We missed every bit of it. We had taken for granted the cool creek under the reddish cliffs, the dumplings and Greek salads, the impromptu picking sessions and all-players-onstage finales, the rainbows and twirly dancers and discrete charms of downtown Lyons.
When the annual RockyGrass Festival was canceled in 2020, we were deprived of the live energy sparked by Sam, Béla, Del, Sierra and the other virtuosos who inhabit the RockyGrass pantheon.
Relief comes this weekend as the pandemic-delayed 49th RockyGrass Festival takes place July 23-25 at Planet Bluegrass Ranch in Lyons. Tickets are sold out but, for the first time, a multiple camera, high-def livestream makes it possible for more fans to see why RockyGrass is so highly regarded.
RockyGrass won’t be exactly the same but the seating will be open — no corrals.
“We’ll be limiting the attendance to about 80% of capacity to give everyone a little more room,” says Grace Barrett, communication coordinator at Planet Bluegrass.
Food and craft vendors will still be on hand, she says, along with yoga in the morning and the instrument competitions. However, jam-packed sets in the Wildflower Pavilion will be limited and the traditional kids’ tent will not be open. Those unvaccinated will be encouraged to be masked.
This year’s typically stellar lineup features the Del McCoury Band, Peter Rowan, the premier of Béla Fleck’s new My Bluegrass Heart project, and many others. The most highly anticipated set is Friday’s Tony Rice Tribute featuring Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, David Grisman, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Chris Eldridge and Mark Schatz.
These individual instrumental masters knew and played with Rice. Tall, gaunt, mysterious and uniquely gifted, Tony Rice died Christmas morning 2020 at the age of 69.
“When we heard the news that Tony had passed last year, we were just devastated,” says mandolinist and friend Sam Bush.
“Tony was one of the most influential acoustic guitarists of the past 50 years,” Bush says. “He brought a sense of jazz into bluegrass and countless young guitarists try to sound like Tony. It’s like Scruggs-style banjo.”
The tribute is a special one-time-only event for a musician who played at RockyGrass many times. It’s not a tour or a recording project.
“I think it’s closure for us,” Bush says. “We’re saying goodbye. It will be an emotional sendoff to our friend.”
The youngest musician onstage Friday night, Chris Eldridge, will assume Rice’s guitar role along with Bryan Sutton. Eldridge literally grew up in bluegrass. His dad, Ben Eldridge, played banjo in the band the Seldom Scene.
“Tony was just around. My dad was good friends with him and he would often crash at our house when he was in D.C.,” says Eldridge, who is a member of the Punch Brothers with Chris Thile and a visiting professor teaching progressive bluegrass music at Oberlin College.
“I started studying his music. I’d watch his hands and be like, ‘That’s how he does it,’” he says. “It was a magical time. I woke up to the fact I’d been around this guy all my life.”
Eventually, Rice took the teenage guitarist under his wing. “I stayed with him at his house and we’d talk about music. It was like coaching. It was about why we are musicians. How there are certain musicians like Oscar Peterson or Vassar Clements where you know who it is after they play a few notes,” Eldridge says. “That was paramount to Tony.”
He insists Rice’s stature shouldn’t be underestimated.
“Tony redefined the sound of the guitar in bluegrass,” he says. “There’s bluegrass guitar before Tony Rice, and guitar after Tony Rice that is influenced by how he played. His timing and touch were totally unparalleled with really strange syncopations. He had a way of making the music churn and boil from within.”
He points listeners to Rice’s solo work and his contributions to J.D. Crowe & The New South, the David Grisman Quintet and the Bluegrass Album Band.
“He brought new standards of musicianship to bluegrass. He’s one of the main architects of bluegrass as we know it today,” Eldridge says.
RockyGrass is not just another festival to the veteran musician. “I’m honored to be doing this,” Eldridge says. “This was literally my dream as a kid — to play in a band with these guys. It’s at RockyGrass, which is very special to me. I rode to RockyGrass with Tony in a black Corvette in 2003 from North Carolina. Yup, rode shotgun with Tony across America.”
He says he also first met Chris Thile at Rockygrass in 2001.
Sam Bush also loves the little festival in Lyons. “RockyGrass is the only place we appear as the Sam Bush Bluegrass Band. We turn down requests to do ‘RockyGrass sets’ at other festivals. It’s special, just for RockyGrass,” Bush says.
The band’s annual sets always close with the stage crammed with dozens of notable pickers.
“I think Tony Rice came up with the name for it,” Bush says.” One time he said: ‘Let’s have one of those community jams.’” .
John Lehndorff has written about bluegrass music in Colorado since 1980.
49th Annual RockyGrass Schedule
49th Annual RockyGrass Festival. July 23-25, Planet Bluegrass Ranch, 500 W. Main St., Lyons, bluegrass.com/rockygrass
July 23: The Infamous Stringdusters; Tony Rice Tribute; Tim O’Brien Band; Special Consensus; Mile Twelve; Rayna Gellert & Keiran; and Never Come Down
July 24: Sam Bush Band; Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn; The Lil Smokies; Sierra Hull and Justin Moses; Tony Trischka, Bruce Molsky and Michael Daves; Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper; and Fireside Collective
July 25: My Bluegrass Heart with Béla Fleck, Michael Cleveland, Mark Schatz, Bryan Sutton, Sierra Hull and Justin Moses; Del McCoury Band; Della Mae; Peter Rowan and Jerry Douglas; Twisted Pine; and The Old Gospel Ship
Tickets to RockyGrass are sold out, but for the first time the entire festival will be livestreamed in HD, multi-camera video: rockygrass.mandolin.com
Boulder’s KGNU has broadcast portions of RockyGrass live since 2008. KGNU will livestream portions of the festival on its AfterFM site. For stream and schedule: afterfm.com