Words by Tony Stack & Nicholas Hutchinson
Images by Tony Stack
RockyGrass :: 07.28 - 7.30 :: Lyons, CO
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 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."
The Wilders :: 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.
Jerry Douglas :: RockyGrass 2006
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.
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.
YMSB :: RockyGrass 2006
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.
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.
Sam Bush :: RockyGrass 2006
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."
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.
Peter Rowan & Steve Earle :: RockyGrass 2006
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!
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.
Tony Trischka & Darol Anger
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.
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.
Uncle Earle :: 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."
Barnes, O'Brien, Crouch & Driessen
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.
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.
Earl Scruggs :: RockyGrass 2006
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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