BY JOHN LEHNDORFF
(This feature appears in the current issue of Colorado AAA Encompass magazine – plus additional information)
It’s not a native tongue, but the bluegrass ballads, waltzes and breakdowns full of stories about mournful death, deep valleys, lonesome train whistles, heartbreak, outlaws and wide creeks resonate in the Rockies as clearly as they do in native Appalachia.
Come summer thousands of folks from across the nation will pilgrimage to Colorado, America’s unlikely epicenter of modern bluegrass music. Some of them have such a good time they never leave.
Peter “Dr. Banjo” Wernick knows why we are drawn here. As a member of Colorado’s Grammy-nominated Hot Rize band, he has performed at iconic bluegrass festivals from Kentucky to Indiana and at country music’s cathedral, Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
All things considered, Wernick said, there is no better place to experience a festival than in Colorado. “Bluegrass is made to be heard outdoors. Colorado is so beautiful and the mountain climate is perfect – warm and, sunny during the day when the acts are onstage and cool and starry at night. That’s when the magic happens. Everyone gathers around the campfire to keep warm and jam,” said Wernick who lives in Niwot.
Unlike most rock, jazz and classical music festivals, bluegrass gatherings are participatory. The audience arrives with instruments in hand along with their tents. Whether it’s in Pagosa Springs, Palisade or Berthoud, performers almost always sign autographs after their sets and have been known to frequent the campgrounds to jam some more.
Onstage bluegrass involves no fancy costumes, light shows or dance steps (although areas are set aside for the audience to kick up dust or hula hoop). It’s common to see multi-generational families spread out on tarps along with groups of 20-somethings who tend to get rowdier after sunset.
“Kids connect to the energy of bluegrass and it’s a safe environment for them to run around. They are surrounded by music and there’s a family tent or they can go to music camp,” said Bryan Eyster, father of a young son and Director of Communications at the Lyons-based Planet Bluegrass. The company produces the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and two onsite events, Rockygrass and the songwriter-oriented Folks Festival. There’s even a cult-like moniker reserved for their devotees: Festivarians.
A new generation of virtuoso pickers came of age at those festivals like mandolin-slinging Chris Thile, the new host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” and Sarah Jarosz, a Grammy-nominated graduate of the Rockygrass Academy.
String band music had been played in the Colorado since settlers arrived but things changed dramatically in the 1970s when Bill Monroe, “The father of bluegrass music,” approached the Colorado Bluegrass Musical Society about putting on a festival. The writer of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” believed in Colorado’s potential so strongly that he booked the bands and bankrolled the first Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival. For its early life Rockygrass took place at various county fairgrounds before settling down in Lyons.
When bluegrass came to Colorado that signature blend of vocal harmonies driven by banjo, flatpicked guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass and dobro did get a makeover. Colorado is the open-minded place where progressive bluegrass or “jamgrass” was first celebrated and nationally known bands such as Leftover Salmon, the String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band were birthed.
Those bands use bluegrass instruments to play original tunes that ramble into jazz, reggae and rock with a definite groove. Horrified traditionalists forget that Bill Monroe “invented” bluegrass by fusing elements of Irish music and African-American singing with string band instruments.
No one can say how many of the annual visitors to Colorado come with a banjo on their knees, but every week from June through August the state is chockablock with bluegrass activity. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to avoid hearing acoustic guitars in the summer in this state.
All the acclaim means that tickets to Rockygrass and Telluride typically sell out in the winter before the lineup for the next year is even announced. Colorado boasts a slew of other festivals:
Jun 3–5: 11th Annual Pagosa Folk & Bluegrass Festival, Pagosa Springs. folkwest.com. Bluegrass, Americana, and acoustic musicians at one of Colorado’s best-loved music festivals.
Jun 3–5: 27th Annual Bluegrass at the Fair, Pueblo. bluegrassatthefair.com. One of the longest running bluegrass festivals in Colorado.
Jun 10–12: 7th Annual Palisade Blue Grass & Roots Music Festival, Palisade. 970464-5602, palisademusic. com. Live music on the banks of the Colorado River.
Jun 16–19: 43rd Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival,
Telluride. 800-624-2422, bluegrass.com/telluride. Four days of live music in the mountain.
Jun 26–28: Clear Creek RapidGrass Music Festival, Idaho Springs. 303-5192492, clearcreekrapidgrass. com. Expect rousing encores where the stage fills with a dozen pickers dishing hot licks and singing “Shady Grove,” a traditional Appalachian folk song. Kids can pick up instruments and strum, bang or blow, then hit the Slip-n-Slide.
Jul 6–10: Rocky Mountain Old Time Music Festival, Berthoud. thecroma.org. Taking place in a historic barn, the schedule includes
square dancing and workshops on instrumental techniques.
Jul 17: String Cheese Incident and Hot Rize Concert, Red Rocks, Morrison. 720865-2494, redrocksonline. com. Colorado’s nationally known bluegrassinfluenced rock band joins forces with a traditional favorite.
Jul 29–31: 44th Annual RockyGrass Festival, Lyons. 800-624-2422, bluegrass. com/rockygrass. The crown jewel of Colorado’s bluegrass calendar, with an eye-candy setting and a relatively small audience. Food booths offer fare that is a serious upgrade from carnival heartburn.
John Lehndorff has chronicled the bluegrass music scene in Colorado since the late 1970s for the Daily Camera, Rocky Mountain News, Aurora Sentinel and Bluegrass Unlimited.
The joy of jamming
On Sundays alone there are 17 jams and picking sessions taking place, according to the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society website.
“The cool thing about bluegrass jams is that you can participate regardless of your skill level,” said Brian Eyster, amateur musician and Director of Communications at the Lyons-based Planet Bluegrass.
“You stand or sit in a circle and play the standard tunes that everybody knows. If you’re new, you can stay out on the edge and strum the chords. If you feel more confident stand in the middle and take a solo.”
Attendees can also just sit and enjoy the music at the dozens of mostly free jams and picking sessions every week across Colorado in churches, wineries, coffee houses, American Legion Halls, and in one case, the basement of a dental lab.
The getogethers are often geared towards certain interests: traditional bluegrass, progressive bluegrass, Celtic, gospel or folk players. Always call ahead to make sure these largely volunteer-run events in far flung towns are taking place.
The destination topping most pickers’ lists is Tuesdays at Oskar Blues in Lyons because the area’s plethora of gifted professional bluegrass musicians are known to sit in.
– Oskar Blues Grill & Brew: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, 303 Main St., Lyons; 303-823-6685
– Olde Town Pickin’ Parlor: 3-5 p.m. third Sunday of the month, 7515 Grandview Ave., Arvada; 303-421-2304
– Swallow Hill Music, 2-4 p.m. second Sunday of the month, 71 E. Yale Ave., Denver; 303-777-1003
– Avogadro’s Number, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 605 S. Mason St., Fort Collins; 970-493-5555
Colorado Bluegrass Music Society: Information on Colorado bluegrass bands, festivals, jams, radio stations and more: coloradobluegrass.org
Old Grass Gnu Grass, 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays, KGNU (88.5.FM, 1390 AM, kgnu.org) Boulder
Rockygrass Festival archive: Recorded sets from previous Rockygrass Festivals can be streamed at: afterfm.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/rocky.grass
Tour, sweet Ome
Ome Banjos, one of America’s most respected banjo makers, offers free tours of their shop by appointment only at noon on weekdays. 5680 Valmont Road, Boulder; 303-449-0041; omebanjos.com