40 Years of RockyGrass
In the early ‘70s, live bluegrass was just beginning to appear on Colorado’s Front Range. Local musicians had been gathering to play music since the early ‘60s at the Denver Folklore Center, and local bands like Denver Grass and Haystack Mountain Boys began finding small gigs.
In 1972 a group of young pickers organized as the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society as a means of communicating with fellow bluegrass musicians and fans. Founding CBMS member Dave Little recalls, “our only decision was to not have a festival or concert, because they’re work.”
Though bluegrass music dates back to the classic ’45-’48 lineup of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, the idea for a multi-day bluegrass festival didn’t take hold until the ‘60s folk revival and Carlton Haney’s First Annual Roanoke Bluegrass Festival in ’65. Within a few years Monroe had his own Bean Blossom Festival in Southern Indiana (’67) and he was eager to spread bluegrass music across the country. By ’73 there were nearly 70 bluegrass festivals around the country, and Monroe was determined to create his own in Colorado.
When members of the CBMS met Monroe following a series of shows at Tulagi’s in Boulder in ‘72, Monroe convinced them to join forces and put on a Colorado festival the following year. Monroe would book the national talent (headlined by the Blue Grass Boys), and the Society would provide the local bands and produce the event. Monroe eased the Society’s financial concerns by guaranteeing that the bands and venues are paid. Recalls David Little: “There wasn’t any pressure. Monroe had said you won’t lose anything.”
With less than 6 months to prepare, the Society arranged on the Adams County Fairgrounds in Henderson. Music would be presented in the rodeo grandstand and arena (with ace sound provided by Charles Sawtelle and Dave Wilson) and camping available nearby.
As plans progressed, Monroe made a special trip to Colorado to meet with CBMS festival organizers and coach them on marketing and publicity. “He taught us what to do. And it worked. We had a big crowd,” remembers Little. An estimated 6,500 people attended the first festival. “We did all the accounting out of the trunk of a car.” Records show the first four years of the festival brought in a total profit of over $20,000.
The early lineups boasted formidable national talent including Lester Flatt, Ralph Stanley, Jim & Jesse, Bluegrass Alliance, Country Gazette. But the true highlight was Big Mon himself. “He’d park the Bluegrass Express someplace where people knew where he was. He didn’t hide in it. He liked to be seen and to talk to people. And he’d play a lot with people. If you’d do a duet with him, you might miss a little bit or get off-time or key, but he’d never chide anybody. he was always very nice. “
Recalls CBMS board member George Watson, “Also, we were reminded that you don‘t dance during the gospel numbers.”
The festival continued at Adams County Fairgrounds for 11 years under the leadership of the CBMS. Musician and radio personality Jerry Mills recalls the impact of the festival: “The legends loved coming to Colorado. In their suits and ties, all they did was brush the dust off from the fairgrounds and put on great shows. For a lot of us younger pickers, it was a good model to follow.”
Monroe ended his involvement with the festival in 1977, but those early festivals raised the profile of bluegrass music in Colorado. KGNU and their popular Saturday morning Old Grass Gnu Grass show went on-air in ’78; the Thursday night jams at Ralph’s Top Shop began in ’75; Swallow Hill was founded in ’79; long-running festivals like Telluride and Midwinter Bluegrass began in ’74 and ’86 respectively.
As well, Colorado began to produce national bluegrass bands, most significantly: Hot Rize. Debuting at the festival in ’79, the Boulder-based quartet became the festival’s “host band” in the mid-‘80s, playing the festival 10 times before officially disbanding in 1990. Another Colorado band, Left Hand String Band, began an 8-year festival run in ’83, only slowing down when bandmembers, led by Drew Emmitt, formed Leftover Salmon in ’89.
Band and instrument contests were an integral part of the festival from the beginning. Banjo player Dennis Bailey smiles when recalling the judge recruitment process: some official would asking random attendees “’Do you know anything about music? You do? Great! Would you like to judge the banjo contest?’ or more likely, ‘Do you know anything about music? You don’t? Great! Would you like to judge the banjo contest?’”
