50 years of bluegrass in Colorado – CBMS celebrates golden anniversary

Colorado is well known for having a vibrant bluegrass scene across the state. Much of this is thanks to two events which took place during the ’70s just a mountain range apart.

In Denver, a group of bluegrass musicians and pickers who wanted to create more communication within the state’s bluegrass scene started the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society. Six hours away in Telluride at just about the same time, Colorado John Herndon, J.B. and Helen Matiotti, Kooster McAllister, and Fred Shellman, were working equally hard to start and make the Telluride Bluegrass Festival a success. The first year that they ran it in 1974, the festival attracted 1,000 participants which was enough encouragement for them to keep going. These two major efforts to grow Colorado bluegrass collided in 199o, and led to the birth of Planet Bluegrass, a Colorado-based promotional company that now runs two bluegrass festivals, and a folk festival, as well as concerts at their Planet Bluegrass Ranch in Lyons, Colorado. 

Founding member of CBMS, David Little, explains that the society’s primary goal in 1972 was to simply connect bluegrass players so that they could organize jam sessions and keep up to date on what was happening in the state. The last thing that any of the members wanted to do was run a festival. It was just too much work. Bill Monroe changed their minds.

Before Monroe even knew that CBMS existed, he was eager to raise the profile of bluegrass music across the country. So, in 1972, when Monroe met the CBMS members at a show in Boulder, he took a special interest in CMBS and encouraged them to start a festival in Colorado. His idea was met with some reluctance. However, Monroe offered to bear the financial burden and guaranteed to pay for the bands and the venue. He also said he would book the national talent. All CBMS would have to do is organize and market the event.

With only six months to get ready for their first festival, CBMS members were suddenly hard at work. Fortunately, they had Monroe supporting them, making a special trip to Colorado to advise and coach them on marketing and publicity. An estimated 6,500 bluegrass fans attended that first festival and according to CBMS, over the next four years the festival earned a total profit of more than $20,000. Quite a sum in the early ’70s. 

The line ups included major talents like Lester Flatt, Ralph Stanley, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, and of course Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. (Charles Sawtelle, guitar player for Hot Rize, ran the sound) Little recalls that Monroe would park his Bluegrass Express where folks would gathered around to socialize and jam. Monroe loved the attention. With other projects to pursue, Monroe ended his involvement with the festival in 1977 and left the CBMS with a popular annual bluegrass festival to run. After Monroe’s departure, CBMS members carried on and continued to hold the festival at The Adams County Fairgrounds until 1988 when, due to rising costs, they moved the festival to Loveland’s Laramie County Fairgrounds. That location worked well for the next four years but in the festival’s 20th year, they were without a home. They made a failed attempt to move the festival to Winter Park but when that fell through CBMS approached the organizers of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, now in its 18th year, for their help.

At this point, Craig Ferguson had taken the reigns of the Telluride festival. As an early attendee, he had heard that the festival organizers were having difficulty with their financing, and he saw an opportunity to pull together some investors to help the struggling festival. Although they did not make any money that first year, Ferguson knew that he was hooked. He says, “You get all geared up and you have this team together and you figure we should do something else.” So, in 1991, Ferguson began the annual Rocky Mountain Folks Festival and in 1992 CBMS contacted them for help with running the first Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival. The following year, Telluride Bluegrass Inc. purchased the festival from CBMS for $10,000 and eventually renamed the festival RockyGrass. 

At some point in these formative years of running festivals, Telluride Bluegrass Inc. became known as Planet Bluegrass. In part, the change was inspired by the cover art for their Telluride Live album which featured planet earth in the background. But it also sprang from folks in the main office who, when answering phones playfully said, “Planet Bluegrass!” Ferguson says, “we didn’t really plan that as our name, we just started answering the phone that way. It was a big enough umbrella for all that we wanted to do.”

Moving forward, bluegrass fans can expect Planet Bluegrass to continue bringing high caliber line ups to their festivals, and to prioritize both a love of music and respect for the planet. Rocky Grass sold out this year, and there are still tickets available for their August Folks Festival. You can find out more about Planet Bluegrass and their festivals online.

Below are some photos from the SnowyGrass festival, now in its seventh year, which ran this past weekend in in downtown Estes Park, CO. The name derives from the fact that you can see the snow capped Rocky Mountain peaks from the festival site. Thanks to CBMS President Kevin Slick for the images.