Through a bluegrass career spanning nearly four decades, Tim O’Brien has played on many stages and with numerous players, but RockyGrass holds a special place in his heart. Hell, he’s performed there 28 times, which is why organizers asked him to fill the final slot of the festival’s 40th year.
“I really love [RockyGrass],” O’Brien says. “I love the facility, the natural theater on the river. Some of the very first times I went to hear old time bluegrass, it was out in the country someplace pretty, a place you could swim.”
O’Brien’s history with the RockyGrass Festival predates the current ownership, back in the days when the grandpappy of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, teamed up with the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society to create the festival in 1972. O’Brien was living in Boulder, clawing together a living as a bluegrass player. RockyGrass was an alluring opportunity for the young musician, who was still developing his chops, both because he thought it might be the last time he could see Monroe perform (though Monroe ended up performing almost until his death in 1996) and because of an instrument contest held at the festival, which offered tempting cash prizes for the winners.
“I had been a professional musician for a couple years,” he recalls. “And by that I mean I wasn’t taking loans from my friends anymore, I was playing and paying my bills such as they were. … I just wanted to go to the fiddle contest and pick up the $50 [prize].”
He placed second in the 1975 guitar and fiddle competition. In 1978 he was recruited to join Hot Rize, and the band was making records and touring by 1980. O’Brien has been a prolific songwriter and performer ever since.
RockyGrass, now in its 40th year, has amassed a number of traditions along the way. It’s on the small side, as far as summer music festivals go, and that helps keep things intimate. Talk to anyone about the festival and you’re likely to hear as much about the friends they meet every year in the parking lot as you are to hear about the bands on the stage.When night falls, strangers form picking circles and play until the wee hours of the morning. It’s not unusual to see pros like O’Brien picking solos shoulder-to-shoulder with ticketbuyers. Once you experience it, people say, it’s hard to stop going, which helps explain why tickets to the festival sell out months in advance every year.
Among the festival’s storied traditions are the band and instrumentalist contests. The instrumentalist contest has hosted its share of well-known players, like O’Brien and musical Renaissance man Mark O’Connor. The band competition has served as a stepping stone for many fledgling bands, including 2001 winner Steep Canyon Rangers and 2004 champ Chatham County Line. The 2005 winner, Broke Mountain, is no longer around, but its members are — Andy Thorn (2003 banjo contest winner) plays with the Emmitt-Nershi Band, bassist Travis Book is with the Infamous Stringdusters, and dobro player Anders Beck plays with Greensky Bluegrass, all of which will be at this year’s festival.
That all goes to say that the entrants each year for the RockyGrass Band are usually unproven yet ambitious, and this year’s field is no different. But despite what’s at stake — cash, prizes, and an opening slot in next year’s festival — bands entering this year’s festival seem more eager to be at the show than they are to play in the contest.
Jon Weiland is bringing his family band, WMD Bluegrass Band (for Weilands of Mass Destruction) to the contest this year, but it’s not the first time they’ve attended the festival. The kids, 14-year-old Jackson, 12-year-old Wyatt and 10-year-old Luke, look forward to the festival every year, Weiland says.
“It has become a tradition,” he says.
“It’s mostly the same people who show up every year, and it’s become kind of a tradition for us.
“One neat thing about bluegrass music is that it’s very folksy. The people who are big musicians in bluegrass, when they’re not playing or performing, they’re out here with the people, just jamming and playing out.”
The members of Northern Departure are trekking from Seattle to attend the competition.
“We figured, well, we can kill two birds with one stone,” guitar/mandolin player Chris Luquette says. “We can have some fun at a festival we’ve never been to, and we get to play, even if it’s on a little side stage or whatnot. We get to go down there and do our thing and have some fun and meet some other bands from around the Western United States.”
Beth Wilberger of The Wolftones, a somewhat new Boulder bluegrass band, will compete in her fourth competition this year, and she and her bandmates are all RockyGrass regulars.
“Last year we were talking, and we all love going to RockyGrass, so why not [enter the competition]? It’s a perfect opportunity for us to work for, especially since we’re a newer band.”
No matter the outcome of the contests this year, hopefully the musicians won’t have the same experience that befell O’Brien in 1982, when he entered a competition in Aspen and came head-to-head with some surprisingly tough competition.
“Somebody might show up and you might lose. There was one time when [virtuoso bluegrass bassist] Edgar Meyer showed up at a contest — the first time I met him,” O’Brien says, laughing. “And he nearly beat me.”