ROCKYGRASS: LEGENDS OF BLUEGRASS

Words by Tony Stack & Nicholas Hutchinson
Images by Tony Stack

RockyGrass :: 07.28 - 7.30 :: Lyons, CO


RockyGrass 2006
Late July along the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies means only one thing for die-hard fans of acoustic-based roots music: RockyGrass. Produced by Planet Bluegrass, the same organization that puts on the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, RockyGrass has a more intimate flavor than its partner to the south, and year after year continues to conjure the high lonesome soul of bluegrass music.

It's more than just a three-day festival of artists performing. RockyGrass begins a full week before the musicians hit the stage with its Bluegrass Academy, where budding musicians can take classes from the best in the business. There is also the highly regarded band contest, in which bands battle for the honor of performing on the main stage. This year, Planet Bluegrass added even more fun by creating Moongrass, a late night concert series that featured shows by the fast-rising all-female act Uncle Earl, Tim "Senor" O'Brien, and Kansas City's The Wilders.


The Wilders :: RockyGrass 2006
The 34th incarnation of RockyGrass started off with hot weather and a relaxed Friday crowd. Sitting near the back, I couldn't help but notice how the recent addition of small sound towers enhanced the sound of this great venue as every note was crystal clear. Highlights of day one included Tony Trischka's quirky blend of traditional and experimental bluegrass, featuring Roland White on vocals. A predictable but thrilling set by Peter Rowan and Tony Rice followed, which included a guest appearance by Richard Greene on the fiddle during a new song dedicated to the recently passed Vassar Clements called "Play, Vassar, Play."


Jerry Douglas :: RockyGrass 2006
The real fireworks came when Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg, and Edgar Meyer performed their set as Skip, Hop, and Wobble. They recreated live the 1994 album of the same name by playing a blend of cerebral instrumentation that only hinted at bluegrass, while often veering off into jazzy and classical movements.

Friday concluded with a raucous set by the Yonder Mountain String Band, featuring a set-long guest appearance by Darol Anger. Although they are local, living up in the hills only a few miles away, it's been six years since their last appearance at RockyGrass. While they brought the normally recumbent crowd to its feet, especially during the "Keep on Going" > "Death Trip" > "Keep on Going" jam, it was mainly the younger contingency that remained to cheer on the hometown heroes.


YMSB :: RockyGrass 2006
Their patented, hyperactive set, led by mando player Jeff Austin's familiar head banging, was terrific on its own merit, but in contrast to the other acts, just didn't blend well. Maybe I'm just getting too old, but after a day of quiet, sedentary acoustic music that requires lots of attention and reverence, Yonder's set was a high-volume, dance extravaganza that just didn't fit with the rest of the bill.

I arrived a bit late on Saturday but was rewarded with the sweet sounds of Uncle Earl. Started as a one-off project, this band just keeps earning new fans. Fronted by the graceful vocals of Abigail Washburn, who performed her own solo set on Sunday, and KC Groves, the act's songs are performed with a zest and fervor that is beyond their years. Next up was Jerry Douglas presenting yet another one-off performance by recreating his Manzanita album from 1979. Recruiting original members Sam Bush and Tony Rice, and adding Union Station members Dan Tyminski, Barry Bales, Jerry Douglas, and fiddle player Gabe Wichter, they celebrated the 27th anniversary of the album's release. With the promise of such talent, this set fell a little flat under the weight of one-too-many inside jokes and overall looseness in execution.


Sam Bush :: RockyGrass 2006
Saturday concluded with Steve Earle and the Bluegrass Dukes. When I saw Earle climb the stage to join Tim O'Brien, Casey Driessen, Darrell Scott, and bassist Dennis Crouch, I knew this would not be an ordinary set, and they delivered by opening with the Gram Parsons tune, "My Uncle." I was further captivated by Steve Earle's detailed intros to almost every song.

