The late, great bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe recognized the participatory nature of the genre when he helped create the RockyGrass Festival with the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society back in 1973. It’s why the first festival, as well as every subsequent festival, has featured audience instrument contests where festival attendees can compete on the same stage as their idols. It’s also why, for many concertgoers, the true festival starts after the stages are shut down, when campfires are lit and spontaneous, joyful picking circles break out all across the grounds. They come from different backgrounds, but for three days in July, thousands of bluegrass fans converge in Lyons to pick up an instrument, put down their pretenses and unite under the spirit of the song.
“You see an amazing amount of diversity with the people out in the campgrounds playing together,” says Brian Eyster, communications director for Planet Bluegrass, the company that puts on the RockyGrass Festival and its behemoth brother in Telluride. “At the end of the festival, you see all these teary goodbyes from people who had never met before the weekend. They play together madly all day long and in a lot of cases don’t even bother to learn each other’s names. The music forges a very deep community at RockyGrass.”
It’s that community that keeps the audiences coming back year after year. The lineup is again terrific this year, featuring such legends as Del McCoury, Sam Bush, Larry Sparks (in his first Colorado performance in 15 years) and David Grisman, as well up-and-comers like Sarah Jarosz, Joy Kills Sorrow and Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers (an established name no doubt, but still making his mark on the music world). But programs like RockyGrass Academy, a week-long workshop where fans can study under the very best in bluegrass (Tim O’Brien teaches a songwriting class, for example) are the biggest reason that the festival sold out an early lottery in November, back before a single act was even announced.
“I think it’s the scale of the festival that really stands out,” says Todd Phillips, bassist for the avant-garde newgrass supergroup Psychograss, who is teaching a workshop at this year’s academy. “Telluride is intense. It’s so huge. But here, it’s much smaller. We can hang out on the lawn, just teaching workshops to people.
And the campground is right by the stage, so we usually take a stroll through the grounds at night, listening to people play together.”
While Telluride has, by design, expanded to include many folk and pop acts, RockyGrass remains almost defiantly traditional. It is, no doubt, the way the old guardian of the genre Monroe would have wanted it. Acts perform acoustic sets, on traditional instruments, with drum kits being kept to a minimum. Some acts, such as the legendary Sam Bush Band, even tailor their set to fit with the traditional vibe.
Bush is credited with taking bluegrass from the farms to the cities in the ’70s, incorporating rock ’n’ roll into the genre with his band New Grass Revival. At RockyGrass, however, the Sam Bush Band becomes the Sam Bush Bluegrass Band, tackling traditional favorites.
“It’s great because we feel free to play some traditional songs we really love to play. We were just practicing for three hours, pulling out stuff by the Stanley Brothers, Foggy Mountain Boys, even the Dillards,” Bush says. “Other promoters have asked us to do our bluegrass set at other festivals, but we really only do it for RockyGrass. I mean, we’ll play some newgrass stuff, some of the stuff you expect us to play, but we really try to make it a special, true bluegrass set.”
It’s noteworthy that Bush reserves his most traditional set for the festival that Bill Monroe created. Bush always revered Monroe growing up, but the feeling was not necessarily mutual. Upon hearing Bush play with New Grass Revival, legend has it that Monroe told Bush that his music “ain’t no part of nothing.” Monroe eventually came to respect Bush and his music, and the Sam Bush Bluegrass Band is a fitting tribute to the values that Monroe held so dear.
“You know, I think Bill Monroe respected us for taking chances and trying to find our own sound,” Bush recalls. “He always felt that if you didn’t take a chance in music, you’re nothing. I mean, nothing bad is going to happen if you make a mistake playing music.”
Listening to Sam Bush talk about Bill Monroe is a great reminder of the living history lesson that occurs at each of these festivals. Rock ’n’ roll is a young man’s game, with artists relying on visceral gut-punch passion and constant innovation to remain relevant. But bluegrass players, with their respect for tradition and emphasis on great musicianship, tend to age quite well. Maybe it’s because that high and lonesome sound is a little bit more lonesome when sung by a man looking back at a lifetime of experience, but anyone watching a 72-year-old Del McCoury take the stage will leave with the feeling that he’s still as good as he ever was.
Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that one of the festival’s most anticipated newer acts is a 65-year-old banjo picker who’s been grey for 35 years. If he had focused on bluegrass rather than being a “wild and crazy guy” in the ’70s, it is possible Steve Martin would be mentioned in the same breath as McCoury or Larry Sparks, hailed as a legend of traditional bluegrass. But instead, he’s a newcomer to the genre, with the release of 2009’s The Crow and 2011’s Rare Bird Alert proving that unlike countless other actors-turned-musicians, he actually has the chops to match the publicity. Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers is not just another Hollywood vanity project. In fact, it may be some of the most earnest work Martin has ever done, in any field.
The old joke about Steve Martin’s comedy career is that nobody knows whether he is actually a good comedian, because his act centered around a deconstruction of comedy. Sure, he threw himself into his schlocky shtick better than anyone, and “King Tut” is never not funny, but there was very little of Steve Martin in Steve Martin’s act. As a musician, however, Martin has found a way to express himself onstage, and he seems positively giddy about it. In a 2010 interview with CNN at Bonnaroo, Martin talked like a man who had finally, after all these years, found his passion in life.
“You can actually be moved by playing music on stage,” Martin told CNN. “In comedy, you’re never moved.”
On the surface, it sounds cynical, especially for a man who made millions entertaining people with his comedy. But Martin also gets at a fundamental truth about why farmers picked up their banjos and started to play after a long day in the fields. Few things move people the way creating music does, and it’s a feeling you want to share with other people. Sam Bush couldn’t stop talking about his band’s extended bluegrass rehearsal the same way my friend told anyone who would listen about his three days jamming in picking circles while at this year’s Telluride Festival.
“We really don’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter about what music we play,” says Pyschograss’ Phillips, a legend in his own right for his time with the David Grisman Quintet. “We listen to old records, digest it and put out whatever we got inside.”
So if you’re going to RockyGrass, be sure to bring something with strings, and be ready to put out whatever you got inside. This isn’t the kind of festival where you stand around looking at the stage for three days while the sun slowly saps away all your energy. This is the people’s music — passed down from fathers to sons, where relationships live and die in a small circle around the flicker of a fire. This is Traditional American, the American tradition. Anything else, as Bill Monroe would say, ain’t no part of nothing.