By John Lehndorff
(August 2015) – I have attended and written about Colorado’s Rockygrass Festival at least 20 times over the years at various rural county fairground sites and the last 16 in Lyons. That’s approximately a billion notes (pick, plucked, strummed and bowed) under the bridge and down the creek along with innumerable versions of “Uncle Pen.” I look at the stage and remember final notes played there by Charles Sawtelle, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, John Hartford and Vassar Clements.
There have been highlights each year besides the extreme weather events, the beautiful location and stellar sound, but the 2015 Rockygrass Festival, July 24-26, was something else again. It even felt different from start to finish, as if the bluegrass deities deigned to allow 4,000 or so of us a near perfect weekend of music. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen most of the main stage acts umpteen times, but on this July weekend, they all seemed to draw deep from the inspiration well and collaborate happily and generously, in particular Sam Bush, Del McCoury and David Grisman. Yet it was clear that many torches in the Olympic bluegrass event were being passed and the bench is stacked with young, hungry talent.
Friday found 2014 Rockygrass band contest winner Caribou Mountain Collective getting its prize: the opening set. This Colorado non-traditional (surprise, huh?) bluegrass band showed off its original tunes including a great song about pie. The youth movement was in full tilt mode with Sierra Hull, the diminutive mandolin powerhouse who is already drifting out of the Bill Monroe mold and into territory explored by her mentor, Sam Bush. The Swiss-born Kruger Brothers proved once again that they have a better appreciation of America’s folk music heritage than most bluegrass fans in their uplifting celebrations of “People Get Ready” and “I Know You Rider” (the Grateful Dead variation).
The Infamous Stringdusters have always delivered a jam-heavy, energetic set but they always seemed to be trying too hard and playing too many notes. Their Rockygrass set was at a new level, as if the band of acoustic stars had matured, gotten more soulful and in the process won over some of the usual disgruntled bluegrass hardliners. Particularly memorable was Andy Falco whose intense, powerhouse picking reminds me more of Lindsay Buckingham than Clarence White.
There would be no lack of modern bluegrass twang this weekend from Claire Lynch, Daily & Vincent and Danny Paisley but the master class was put on by Jerry Douglas’ Earls of Leicester, a tribute to the music of Flatt and Scruggs. Where last year the Earls seemed more like a cover band, albeit composed of all-stars, it now sounds more like a real band that inhabits the music as well as those corny ties. In watching the Earls you glimpse the genesis of Hot Rize and a pantheon of bands.
Saturday’s first discovery (or maybe rediscovery) was Mike Munford, banjoist with the newgrass-flavored Frank Sollivan & Dirty Kitchen. We knew he had won Banjo Player of the Year and such but over the course of two days he earned the right to be in the discussion with Bela, Tony, Noam and the brilliant semi-classical Jens Kruger. Munford’s inventive style blends Scruggs-style with Bill Keith’s melodic approach and Fleck’s expeditionary picking.
Rockygrass is notable for the space in the show it has provided to the rarest of all onstage sights: women musicians. Lucky attendees Saturday got to see one of first gigs by the nascent supergroup I’m With Her: Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz & Aoife O’Donovan build around beautiful harmony singing and strong instrumental licks.
The aforementioned Del & David Grisman provided a warm-hearted set of duets on mostly traditional songs. If Del McCoury’s voice was a president it would be etched into Mt. Rushmore. A Dawg original celebrated McCoury’s under-recognized status as the king of bluegrass rhythm guitarists. The day concluded with a classic high energy Sam Bush Band with a stellar finale jam with a packed stage.
Sunday we learned that there is a new flatpicking guitar star in the constellation that had fans of Clarence White, Tony Rice, Norman Blake and Doc Watson smiling broadly in the audience at Rockygrass. Billy Strings – a braggy stage name for sure – is a gloriously, sloppily talented young guitarist and singer who we will be headlining a Rockygrass one year in the near future.
A wired bundle of energy, Strings is more in the studied savant school of flatpickers that includes David Grier that the studied brilliance of the current reigning flatpicking king, Bryan Sutton of Hot Rize.
The best moment of the weekend if you love Grisman’s Dawg masterpieces actually came at the finale of the Del McCoury Band’s set when Grisman and Bush came out. Instead of yanking out some old Bill Monroe chestnut, Del called for “Dawg’s Bull,” a gorgeous composition from the golden era of the genre. The sound of Ronnie McCoury, Bush and Grisman on the intricate mandolin weavings of the tune was stunning.
What I can say about the final act of the evening, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, was that I recall horses, zombies, go-go dancers, a smoke machine and country singers including someone who looked and sounded like Del McCoury. He should really tour with those guys.
The appropriate culmination of such a festival was the new, reinvigorated Hot Rize retaking the stage for a set of classics concluding with cluster pick of the Hot Rize chestnut “Colleen Malone.” You could see the “young” member of Hot Rize, Bryan Sutton, beaming as he helped lead the “kids” in playing this song he learned off a Hot Rize cassette playing in his Dad’s car decades ago.
(The field and stream under the cliffs at Planet Bluegrass in Lyons will be full once again Aug. 14-16 for the 25th Annual Folks Festival featuring Peter Yarrow, Kasey Chambers, Sufjan Stevens, Mary Chapin Carpenter & Shawn Colvin, Jason Isbell, The Waifs, The Wood Brothers, Richard Thompson and Gillian Welch. Details: bluegrass.com/folks/lineup.html)