His banter varied from the profane to the hilarious, but the running theme of the night certainly involved the war in Iraq. Like a history professor, he tells his anti-war stories through the eyes of Irish Civil War soldiers and turn-of-the-century coal miners. The true highlight of his set was actually his departure from politics, by singing a delicate duet with Peter Rowan on the Beatles tune, "I'm Looking Through You."


Peter Rowan & Steve Earle :: RockyGrass 2006
Sunday was certainly "family day," and the number of small children was hard to miss, reminding me that the appeal of RockyGrass is not limited to any one age group. If ever you want to check the fun factor at the fest, just head down to the creek. As usual, all manner of cairns and rock temples were created by stacking the abundant amber-colored stones in piles all along the bubbling creek bed. There seemed to be a lot of snakes at this year's fest, mostly harmless critters that slithered from here to there and who some kids befriended and even carried around.

Sunday began with the band contest finals. For those keeping score, the results of the RockyGrass instrument and band contests were as follows: banjo - Brian Anderson, guitar - Rob Piercy, mandolin - Colby Maddox, fiddle - Lisa Sapin, dobro - Greg Booth, band - Long Road Home. Keep your eyes and ears open for these names in the future!


Tony Trischka & Darol Anger
RockyGrass 2006
The hired talent on Sunday started with the Grammy-nominated Blue Highway, a perfect fit with its soothing gospel set, featuring some gorgeous a capella harmonies and traditional hymns. Then Abigail Washburn (a member of Uncle Earl) took the stage with the help of the hardest working man in bluegrass, Casey Driessen, on fiddle. The duo produced the kind of mellow and graceful tones that give bluegrass its timeless quality. Abby's pure voice and Casey's haunting fiddle combined to uplift a mix of the new and the time-tested.

The Darrell Scott Bluegrass Band occupied the mid-afternoon slot, cobbling together a variety of not-exactly-traditional styles. The group mixed its own progressive acoustic fare (including material from Darrell's new release, Invisible Man) with covers of songs originally penned by artists including Paul Simon and Kris Kristofferson. Scott was backed by the ever-present Casey Driessen on fiddle, Nick Forster of Hot Rize and E-Town fame on mandolin, and Matt Mangano on bass.


Uncle Earle :: RockyGrass 2006
Next came The Wilders, an outfit I first experienced in Telluride at one of the group's legendary floor-buckling Nightgrass stomps at the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon. These juke-jointin' throwbacks can pump the yee-haw factor way up, and they didn't disappoint even in the slightly mellower surroundings of a RockyGrass Sunday. At one point, one of the band's guitarist/vocalists (either Ike Sheldon or Phil Wade) called out for a medicinal hit from an oxygen tank and then added "or a Pabst Blue Ribbon." In the end, I think he got both and all was well. To their credit and ability to diversify, the band blended its boot-poundin' sound with some nice gospel fare for a satisfying Sunday edition of what is normally a Saturday night affair.


Barnes, O'Brien, Crouch & Driessen
RockyGrass 2006
Tim O'Brien came next, backed by banjo player and electric guitarist Danny Barnes, acoustic bassist Dennis Crouch, and his mainstay fiddler Casey "Red Pumas" Driessen. The group kicked up its usual blend of inspired eclectic fare, laying into tunes such as "A Mountaineer is Always Free" (which had the crowd swaying and grooving), "I'm Busted" (which had me swaying and grooving), "Look Down that Lonesome Road" (from Tim's Grammy-winning release Fiddler's Green), the very amusing "Rat's Ass" (written by Barnes), "First Snow" (featuring some scorching fiddle lick-trading between O'Brien and Driessen), and a much-appreciated and timely version of "The Republican Blues." "Put away those blues, those Republican blues."

