Traditional bluegrass does not include any kind of electronic components or a modern-day drum kit, but its history throughout the United States and its improvisational nature has proven time and time again that bluegrass is one of the most complicated genres to perform. At its very essence, bluegrass captivates audiences with a powerful spell that sucks you into a tranquil state of nostalgia.
The time has come again for bluegrass’s top artists to descend on Planet Bluegrass in Lyons for the 41st RockyGrass Festival, which runs from Friday, July 26 through Sunday, July 28. Nestled underneath classic Colorado red sandstone cliffs and adjacent to the St. Vrain River, RockyGrass provides not just music, river tubing, camping and a weekend full of family fun for the festivalgoers, it also connects well with the artists.
“I feel so relaxed there, those are my people,” says Jerry Douglas, a bluegrass living legend and one of the headliners at RockyGrass. “RockyGrass is more of a place where you let it all hang down.”
The intimate vibe of Planet Bluegrass is a huge part of what makes RockyGrass so special, but the unique atmosphere is also due to the host town of Lyons, where bluegrass lives and breathes on front porches as well as in local bars and public parks. For the town, RockyGrass and the Folks Festival in August at Planet Bluegrass are the two biggest weekends of the year socially and economically.
“This town is so full of [bluegrass] every other week of the year as well, but even more so this week,” says Ian Rubenoff, the chef of the Lyons Fork restaurant located a couple blocks from Planet Bluegrass. “There are endless opportunities for businesses to make money and do things during the festival, so it’s really a plus for everyone.”
The atmosphere of RockyGrass is special, but a festival is only as good as the artists who play it.
From Tim O’Brien to the Sam Bush Bluegrass Band to the Carolina Chocolate Drops to Jerry Douglas and the Del McCoury Band, RockyGrass is full of some of the biggest names in the genre.
A photo of 'the beach' at Planet Bluegrass | Photo by Benko Photography
“It’s the right amount of pressure [for the artists] to give an extraordinary performance, because they can be relaxed and still recognize that this is one of their most important gigs of the year,” says Brian Eyster, the communications director of Planet Bluegrass. “We’ll invite these artists to put together something fresh just for this festival, so it lets them be creative leading up to RockyGrass.”
For example, Douglas has put together a band project just for this year’s RockyGrass festival, The Earls of Leicester, which will cover the music of the legendary bluegrass group Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. For Douglas, who grew up idolizing the band, being able to play this set at RockyGrass will be a special moment.
“It gives me cold chills to stand up there and play that stuff and hear it that way, [like] I’m 6 years old all over again and it’s like the first time I ever heard it,” says Douglas. “We all grew up listening to this stuff and it’s in our souls, and we’re all so happy to be doing it.”
Douglas is also playing a Sunday morning set called “Gospel Chrome,” a slot he asked for specifically.
“You can’t do that at any other festival. They’re trying to pile stuff on you that you don’t want to do, and this festival I’m asking for things to do,” Douglas says. “It’s a completely different mindset; I don’t feel like I’m doing business. I’m playing music and going deeper inside, and that sets [RockyGrass] apart for me.”
Jerry Douglas | Photo by Patrick Sheehan
Douglas admits that he does feel very comfortable at RockyGrass and that it’s partly due to the long history he has with the festival, but there are several artists that will be playing their first RockyGrass festival this weekend. One standout playing for his first time in Lyons this year is Keller Williams.
Known as the one-man jamband for his multi-faceted instrumental talents accompanied by looping techniques, Williams will be playing a bluegrass set with the Travelin’ McCourys, with whom he’s played with 20-something times in recent years and has collaborated with for his latest album, Pick, which came out in 2012. Although Williams is known more for his acoustic jam and funk music, he fully understands what it means to capture the essence of bluegrass.
“A lot of it has to do with the simplicity of the acoustic instruments and the energy and vibe that can come from wooden instruments with strings on them with no real drums or electronics or anything like that,” says Williams. “It’s a real special thing that occurs at these types of events, and playing at a place that’s really steeped with tradition is a challenge, and it’s fun and it makes me want to iron my pants.”
The 2013 RockyGrass festival is set up to be a weekend-long celebration of bluegrass and life in general, which Douglas says are somewhat synonymous.
“I’m 57 years old and I don’t feel like it because playing bluegrass music keeps you young,” Douglas says.
FRIDAY, JULY 26
10 a.m. — Gates open
10:45 a.m. – 11:45 a.m. — FRONT COUNTRY
12:00 p.m. – 1 p.m. — LOMAX PROJECT WITH JAYME STONE, TIM O’BRIEN, BRUCE MOLSKY & FRIENDS
1:15 p.m. – 2:15 p.m. — HELEN HIGHWATER, FEATURING DAVID GRIER, MIKE COMPTON, MISSY RAINES & SHAD COBB
2:30 p.m. – 3:45 p.m. — KATHY KALLICK BAND
4 p.m. – 5:15 p.m. — THE STEELDRIVERS
5:30 p.m. – 6:45 p.m. — THE KRUGER BROTHERS
7:15 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. — TIM O’BRIEN
9 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. — DEL MCCOURY BAND
SATURDAY, JULY 27
9 a.m. — Gates open
9:30 a.m. – 11:15 a.m. — INSTRUMENT CONTEST FINALS
11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — THE DEADLY GENTLEMEN
12:45 p.m. – 1:45 p.m. — I DRAW SLOW
2 p.m. – 3:15 p.m. — OLD-TIME KOSMIK TRIO, FEATURING DAROL ANGER, RUSHAD EGGLESTON & BRUCE MOLSKY
3:45 p.m. – 5 p.m. — BLUE HIGHWAY
5:30 p.m. – 6:45 p.m. — SAM BUSH & DEL MCCOURY
7:15 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. — CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS
9 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. — JERRY DOUGLAS PRESENTS “THE EARLS OF LEICESTER”
SUNDAY, JULY 28
10 a.m. — Gates open
11 a.m. – 12 p.m. — JERRY DOUGLAS & ROB ICKES’ “GOSPEL CHROME”
12:15 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. — CAHALEN MORRISON & ELI WEST
1:45 p.m. – 3 p.m. — HEAD FOR THE HILLS
3:15 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. — THE ANDY STATMAN TRIO WITH TIM O’BRIEN& MICHAEL CLEVELAND
5 p.m. – 6:15 p.m. — PETER ROWAN BLUEGRASS BAND
6:45 p.m. – 8 p.m. — KELLER WILLIAMS WITH THE TRAVELIN’ MCCOURYS
8:30 p.m. – 10 p.m. — SAM BUSH BLUEGRASS BAND