“We are in the new ’60s, and every day I see people realizing that more and more.”
Martin Sexton is talking, of course, about rising unemployment rates and never-ending wars and recessions, about the corporate scandals and political corruption, about the perpetual working-class slog with nothing to show but dead-end jobs and rising debt. The circumstances are different, but Americans are as uneasy and uncertain about the future as they have been in any time since the tumultuous ’60s and early ’70s.
During that era, the counterculture youth put all their hopes on a reclusive folk singer from Greenwich Village. He sang “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and a generation believed every word. When the load got too heavy and Dylan broke down, many broke down with him. The ’60s crashed, and everyone dropped out, hopped in their VWs and followed a group of peace-loving hippies from Haight-Ashbury around the country. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but Americans took comfort that their musical heroes saw the same beauty and frustration in the world that they did. They were a guiding light in a dark world. We don’t put those lofty expectations on our musical icons anymore. Quite honestly, I don’t think the weight of the world would fit on Katy Perry’s shoulders, anyway.
We don’t have those lightning rod figures that capture our imaginations anymore. There is too much going on for everyone to focus on the same part of the picture. The political climate may resemble the ’60s to some extent, but the cultural one is something entirely new. My generation has yet to have its Woodstock, and it probably never will. We don’t look to musicians to provide us with the answers anymore, and that’s probably not a bad thing. But at events like the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, we can find comfort in the fact that even in the darkest times, music can bring people together to set our collective gaze on one stage and look for some sort of guiding light.
“I’ve been focusing on the differences in people,” says Sexton, a former street busker whose troubadour roots are on display on his latest album, Sugarcoating. “But 99.9 percent of who we are is the same. Some festivals are kind of like preaching to the choir, but what I like about Rocky Mountain is that it’s different people from different backgrounds who are open minded enough to go to these things. I’ve seen black, white, gay, straight, young, old, Republican, Democrat all come together to sing three-part harmony at my shows.”
Sexton will be performing at the 21st annual Rocky Mountain Folks Festival as part of a lineup that mixes artists from the old guard with up-and-coming singer/songwriters. It’s a great opportunity for ’60s and ’70s icons like Jackson Browne and Bob Weir to share the stage with newer acts like Josh Ritter, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Brandi Carlile, Missy Higgins and Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion.
It’s not uncommon for people to return home from a festival talking about the transformative power of the fest. Three days under the hot sun, with not enough water and (maybe) too many other substances while watching Bob Weir and Chris Robinson jam out as the sun sets over the main stage tend to lead to some mini-epiphanies.
That, coupled with the self-sustaining community that a three-day fest creates, has turned festivals like Rocky Mountain Folks Fest into life-defining cultural events for many people.
“There’s something about a festival, being able to collaborate with other artists,” says Sarah Lee Guthrie, who would go to festivals with her father, Arlo Guthrie (a Woodstock alum) while growing up. “The energy is high, and it makes me high. It’s really beautiful.”
Which makes one wonder — how do festival-goers keep that energy, beauty and the feeling of cultural unity for the other 362 days of the year? Is there anything tangible we can take back from festivals, or will all the good vibes die out shortly after Jackson Browne closes out his encore on Sunday night? If we truly are in the new ’60s, as Sexton believes, shouldn’t we strive to take some of that vibe back with us into our communities?
For some, Sunday night at the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest will be an ending. The ending of the festival, the ending of three days spent in a fantastic bubble away from the problems of everyday life. When Sunday night flips over to Monday morning, the real world will come knocking once more.
For others, however, Sunday night will be just the beginning. Festivals have a way of cultivating rapid relationships. Scores of concertgoers will leave Lyons on Sunday night with new projects to work on, new collaborators to work with, and a renewed creative spark spawned by the music on stage, the people they met and the feeling in the air. Guthrie, for one, recalls how she was reluctant to pursue a career in music, despite (or perhaps because of ) her lineage, until she worked as a road manager for her father on Further Fest tour in 1997.
“I tried to avoid (being a musician) with all my might,” Guthrie says. “I was a total punk rock chick as a teenager. I wasn’t that into playing music until much later in life. But then I met Johnny, and I met Chris Robinson at this festival that my dad was in, and it turned me on to the idea of looking for a good song.”
Guthrie and Irion married in 1999, and the two have been performing together since 2000.