As good as it all was, the highlight of the whole weekend, as least from a traditional point of view, occurred when the 82-years-young bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs took the stage along with a backing group that included Brad Davis (a former member of the Sam Bush Band) on guitar, John Gardner on drums, Hoot Hester on fiddle and vocals, and guests Rob Ickes on dobro and Bryan Sutton. The group moved through the traditional canon, playing classic nuggets such as "Rollin' In My Sweet Baby's Arms," "Sittin' on Top of the World," and "Sally Goodin'." Earl led the group (with the welcome guidance of his son Gary Scruggs on bass), into some Dylan ("You Ain't Goin' Nowhere"), some Carter Family ("You Are My Flower"), and tossed up Earl's signature bluegrass classics "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" (originally recorded for the soundtrack to the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde) and the "Ballad of Jed Clampett" (a.k.a. the Beverly Hillbillies theme song with vocals by Bryan Sutton). All of these tunes were nicely plucked in the three-finger style that Earl forged as a young boy, the same three-fingers which opened up bluegrass music to help create the rolling banjo sounds we have come to love.


Earl Scruggs :: RockyGrass 2006
After Earl's show, I made straight for the merchandise tent, where he graciously signed autographs for hundreds of fans. Earl is getting on in years and it shows a little, but I could only hope to do what he does at the age of 82. Of the many players who have played in the genre, Earl is right up there with Bill, Ralph, Lester, and the other luminaries who helped define bluegrass music in America. The crowd gave him a standing ovation at the beginning and end of the performance, and there was a sense that this might have been one of his last outings. On another sad note, Earl lost his wife and manager, Louise, this past year. Suffice it to say, he was embraced and cheered by the RockyGrass crowd as only a living legend could be.

The Sam Bush Band closed RockyGrass 2006 with a typically top-notch set that saw the stage swell with various pickers and pluckers. The set featured some ditties from Sam's most recent release, Laps in Seven, including "Bringing in the Georgia Mail" (a smokin' tune!), "Ridin' That Bluegrass Train" (if you want to take an exhilarating, fast-pickin', instrumental ride on the narrow gauge of newgrass, don't miss this tune), and the catchy "Where There's a Road." Sam didn't miss a chance to take a jab at the current administration (so hats off to him, Tim, and Steve for stickin' it to the man this year) with "The White House Blues," a tune that references both Bubba and Dubya, and resonates on the line "We're Screwed!"

No Telluride or RockyGrass is complete without a rollicking set from Sam, and he and his band delivered as per their ongoing arrangement with the unseen forces of the grass.

The group's first encore was the classic "Wabash Cannonball," rendered with the assistance of Tim O'Brien on the fiddle, Bryan Sutton on the guitar, Jeff "Yonder" Austin on the mandolin, Hoot Hester on the fiddle, and Rob Ickes on the dobro.

RockyGrass 2006 closed with a climactic version of the iconic "Nine Pound Hammer." Casey Driessen jumped in on fiddle, and Chris Eldridge also threw his guitar into the ruckus, to end the fest with a ritual pile-on of dedicated and talented masters of the genre.

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Comments

cocheese starstarstarstar Fri 8/25/2006 06:22AM
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cocheese

As much as I love Steve Earle and Sam Bush I wished they would leave the politics out of their shows. I don't go to their shows to hear about their propaganda bullshit. They're not politicians and these shows are not political arenas for debate. They push their views are the fans without giving an outlet for the other side. Stop trying to be so "hollywood" it's not very becoming. And one more thing Earl Scruggs is a living legend, and a great man, some artists need to take a lesson or two from him.

slackmob Fri 8/25/2006 07:35AM
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Looks like your on the wrong side of thing buddy!!!!!

jjwood starstarstarstar Fri 8/25/2006 08:43AM
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cocheese, I have three words for you: Freedom of Speech! And to be frank, I agreed with what Steve, Sam *and* Tim O'Brien (via "Republican Blues") had to say. As Americans, they have every right to express their views. If you think their politics were bad, then I would *love* to read your words after seeing one of CSNY's shows this tour, whose politics were emphasized many times more. Again, it's called Freedom Of Speech; and yes, I've been there where an artist speaks on an issue I disagreed with: I just took it with a grain of salt, then went back to concentrate on the music.