Booked by the CBMS, the festival lineups remained strong, balancing local talent with national acts, including standout performances by Tony Rice, Doyle Lawson, and Seldom Scene. But the Adams County location was not without its shortcomings, including noise from overhead jets en route to Stapleton and dust. CBMS boardmember Mike Dow recalls: “There was nothing but dirt and the western winds to blow the dust into the crowd.”
With rising costs of producing the event in Henderson, the CBMS moved the festival to the Larimer County Fairgrounds in Loveland in 1988, coinciding with the Loveland Corn Roast. While the Corn Roast attracted large crowds on Saturday, Friday and Sunday proved light. Remembers Dow: “By the end of Sunday afternoon, the Virginia Squires were finishing up their set and invited most of the audience up on stage to close the festival with them.“ The festival continued in Loveland for 4 years before the Corn Roast organizers informed the CBMS they wanted to produce their own entertainment. And the 1992 festival was without a home.
The headline of June 1992’s issue of the CBMS newsletter Pow’r Pick’n read: “20th Annual Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival Moved to L_____!” After a failed attempt to relocate the festival to Winter Park, the CBMS approached the organizers of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival (the future Planet Bluegrass) in the Spring to help find a new site for the festival. The festival’s 20th anniversary was less than 3 months away, and the site had still not been decided between Lake Eldora or a property in Lyons owned by the Center for Wildflower Preservation.
Planet Bluegrass vice-president Steve Szymanski recounts the early motives: “We’ll help you out - we know how to do these festivals, we have artists that we have relationships with, so we’re already positioned to pull something off. I kinda thought it was really a non-profit venture. We were going to assist and have a nice musical experience and cool community thing.”
Ultimately, the Lyons property won out, though it Planet Bluegrass president Craig Ferguson recalls “the property hadn’t been watered in years, so it was a briar patch.” Within 2 months, Ferguson had to negotiate a deal with the Town of Lyons, prepare the property for a festival, and book a 20th anniversary lineup that would ultimately include Alison Krauss & Union Station and Tony Rice & Norman Blake.
Though some CBMS members were frustrated by new policies such as paid parking and the higher cost of camping, the festival was largely considered a success. “Let’s face it, folks, rodeo grounds are for horses; and mountains, trees and rivers are for bluegrassers!” wrote CBMS member Jeff Jeros.
Planet Bluegrass lost $7,000 in that first year. “We’re not going to do this as volunteers,” said Ferguson. “If we’re going to do this and get involved, then we’re going to take it over.” Ultimately, the CBMS agreed to sell the festival for $10,000.
Over the next few years, the festival’s name changed to RockyGrass – a move largely motivated by widespread use of in-house Planet Bluegrass slang. Recordings from the festival’s third year in Lyons were being released as the RockyGrass Live CD and in 1995 Planet Bluegrass had transplanted its bluegrass academy from Telluride to Lyons. The festival’s once uncertain fate was now safe in its new home on the Planet Bluegrass Ranch.
“In many ways RockyGrass is the soul of Planet Bluegrass,” says Ferguson. RockyGrass remains unique in the bluegrass world for its single main stage and policy of bands playing just a single set. Where many festivals aspire toward a “big tent” musical philosophy, RockyGrass remains focused on traditional bluegrass even as its audience grows more musically progressive. “It’s become a place where people who don’t normally play bluegrass, make a point to play bluegrass.”
Looking back on the first single-day sellout in ’98, “I remember giggling,” says Szymanski. “More than any of our events it’s the community experience as a catalyst.”
This community spirit is manifest among the musicians: David Grisman and Dan Tyminski both stepped forward in 2010 to help the festival fill-in for an injured Tony Rice.
And this community experience is manifest among festivarians – who endured the infamous “Soggygrass” of ’04, hung in there with the overly-progressive-Saturday of ’08, and continue to create the country’s most open and virtuosic campground pickin’ circles. “You can stand in line for an ice cream and have a really intelligent conversation about bluegrass and banjo solos and tone rings,” laughs musician KC Groves.
So what would Monroe think of this 40th Anniversary of his Colorado festival? Ferguson reasons: “Some of the music he might not like, but he’d sure want to play it because he loved to play for a crowd. And I know he’d love the RockyGrass audience.”
Special thanks to Mike Dow and David Little. Historic photos courtesy of Suzie Solomon and Benko Photographics