Despite Sluggish Economy, Colo. Bluegrass Festivals Thrive

While a number of music festivals are struggling in a down economy, Colorado has three bluegrass festivals that are selling out. And one small mountain town there is becoming the Nashville of the Rockies.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Bluegrass music was born in the in the hills of Appalachia and it continues to thrive there. But for the past few decades, aspiring young musicians have also found a flourishing bluegrass scene in Colorado. And more recently one small mountain town is quietly becoming the Nashville of the Rockies.

Reporter Michelle Mercer explores the rise of bluegrass in the Mountain West.

MICHELLE MERCER: The most longstanding and cherished performance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival hardly needs an introduction.

SAM BUSH: Good evening, Festivarians. We are the House Band. And if you don't know us already, where have you been the last 20 years?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERCER: That's original House Band member and mandolinist Sam Bush, along with Bela Fleck on banjo, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Edgar Meyer on bass. They were joined this year by Bryan Sutton on guitar and Stuart Duncan on fiddle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERCER: All the original House Band members have been performing with their own groups at Telluride for several decades. Sam Bush has been playing at the festival for over 30 years.

BUSH: Our band, New Grass Revival, came to Telluride for the first time in 1975. We got here and it was like: Yeah, we finally found the people that we're supposed to play for.

MERCER: By the time Bela Fleck joined New Grass Revival in 1981, the band had an enthusiastic following not only in Telluride but throughout Colorado. Fleck discovered people making their own bluegrass music here, too.

BELA FLECK: I'd heard that there was a bluegrass scene in Colorado but it seemed a little far-fetched to me. But it was really a North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky kind of music. So, I was really surprised to find out there that there was a Colorado bluegrass scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERCER: Lots of factors went into the growth of Colorado bluegrass in the 1970s. While the Telluride festival was defining a progressive bluegrass sound, a festival near Denver at the Adams County Fairgrounds, programmed by bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, attracted traditional listeners.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERCER: Most important for bluegrass players was the Denver Folklore Center, which comprised a record shop, performance space, instrument repair shop, and music school.

NICK FORSTER: It was an amazing, vibrant, vigorous community.

MERCER: In 1975, Nick Forster moved from New York to work as an instrument repairman at the Denver Folklore Center.

FORSTER: Any musician who came through Denver at that time, no matter what their level, would go to the Folklore Center to buy strings, shop for records, look at instruments, that kind of thing.

MERCER: At the Folklore Center, Forster met some other recent Colorado transplants: Tim O'Brien, Pete Wernick, and Charles Sawtelle. In 1978, they formed Hot Rize, which became the first national touring bluegrass band from Colorado.

FORSTER: We shared a really deep appreciation for the founders of bluegrass, and what it takes to make bluegrass sound right. Now, with that in mind, we also wanted to make sure that we sounded like ourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLLEEN MALONE")

HOT RIZE: (Singing) As the soft breezes blow through the meadow I go. Past the mill with the moss covered stone. Up the pathway I climb, through the moods and the vines, to be with my Colleen Malone.

MERCER: Hot Rize thrived on the festival circuit and drew plenty of musicians to Colorado. But as Hot Rize straddled the line between tradition and innovation, some of the Colorado bands that followed took their direction from bluegrass' more progressive practitioners.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERCER: Groups like String Cheese Incident found success in using bluegrass as a point of departure for extended jams. Nick Forster says the musical culture popularized by jam bands isn't all good.

FORSTER: Unfortunately, there are a lot of Colorado bands now that tend to play too fast. They think I'm just going to play really, really fast and they really go wild and then it'll be a great party. And so there is a problem. There's an underbelly to the Colorado bluegrass sound.

MERCER: Even Bela Fleck, who's famed for stretching bluegrass in new directions, says there are some things a musician still learns best in the Southeast.

FLECK: Bluegrass fundamentals are really worthwhile. And if someone has them, you can hear it the minute they start to play. It's just a language and a rhythmic approach and a lot of attention put into tone and timing. I don't think that that is prized the same way in Colorado. In Colorado, it's a little looser definition and it's a little more relaxed.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

MERCER: But today, yet another bluegrass scene is emerging in Colorado. In the 1990s, Planet Bluegrass, which produces the Telluride Festival, acquired riverside property north of Boulder in the town of Lyons. Planet Bluegrass began hosting two additional festivals there: the traditionalist Rockygrass Festival and songwriter-friendly Folks Festival.

Over the years, musicians and fans have come through Lyons for the festivals, fallen in love with the place and ended up settling there, eventually turning the town of 2,000 into a kind of roots-music artists' colony.

GROVES: I think you could find music happening in people's living rooms almost every night of the week in Lyons.

MERCER: Multi-instrumentalist K.C. Groves has lived in Lyons for 11 years. She hosts a popular Tuesday night bluegrass jam at Oskar Blues Brewery.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERCER: Groves says even with professional musicians in the mix, the jam is free of elitism and competitiveness.

GROVES: You can have Chris Elliot from Spring Creek Bluegrass Band sitting next to a total beginner. And that beginner, especially if they're a banjo player, will be watching that person the whole time. And, you know, you'll often see someone lean over and sort of give someone, like, a little bit of advice or, you know, what key is this in? People are very helpful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERCER: Though many professional bluegrass musicians prefer to be Nashville for session work, or to be more centrally located for touring, Groves emphasizes that in Lyons, a relatively inexperienced band can get gigs while improving its craft.

GROVES: What I have found is that, not to be crass, but there seems to be a little bit more wealth here, which means people are going to come to your shows and they're going to buy your CDs.

MERCER: From up the road in Boulder, Nick Forster has been watching Lyons become a musical epicenter.

FORSTER: The idea of having a small town in which a really high percentage of people are involved in playing and recording and touring and writing songs and playing festivals and so, it's just intoxicating.

MERCER: One sign that bluegrass is alive and well in Colorado: at a time when some music festivals are struggling or even taking the year off, Planet Bluegrass is selling out its three summer festivals this year.

For NPR News, I'm Michelle Mercer in Colorado.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NORRIS: I'm Michele Norris.

SIEGEL: And I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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