Tony, nice article. I respectfully disagreed with your take on the Manzanita set, where there were a few struggles in the beginning (i.e., Dan Tyminski not remembering the lyrics to "Blue Railraod Train"), but once they clicked, that unit cooked. I also disagree with Yonder "not fitting in": They were another variation of bluegrass and where bluegrass has headed: I do see where you are coming from in terms of contrast. Plus, it was very crowded for that set where I was, surrounding by many folk young and old.

I will be having a review published on jambands.com very shortly. Again, very nice work, Tony, and great photos.

Weezer starstarstarstarstar Fri 8/25/2006 10:22AM
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I hear ya regarding not mixing politics and music, but to be fair, I don't often hear Sam Bush and Tim O'Brien using the stage to get political. I thought it was refreshing to hear them voicing their opinions through a song or two. Steve Earle is on his own trip. And last I checked the First Amendment was still part of the Constitution. Earl, Ralph, Doc . . . catch 'em while you still can.

cocheese Fri 8/25/2006 11:47AM
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cocheese

I don't recall every saying they couldn't say what they wanted, trust me I know what the 1st ammendment is, okay. I just don't like them using their status as an artist to push views on impressionable people. At most of these festivals and shows the artist only give one side of the debate, which is usually the left. There is no opposing view given. I'm afraid that people will leave rallying behind a stance that they really don't have a clue about. People hear their favorite musician bashing the administration and jump right on board, but they don't have any idea why. I believe that "hollywood" and artist abroad have made it seem like the "cool" thing to be liberal and Bush hating. It's sad to see people bashing the government without any knowledge of why they are other than Kanye West and Steve Earle or whoever else is doing it. Now there are some things that me and Mr. Earle agree upon, but I don't want him preaching to the crowd about the death penalty because they need to make up their own mind on the subject. There might have been a teenager in that crowd who is not educated in political matters who now hates Bush and republicans just because some guy up on stage said he did. It's not the artists fault for the fans shortcomings in political matters, but he still needs to be aware of the fact that some people might make their views up on what they are saying up that stage. There's got to be balance and it doesn't appear there was any at this fest. Steve and Sam have the right to express their views, but they need to realize the power their words can have on folks and positive and negative affect it can have on those in the crowd.

kvoelkel star Sun 8/27/2006 11:32AM
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kvoelkel

All Who Yonder Are Not Lost!

hancock859 starstarstarstarstar Sun 8/27/2006 12:50PM
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hancock859

A much needed story be told.
While walking down the streets of Telluride back in June I came upon a jam streetside. I sat speechless watching and listening, knowing what I had discovered was alone worth the drive I had made from Kentucky. Two men, obviously not very keen on the musical scene, passed by during my aural trance. One said, "Hey look, lets stop and listen, these guys sound pretty good." His beer bellied friend replied, "Ha, no way am I going to listen, that guy has red shoes." I dont know who heard it. But Casey "Red Pumas" Driessen sure didn't care and kept right on ripping along with Chris Thile on mando, and Sarah Jarosz jumping in on a little banjo. Lets just say I will be driving back to Telluride next summer.

Weezer starstarstarstarstar Sun 8/27/2006 01:09PM
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I doubt too many kids went home with a demonic look in their eyes after hearing Tim O'Brien's version of The Republican Blues . . . Look out honey he's got a banjo now and he's gonna use it!!!!

jimcard starstarstarstar Mon 8/28/2006 08:43AM
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Cocheese- Wow man, you emcompass everything that is great about this country, I guess. For every "being so Hollywood" there is being so "Fox". Don't delude yourself by thinking otherwise. Do you really believe that "Fox" is fair and balanced while Hollywood is not?

Please, give us an opposing view. I know, this is a forum for music (just like Rockygrass) but on a bigger scale it is a forum on and for life. If we can't discuss it here and a festival only offers one side, then where do we discuss it?

Lastly, you used the word "HATE" two times in your last post. Cocheese- What makes you an expert on hate? There seems to be an exceptional amount of "hate experts" in our midst these days. Do you need to be a "hater" to know a "hater"?

