Rockygrass (the 26th Annual Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival) – Planet Bluegrass Ranch (Lyons, CO)
Back when rebellious bands such as New Grass Revival weren’t welcome at some “family” festivals, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival provided a home for collections of like-minded insurgent bluegrass musicians. Now that baby boomers Peter Rowan, David Grisman and NGR’s Sam Bush have become aging masters themselves, a new climate exists to pay homage to the common roots of modern bluegrass.
RockyGrass, run by the same folks who bring the world the Telluride festival, is reserved for “traditional bluegrass,” but this year was the first in several when all performers seemed to take the slogan to heart. Self-indulgent instrumental jams of previous years were replaced by collaborations that honored the influence, inspiration and high lonesome vocal styles of Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, and Flatt & Scruggs (in the words of Ricky Skaggs, the holy trinity of bluegrass music).
The festival began by showcasing Sugar Hill artist Chris Thile and the winners of last year’s fiddle and band contests — all of whom were still in their teens. To them, both New Grass Revival and the Blue Grass Boys must seem part of an ancient canon. But Del McCoury’s experienced tenor twang rounded out the first day with his band and in a collaboration with Rowan, a fellow veteran Blue Grass Boy who has chosen a path different from Del’s traditional sound.
The Del McCoury Band, dressed in sharp suits and ties and sporting sleek sideburns, gathered around a single mike to bring the crowd such treasures as Monroe’s “Body And Soul”, the Louvin Brothers’ “Are You Teasin’ Me?” and Tom Petty’s “Love Is A Long Road.” Del’s sons Ronnie (on mandolin) and Robbie (on banjo), along with Jason Carter on fiddle, revealed that Gen-Xers can both appreciate and perform traditional bluegrass. After their show-stopping rendition of the gospel number “Get Down On Your Knees And Pray”, a twentysomething audience member whispered in awe, “That was phat!”
Rowan’s all-star festival band included Carter on fiddle and local Hot Rize boys Pete Wernick on banjo and Charles Sawtelle on guitar. Dancing hippies of all ages filled the straw-lined isles as Rowan sang his songs “Panama Red” and the traditional-influenced “High Lonesome Sound” and “Ruby Ridge”. Ronnie McCoury came on stage for the Monroe tune “Cheyenne” and stayed for a mega-mandolin jam with Rowan and Leftover Salmon’s Drew Emmitt on “Walls Of Time”, which Rowan wrote with the father of bluegrass music.
Del McCoury joined Rowan for “Let The Harvest Go To Seed”, which Rowan wrote after visiting Monroe shortly before he died. Del stayed for the rest of the set, keeping the traditional roots in place. Rowan used the single microphone setup like the McCourys, but he wasn’t restrained from performing some of his fringe folk songs such as “Land Of The Navajo”. He did suppress his need to play “Free Mexican Air Force”, his Hunter S. Thompson-esque ode to marijuana, until two days later, at the encore of the last show of the festival.
David Grisman, who has taken the mandolin to other galaxies and back, graciously collaborated with the Del McCoury Band on Saturday, and with Doc Watson on Sunday for a “Doc & Dawg” show. He and the McCoury Band performed tunes such as the NPR “Car Talk” theme song (which Grisman wrote), and Bobby Hicks joined them for a “Good Woman’s Love”, featuring twin fiddles and twin mandolins. Dawg sat down with Doc for numbers such as “Shady Grove”, “Jailhouse Blues” and Bob Wills’ “Time Changes Everything”; Jerry Douglas joined them for “Sweet Georgia Brown”.
Just in case the McCourys hadn’t already done so, Ricky Skaggs’ Saturday night show convinced everyone that “Bluegrass Rules!” He and Kentucky Thunder started with “Pig In A Pen” and ended with a hyped-up “Get Up John”. Skaggs confessed to the audience that they were going to perform only old songs, probably nothing newer than 1953 or ’54. “But if you’ve never heard them before, they’re brand new to you,” he added, advising everyone to spread the gospel of bluegrass music. His set included two versions of “Rawhide”, one as an encore with Grisman and Ronnie McCoury. When someone from the audience shouted “Rocky Top!”, he suggested waiting for the Osborne Brothers the following day: “I ain’t that soft,” he chided.
The fan who requested “Rocky Top” may very well have been the man in the mosh pit dancing his heart out to the Osborne Brothers and playing the air mandolin on Sunday afternoon. Sonny and Bobby brought back some of the traditional humor and goofiness of bluegrass, enjoying every minute of tunes such as “Tennessee Hound Dog”, “Don’t Forget Me Little Darlin'”, and “Ruby”.
Sam Bush, who jokingly proclaimed himself “the mother of bluegrass music” (“Every time I walked by Bill, he said, ‘There goes the mother'”), showed up for the final night of the festival, usually reserved for a “Thunder Jam” of newgrass superstars. He and local hero Tim O’Brien traded off between mandolin and fiddle, joined by Douglas, Rowan, Wernick and Mark Schatz. O’Brien sang “Build Me A Cabin In The Corner Of Gloryland” and the Hot Rize favorite “Colleen Malone”; Rowan took over on “I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling”, “Midnight Moonlight”, and the Rolling Stones classic “Wild Horses”.
The next generation of bluegrass jam bands, Colorado’s Leftover Salmon and Virginia’s Magraw Gap, haven’t forgotten that their roots go deeper than Mother Bush. Although they were the only band that dared to bring drums to the festival, the Salmon boys kicked off their show with the Monroe song “Y’all Come”, and Magraw Gap ended their set with “How Mountain Girls Can Love”, a Stanley Brothers song that banjo player Will Lee’s father, Ricky, often played when he was a Clinch Mountain Boy.
Perhaps the best indicator of the future of bluegrass wasn’t even on the stage. It might have been in the eyes of the kid in the audience with a pierced nose, baggy pants, and a mandolin slung over his shoulder.