk) and [traditional] Peaceful Valley festivals present a similar dichotomy, right on the same weekend in Upstate New York. I’d say the audience has grown to where these things can thrive alongside one another, and people can choose the type of event they want.”
Whatever the style, people come to music festivals and return year after year because of special moments that don’t happen anywhere else. It’s a unique community, a mobile music town erected once a year for one week.
At RockyGrass 2000, for instance, mandolin greats David “Dawg” Grisman and Sam Bush performed on stage together as a duo for the first time (though they’ve jammed together in the past). Their mandolins sounded like two butterflies fluttering their twin wings, creating exquisite, crystalline tremolo harmonies. They transformed Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” into Sam & Dawg’s “Hold On, I’m Strumming.” When the audience demanded an encore, they played a humorous song written by late jazz and bluegrass mando-great, Jethro Burns, about mandolin players and how they failed to measure up to Big Mon (Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass music). The song morphed into Monroe’s signature piece for the mandolin, “Rawhide,” and Ricky Skaggs joined them on stage to add a third mandolin to the blazing number.
Michael Cleveland, 19-year-old fiddler with Rhonda Vincent, blew the crowd away with an uptempo version of “Fire on the Mountain.” Powerhouse vocalist and mandolin player Vincent wailed out “Hit Parade of Love,” nailing the Jimmy Martin song with the same energy, driving rhythm and sheer volume as the King of Bluegrass did in his prime. Sugarbeat (Tony Furtado, Ben Demerath, Matt Flinner and Sally Truitt) reunited on stage for the first time in five years. The Nashville Bluegrass Band intrigued Deadheads with “Signs Following,” a mysterious song about snake handling and murder in the Deep South.
Jerry Douglas joined Rob Ickes of Blue Highway in something of a Dobro summit on “Reuben” (between them, the pair has won every Dobro Player of the Year honor handed out by the International Bluegrass Music Association in the past 10 years). Watkins, backed by Nickel Creek, belted out Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and brought the house down.
Country twang vocalist and hit songwriter Jim Lauderdale shared the stage with Ralph Stanley for “I Feel Like Singing Today,” the title cut of the bluegrass album they released last year on the Rebel label. Listening to first generation bluegrass legend Stanley & his Clinch Mountain Boys sing classics like “Little Maggie” and “Think of What You’ve Done” was a little like seeing Abraham Lincoln stride to center stage to recite the Gettysburg Address. Ricky Skaggs stood alone on stage to sing “Lead Me to the Rock,” a haunting a cappella gospel number based on a passage from Psalms. Skaggs’ Appalachian-tinged vocals echoed poignantly off the red rock walls of the mountains behind the stage
For their part, the artists, many from the East themselves, seemed to appreciate the western setting. “This was my first time at RockyGrass,” Lauderdale said. “I have to say that all the good reports are true.” Mark Schatz, with The Flatheads, agreed. “The red hue of the rocks and particularly this site with the little valley here, and the rocks and the bubbling brook next door… It’s just a good hang.”