Come on Coheese, lets have a discussion. Opinions galore. But remember, everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts (Daniel Moynihan-Senator-NY). If you can't back-up your opinion with facts, reason, logic, reality, etc. your opinion is still protected but does it really mean much?


cocheese Mon 8/28/2006 10:31AM
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cocheese

Jim I don't remember saying anyting about Fox News, so I don't why you brought that up. As for the facts, what facts do you want on this topic. Do you want me to poll the people who go to these shows and find out if the artist's words change their outlook? I don't have the time for that. I think there is a lot of reasoning behind my statements. You see it everyday in Amercia, people are obsessed with celeberties. If you think what actors or musicians say doesn't influence some people, you really have the wool pulled down tight over your eyes. I'm not taking your bait on the "hater" thing, we would just go around in circles. You assume too much about me I think.

jjwood starstarstarstar Mon 8/28/2006 12:57PM
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cocheese, I respectfully disagree. Those artists onstage are human beings, and if they wish to reflect their opinion on a given topic, more power to them. As Steve Earle himself said on that Saturday night, "That's our job!" They are not being Hollywood: They are taking advantage of an opportunity to speak out. If Emmylou Harris wants to end every cameo she made at Telluride 2004 by saying "VOTE", given the state of the USA, I am 100% for it! I *hope* those teens in the crowd heard those words, because UNlike Hollywood celebrities, those musicians make a genuine living every day like you and I, and they are as affected by current issues. The $$$$ in fuel costs alone for doing a tour has now increased three times as a handful of years ago. If they are not going to speak out, who will?! More power to you, Sam, Tim and Steve!

jimcard Mon 8/28/2006 01:42PM
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Cocheese- You have generalized about Hollywood being unbalanced, liberal, and Bush Hating. No one brought up Hollywood except you. I brought up Fox news because you mentioned balance. I am just pointing out that neither one is balanced. Lesson; pay attention to all sides of the octagon.

As far as influence goes, nobody said freedom was going to be pretty. We are all impressionable and we are all bombarded with information, propaganda, stupidity, ignorance, and intelligence every single day. You are concerned about Sam Bush influencing impressionable young minds in beautiful Lyons, Colorado. I am concerned about a Vice President that repeated over and over and over a connection between Iraq and 9/11 where none existed, but still over half our country believes this fallacy. I truly understand your concern about impressionable minds, Cocheese.

Don’t worry about getting dizzy regarding the hate issue. Again, YOU (Cocheese) typed the word twice in your second posting. You posted the following; “There might have been a teenager in that crowd who is not educated in political matters who now hates Bush and republicans just because some guy up on stage said he did”. Which guy on stage said he “Hated Bush”? I wasn’t there but I would bet a large sum that no one on the Rocky Grass’ stage uttered the words “I hate Bush” or the word hate for that matter. Someone please correct me if I am wrong.

My belabored point is that when someone has issues involving the President (government, hot button issues, etc.) and verbalizes those issues out loud, there is always someone waiting in the wings, ready to pass judgment, and claim this person hates the President even though the word was never said nor used. All I am trying to understand is how one makes the leap from criticism to hate with such authority and assuredness. And let me be clear, I don’t want or like hearing hate mongering coming from any side of any issue. It is a futile exercise in childish behavior.

Cocheese-I am not assuming anything about you. I am just going by the words you freely typed. I appreciate your feedback. This is the kind of discussion that I am talking about. Whether we like it or not we have to have these discussions if our awesome freedom to attend awesome music festivals is to continue for the coming generations.

kvoelkel Mon 8/28/2006 03:01PM
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kvoelkel

All who yonder are not lost!

overall Tue 8/29/2006 10:08AM
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overall

Whenever I hear Rush Zombies whine about the evil influences of Hollywood, I have to fight back both laughter and bile. That’s because they seem to oppose the leveraging of pop culture fame for political gain only in cases where the message in question isn’t ripped straight from their agenda’s hymnal.