Guthrie has managed to create her own place in music, with the duo’s latest album Bright Examples straying away from the straight folk of her father and grandfather (the legendary Woody Guthrie, who passed before Sarah Lee was born), and settling into laid-back, cosmic country ala Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. For Guthrie, connecting with the right people at a festival altered the path of her life.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are another group who owe their roots to a festival. At the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering, Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson all met and studied under old-time fiddler Joe Thompson, and an instant bond was formed. Flemons, Giddens and Robinson took what they learned from Thompson, settled down in North Carolina and planted the seed for what would become the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
“We were all playing somewhat inter-related music at the time, but we really connected at the Black Banjo Gathering,” Flemons recalls. “We all really bonded over the idea of reaching back to the past and fetching that music and bringing it back to the future.”
For the Chocolate Drops, it seems like a light was switched on at the Black Banjo Gathering. They have been fine-tuning their sound ever since, winning critical acclaim (as well as a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album for their 2010 release Genuine Negro Jig), while reaching deeper into the past and further into the future. They’ve become an integral part of the string band revival, updating the old-time sound while opening the doors for listeners to discover vast contributions to the genre made by old-time African- American string bands. Flemons talks about unpacking the American identity through its music, tracing the roots of a nation through its cultural contributors.
“How do you modernize this old music?” Flemons asks himself. “Well, I think just being a modern person playing this music contemporizes it. The first wave of groups who did the old-time stuff were much more militant about being traditional, but now, because of availability of their recordings and of some of the original recordings, you want to update it a little bit. But when people hear this music, because it’s so different from pop, they embrace it and they say, ‘Look at this music. Look at how American it is.’ Especially people like myself, struggling to figure out the American identity.”
If music really is a window into the American identity, then festivals like the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest offer the best opportunity to peek in through that window. Our visionaries are no longer played on the radio, and the radio has long lost its cultural relevance anyhow (perhaps these two circumstances are related?). I’m often left with the feeling that when our culture does rally around something, it’s usually to denigrate trash-art rather than celebrate something worthwhile (Rebecca Black would be nodding her head, if you, know, 14-year-old internet sensations/punching bags from Anaheim read Boulder alt-weeklies.) But the festival season gives us a chance to come together to celebrate all the great music that’s being created just outside the mainstream radar. It may not have the vast cultural relevance of seeing Dylan and Joan Baez at Newport in ’63, but it offers a rare opportunity
to share something special with thousands of others, strangers and friends alike.
“The beautiful thing about music,” says Sexton, “and one of the reasons why I’m so blessed to be able to do what I do, is how it helps people get together for the betterment of humanity.”
Ultimately, the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival is just a festival. It’s not going to get us out of Afghanistan or restore our sterling credit rating. And hell, for fans, it has probably got more chance of putting you in debt than getting you out of it. We’re long since past the days when a single music festival can change the world. But anytime people come together during troubled times and celebrate that which is worth celebrating, anytime ideas are shared and creative fires lit, well, that’s a tradition worthy of our collective cultural gaze.
Friday, Aug. 19
10 a.m. — Gates Open
11 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. — Songwriter Showcase
1 to 2 p.m. — Vance Gilbert
2:15 to 3:30 pm — Anais Mitchell
3:45 to 5 p.m. — Livingston Taylor
5:30 to 6:45 p.m. — Sweet Honey in the Rock
7:15 to 8:30 p.m. — Martin Sexton
9 to 10:30 p.m. — Brandi Carlile
Saturday, Aug. 20,
10 a.m. — Gates Open
10:45 to 11:45 a.m. — Megan Burtt
12:15 to 1:30 p.m. — Mama Kin
2 to 3:15 p.m. — Mary Gauthier
3:45 to 5 p.m. — Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
5:30 to 6:45 p.m. — Red Horse: Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka & Lucy Kaplansky
7:15 to 8:30 p.m. — Josh Ritter & the Royal City Band
9 to 10:30 p.m. — Bob Weir, Chris Robinson & Jackie Greene
Sunday, Aug. 21
10 a.m. — Gates Open
10:45 to 11:45 a.m. — Tim Eriksen
12 to 1 p.m. — Danielle Ate the Sandwich
1:30 to 2:45 p.m. — Dan Mangan
3:15 to 4:30 p.m. — The Civil Wars
5 to 6:15 p.m. — Carolina Chocolate Drops
6:45 to 8 p.m. — Missy Higgins
8:30 to 10 p.m. — Jackson Browne