In 1972, following some performances in Boulder, father of bluegrass Bill Monroe himself convinced the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society (CBMS) to partner with him and create a bluegrass music festival for the state. While it started at county fairgrounds, the festival ultimately landed in the quaint front range mountain town of Lyons, partnering and ultimately handing the fest over to Planet Bluegrass, who also produces Telluride Bluegrass Festival and other events.
With a focus on sustainability, community, and world-class music in beautiful places, the folks at Planet Bluegrass succeed in creating one-of-a-kind music festivals that have developed a culture and family of their own. RockyGrass is more on the traditional side versus the wide-ranging, genre-hopping at Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, and the majority of the acts perform acoustically into mics onstage.
Along with being a primer traditional bluegrass festival, there is also a music academy the week before the festival, where performers and headliners teach all levels of instrument, songwriting, and other activities such as instrument building in a beautiful camp setting by the St. Vrain River. The level of musicianship both onstage and from audience members is astounding and all day and night there are countless jams going on in the campgrounds and it’s not uncommon to see headlining musicians wandering the onsite camp at night as well, enjoying the scene and jamming along with folks of all ages till sunrise. The community, traditions, and family feel, along with great music make Rockygrass what it is and is the reason so many folks continue to attend year after year.
After a year off due to the pandemic, RockyGrass was back in full effect. Day one started with a few up-and-coming bands like northwest act Never Come Down, who won the RockyGrass band competition in 2019. Following them was the young and highly talented Mile Twelve who brought their own technical, contemporary take on the bluegrass stage for a beautiful morning performance.
Following them was one of many special duo sets over the weekend with Kieran Kane & Rayna Gellert. Kieran is a veteran solo artist and songwriter/collaborator who has worked with folks like John Prine and Emmylou Harris. Rayna is a seasoned old-time musician and songwriter known for her work with Uncle Earl among other things. Together they played an intimate set full of dark songs and beautiful melodies to the attentive RockyGrass crowd. Other Friday highlights included bluegrass classics Special Consensus and RockyGrass standard and phenomenal songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien.
The sunset set was a truly special one Friday night, bringing together some of Tony Rice’s closes friends and collaborators together to perform his music and also share stories and memories for the first time together since Tony’s passing on Christmas Day 2020. The Tony Rice Tribute band featured Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, David Grisman, Bryan Sutton, Chris Eldridge, Michael Cleveland, and Mark Schatz. Following this one-of-a-kind collaborative performance/tribute, The Infamous Stringdusters brought their high-energy stage show, big light set up, and hot pickin’ and singing to the crowd, firing everyone up for more picking and grinning in the campgrounds at night.
Tony Rice Tribute – RockyGrass – Lyons, CO – 7/23/21
[Video: Kevin Slick]
Saturday began with the individual instrument contest finals on the main stage, a long tradition at RockyGrass. Following the finals, up-and-coming newgrass outfit the Fireside Collective brought some fun energy to start the day. Next up was one of the MVPs for the weekend, Michael Cleveland with his band Flamekeeper.
Cleveland performed each day and also jammed and hung in the campgrounds at night. On Friday, Cleveland joined the all-star Tony Rice tribute band, Saturday with his band, and Sunday with the premier of Béla Flek’s new bluegrass project, My Bluegrass Heart. Cleveland is a Grammy awarded fiddle player and also ten-time national fiddle champion. He was born blind, with a cleft lip and palate, and became 80 percent deaf in one ear early on in life. None of these or other challenges held Micheal back from keeping his positive attitude and love for the music alive. From early in life he was fiddling at festivals and has become a primer instrumentalist in the acoustic world with his infectious playing. It was a treat to see him perform each day at the festival this year.
The day continued with more masters of their craft with the trio of Tony Trischka, Michael Daves, and Bruce Molsky, followed by virtuoso mandolin champ Sierra Hull with her partner Justin Moses. The Lil Smokies hit the stage next and got the entire sit-down bluegrass crowd to their feet for a high-energy set of original progressive bluegrass. I was particularly blown away by Kyle Tuttle’s work on the banjo, which was technical, fun, playful, and dialed in all at the same time.
Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn took the stage next with a variety of songs, dueling banjos, and more, including appearances by their son Juno who sang some songs featuring playful material from their Banjo House Lockdown series they had filmed and shared throughout the pandemic. Like Michael Cleveland, Béla Fleck deserves an MVP award for appearing each day of the festival with a different group. Friday with the Tony Rice Tribute, Saturday with his wife, and Sunday to debut his new bluegrass project, and a gospel set appearance too. Following the duo, Sam Bush Band arrived for their traditional Saturday night slot to a crowd “Howlin’ at the Moon” feeding off the band’s incredible energy and power. It’s obvious why Sam is the King of New Grass as his showmanship and skills are one of a kind.
Sunday morning began with a gospel set as it usually does at RockyGrass. The band this year was composed of many musicians local or tied to the Lyons area. The core band was composed of Greg Blake, KC Groves, Dylan McCarthy, Eric Thorin, and Jake Simpson. Throughout the set they welcomed guest musicians like Béla Fleck, Juno Fleck, Abigail Washburn, members of the Lil Smokies, and more singing through emotional gospel numbers to greet the final day. That’s a lot of great musicians onstage before noon and the set has become a special RockyGrass tradition worth arriving early for.
Next was the prestigious band competition finals, where three acts perform three songs each in a single mic style, competing for the opportunity to open the next RockyGrass festival. Finalists included The Wrecklunds, The Red Mountain Boys, and winners The Wildmans. Following the competition was an act Twisted Pine, who actually came in 2nd in a head-to-head tie jam off a few years back for the win at the RockyGrass band competition. They were still invited back and their surprising take on traditional sounds was welcomed by the crowd. While steeped in traditional tunes, Twisted Pine features commanding vocals, funky bass, wild flute, and fantastic fiddling to make a joyous and fun, engaging performance anyone at the festival could enjoy.
Next up was another RockyGrass staple and overall legend, Peter Rowan, in a special duo set with top dobro master Jerry Douglas. Their set was special and stripped down in a way that felt like watching two old friends hang out and enjoy themselves, which is exactly what was going on, their smiles told the story. Following them was the powerful female group Della Mae, who has been captivating festival crowds and international audiences for some time.
The Del McCoy Band is always such a treat and they proved their magic and intensity and virtuosity again at RockyGrass. Del McCoury’s stage presence, happiness, high tenor voice, passion, and command of the stage are unbelievable, especially at 82 years old. And the band is some if the tightest and hottest picking in the land, featuring Del’s two sons, both award-winning in their own right as well. It’s hard to imagine a better quintessential bluegrass band.
To close the festival, Béla Fleck brought a special treat to Planet Bluegrass, the debut of his newest project My Bluegrass Heart, his first bluegrass album in 20 years. The band he put together to perform the music for its first time publicly was made up of Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, Michael Cleveland, Bryan Sutton, and Mark Schatz and it was obvious that they had tirelessly learned, practiced, and prepared their interpretations of Fleck’s new creations. It was special to end the festival with such a new, innovative, complex take on the bluegrass genre. Sometime hot pickin’, sometimes a concerto feel, and sometimes chaos, the performance was magnetic and intriguing.
Béla Fleck My Bluegrass Heart – RockyGrass – Lyons, CO – 7/25/21
[Video: Béla Fleck]
Béla Fleck – “Vertigo” – Lyons, CO – 7/25/21
[Video: Béla Fleck]
Béla Fleck – “Wheels Up” (Rehearsal) – Lyons, CO – 7/25/21
[Video: Béla Fleck]
Planet Bluegrass events and Rockygrass stand on a level of their own in the music circuit and this year was right on track even after a traumatic year off. If anything the break made it feel more like a renewal of life and normality, even if we aren’t quite there yet.
Scroll down to check out a gallery of images from RockyGrass 2021 courtesy of photographer Elliot Siff.