Do Cocheese and his ilk camp out on Toby Keith’s website to gripe about that artist’s jingoistic concert rants? Do we hear neo-cons warning Charlton Heston that he should consider the effect his words will have on potential gun purchasers? Of course not, because Toby and Chuck are both on the RIGHT team. But since Sam Bush, Steve Earle, Michael Franti, Michael Stipe, Bruce Springsteen and the Dixie Chicks play for Satan, we need to turn to page 118 and sing about the evils of celebrity adoration and influence.

You know, we really shouldn’t be too tough on folks like Cocheese who underestimate the ability of Americans to think for themselves. They may be totally correct in believing that it takes nothing more than hypnotic star power and a healthy dose of hate-flavored propaganda to pull the wool over the eyes of music fans and voters in general. After all, that concept worked quite nicely in the elections of Fred Thompson, Fred Grandy, Steve Largent, Tom Osborne, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan.

jimcard Tue 8/29/2006 10:26AM
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What was Gopher's rank/title/position on the Love Boat? It is getting to be 30 years ago and I can't remember what I learned on those Saturday nights other than "Zee Plane, Zee Plane".

Also, did anyone take a float in the St. Vrain and was there much flow? I love that body of water!

cocheese Tue 8/29/2006 11:13AM
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cocheese

Ok let's get one thing straight; I don't listen to Rush Limbaugh, or Toby Kieth(that guy is an idiot, did you know he said he saved Willie Nelson's carrer!WTF) I like for them to stick him and Dixie Chicks in the same room and let them kill each other off.(or at least Toby and the plump Chick) Yes maybe I do underestimate a majority of Americans ability to think for themselves, but I beleive I have good reasons for that. "Open your eyes, take a look around, and see what can be found." Maybe it's not as big a problem for those folks in our "scene", but our group is a very tiny part of this country's population. I see celeberity influence everyday. I will hear people say, on both sides of the spectrum, ignorant statements. When you ask them why, they have no answer. I hear a lot of people say "screw Bush!" and when I ask them why, they look at me with a blank look. Now I know no one said anything about hating Bush, but at the same time they could have planted a seed in a impressionable mind in the crowd. I never said Steve or Sam hated anyone. I'm not so much going after Steve and Sam as I am questioning America's political reasoning. I work for a high ranking Democrat in my state's government, so I'm not some right wing extremist, but at the same time don't read to much into who my boss is ethier. I'm around politics all day, it's my job to know what is going on with the American people and how they fell. One important component to that is knowing why they feel the way they do. It can be very saddening to see how uneducated an overwhleming majority of people are these days when it comes to politics. So whether its Heston, Toby, Earle, Chubby Chick, or whoever it is, it brother's me to see celeberties have so much influence on folks. I would like to have seperation between entertainment and politics, I mean we have seperation between govt. and religion, right? I don't know if I'm making any sense to anyone else out there, but I would really just like it if we could leave the political bullshit at the door and just bring your dancing shoes and sweatass jams inside. Jim and Overall, you both make good points, but I have no idea about this "loveboat" thing, must have been WAY before my time!

Weezer starstarstarstarstar Wed 8/30/2006 08:39AM
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His character's full name was Burl "Gopher" Smith though I'm not sure what his rank was on the boat -- goofy deckhand is probably close enough. His character was played by the actor Fred Gandy, who was elected to good ol' US Congress from Iowa in'86. Creek flow was low at this year's fest, but still a great place to cool off. And whatever happened to critical thinking? Or do all teenagers have empty heads just waiting to be programmed by whatever side of the political machine gets to them first? They can either get the Fox micro chip installed or the dreaded Steve Earle Hollywood chip. Anything Steve Earle says is rock solid gospel. Look out for zee plane.

kvoelkel Wed 8/30/2006 10:59AM
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kvoelkel

all who yonder are not lost

mikeyt77 starstarstarstar Wed 8/30/2006 03:33PM
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F%$ck the politics did anyone see The Infamous String Dusters on sat. @ 1:30

PCPrabbit Tue 9/19/2006 08:05AM
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PCPrabbit

politics are all bullshit. this country is wrecked beyond repair. watch the classes separate and widen the gap. shit hitting the fan anyone?