The tradition lives on

RockyGrass Festival takes bluegrass back to its roots

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Cory O'Brien

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about bluegrass music — more beautiful, even, than a southern accent over a banjo twang — is the way the genre blurs the line between audience and performer. Songs are passed down and shared and swapped so freely that it’s often hard to trace their origins. The phrase “Traditional — American” in the songwriter credits is one of my favorite sights in music. Somebody wrote those songs, but they’ve been played by so many hands and shaped by so many voices over the years, they no longer belong to one person. They have simply become part of the American tradition. Bluegrass is full of those “Traditional — American” songs. If you have a banjo or a mandolin and a willingness to play, you have as much ownership over the songs as anybody else.

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.

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