Music / Reviews - Acoustic music

Rockygrass contests have been the launching pad of the young bluegrass stars

 I'm With Her: Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz & Aoife O’Donovan soar at Rockygrass, a place that has nurtured all three musicians.

I’m With Her: Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz & Aoife O’Donovan soar at Rockygrass, a place that has nurtured all three musicians.

(The 42nd Annual RockyGrass Festival just won the award for the IBMA’s Bluegrass Event of the Year. Among the reasons were the Rockygrass Academy and instrument and band contests. The following feature originally appeared in the 2015 Rockygrass Festival Guide.)


When the first fiddler launches into “Tom and Jerry” to start the instrumental contests on Friday, they’ll be standing onstage in the Wildflower Pavilion in part because of their parents, Bill Monroe and Tom Hicks.

Everybody knows Bill, the Father of Bluegrass Music, but he also put up his own money in 1973 to fund the first Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival and the first contests at the Adams County Fairground.

Tom Hicks has been one of the festival’s most unsung heroes for 16 years. As the Rockygrass Contest Director he has helped turn the instrument and band contests from a regional honor into one of the most coveted awards the bluegrass festival world has to offer. Just ask previous band winners like the Steep Canyon Rangers.

Hicks had entered the fiddle and mandolin contests at the Pitkin County Fair and judged contests in the early years of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. When the festival moved to Planet Bluegrass in Lyons and became “Rockygrass,”  Hicks answered the call for a Contest Director.

“I’m a fairly organized person and I had been a deejay so I thought I could do it,” he said in his matter-of-fact way. He arrived with a calm demeanor, a box full of forms and pencils, and a format he liked for the instrumental contests. “It was three tunes, no repeats. No electric instruments and only one backup musician. And judging was to be done in the blind,” he said.

The three Rockygrass judges for the fiddle, guitar, mandolin, guitar and Dobro categories are not only not in the audience, they are in another building entirely … a fact Hicks was loathe to divulge. “The judges don’t know who is playing. The contestants are only referred to by number,“ he said.

He also lined up more than a few good judges over the years who needed more than a capacity to hear “Grey Eagle” over and over again. “You need to be a musician. You have to have that ear. A good judge has a pretty good idea about the player’s skills in a few bars,” he said. Noting the overall ability, expression, rhythm, tone and general tastiness, judges have to move along because there are up to a dozen musicians in each category. “You can’t take all day doing it,” Hicks said.

He likes to remind potential contestants that while they may be iconic acoustic music icons now, but Mark O’Connor, Tim O’Brien and Sarah Jarosz were unknowns when they competed at the festival.

‘You compete against yourself’

Bryan MacDowell knows a bit about entering contests and the impact it can have on a bluegrass career. In 2009 he won the Walnut Valley Festival National championships in fiddle, mandolin and guitar.  A year later as a 19-year-old he entered every instrumental contest category except the Dobro and won the Rockygrass fiddle, guitar, and mandolin contests

“Rockygrass was a big thing, but there‘s only pressure if you let it get to you,” MacDowell said. “When you are playing in a contest the most important thing is not to look at it as a competition. It’s ultimately a platform to share your talents,” he said.

MacDowell’s best advice to contestants – besides “don’t exceed the time limit,” is to avoid trying to impress the judges by playing fast. “Technique is important but play with taste, not just a lot of notes. Establish once that you can play fast but don’t do it all the whole way through,” he said.

“The judges want to make sure the player is not a one trick pony.”

He urges musicians to not be intimidated by contests. “Prepare well and then have fun. Any competitor learns something every time they enter a contest,” he said, adding that he almost never saw seen contestants trying to psyche-out other musicians. “If someone tries to do that to you it probably means you’ve got ‘em worried. It’s almost a compliment,” he said.

MacDowell hasn’t been back to Rockygrass since his triple win. He said he can’t wait to take the main stage Friday night as a member of the Claire Lynch Band.

‘This is show business’

When it came to the band contest, Tom Hicks said he formulated the rules after seeing Del McCoury and Hot Rize singing around one microphone. “For the band contestants, I decided one mic was the way to do it. That’s the way they used to do it and there was some choreography required. This is show business so we’re looking for stage presence,” Hicks said, who added that bands introduce themselves and do their own sound mix as they would in concert or at a club.

Needless to say, the judges in the band category are in the audience to see the bands perform.

At 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, it’s a given that the Wildflower Theater will be standing room only with folks wanting to hear the next great bluegrass band. “The last few years in the band contest has been very memorable. Where else in the world can you come and hear this many talented musicians, that much new talent in one place with 12 wonderful bands?” Hicks said.

When the 43rd annual Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival opens Friday with 2013‘s band winner, Caribou Mountain Collective, one man will be missing. Tom Hicks retired this spring.

“I’ve done it for 16 years. Plus: I don’t want to be away from my garden for a week or more in late July. You can blame it on the squash bugs,” he said.

“I have a lot of gratitude for all the folks who have entered the contest over the 16 years. It was all about them.“

Next July, a new band will open the 44th Annual Rockygrass as another crop of pickers will take a deep breath and start playing their hearts out at the Wildflower Pavilion.

More music from John Lehndorff:


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