RockyGrass 2016 – Day 1

The 44th annual RockyGrass festival was held last weekend in Lyons, CO. Surrounded by the beautiful Rocky Mountains, fans enjoyed the best in bluegrass for three straight days. These are my reflections and opinions as a first time RockyGrass attendee.

Bryan Sutton at RockyGrass 2016 - photo by Daniel MullinsRockyGrass!! One of the items on my “Bluegrass Bucket List” was finally able to be scratched off, as soon as I stepped onto the hallowed grounds of Planet Bluegrass just outside of Lyons, CO. I had heard that the town and the campground had been devastated just a few years ago by a raging flood, but it ws nothing but all smiles this weekend! Kudos to Craig Ferguson and the rest of the Planet Bluegrass team, for had I not known previously that a massive rebuilding effort had taken place over the past few years, there was nothing to indicate that a natural disaster had left the majority of the concert area and campground in disarray. Amid the most diverse and eclectic audience I have ever seen at a bluegrass festival, I took my seat and prepared myself for some great bluegrass music!

The Rapidgrass Quintet kicked off the festival. As is customary for the event, The Rapidgrass Quintet had won the 2015 Rockygrass Band Contest, with first place being the opening slot on the main stage for the following festival. It was easy to see how this young band won last year’s contest, with their smooth picking and original songs, mixed with influences from bluegrass, newgrass, and gypsy swing music. The newcomers even brought out David Grier and Alex Hargreaves as special guests for a kicking version of Steel Guitar Rag.

I had heard rave reviews regarding the talent of acoustic guitar phenom, Molly Tuttle, and I was thrilled to get to see The Molly Tuttle Band for myself at Rockygrass. The band’s soothing sounds are anchored by Molly’s incredible guitar work. She incorporates many styles into her guitar playing, including flatpicking and even clawhammer guitar, (the latter of which absolutely blew me away). Alongside original compositions like Walden, Molly also included her rendition of such classics as Let The Whole World Talk and Gentle On My Mind. She also performed a tribute song for one of her heroes, Hazel Dickens. The Molly Tuttle Band is a showcase act at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass this fall, and I can definitely see why.

Shortly into Bryan Sutton’s performance, a gentle rain began to cool off the audience (ironically during his take on Uncle Dave Macon’s Backwater Blues). The precipitation didn’t discourage one of the most awarded guitar players in bluegrass history, as he was eager to showcase his new band and many of the songs from his latest album, The More I Learn. Bryan’s singing as only improved over the past few years, and matches perfectly with his signature style of guitar. Even God must love the rousing Swannanoa Tunnel which appeared on Bryan’s Grammy-nominated album from a few years ago, as the sun began shining bright as soon as Bryan and the boys kicked off this old tune, with the rain subsiding by the song’s conclusion. Bryan’s new song, Hills For My Head, was partly inspired by the Rocky Mountains surrounding RockyGrass and its sister festival in Telluride. Bryan’s solo rendition of this new song was particularly poignant as one listened to him and looked up at the majestic mountains all around. Even as a veteran of the industry, Bryan still sounds as fresh as ever with his new music and new band.

The Good Ol’ Persons were a popular California bluegrass band in the 1970s, and were one of the first bands in the business to place women as leading contributors. Decades later, the Good Ol’ Persons reunion concert at RockyGrass was one of the surprises of the festival, and had everyone talking, whether you were aware of their history or not. Kathy Kallick is still a joy to watch whether she is singing or lighting up the stage with her heartfelt smile and fun emcee work. The mandolin work of John Reischman was a highlight as well, particularly on his original, It’s Been Real. The Good Ol’ Persons had the crowd in the palm of their hand with such songs as Kissing Comes Easy, My, My, My, and Broken Tie. They were joined by special guest, Annie Stanninec (a recipient of one of last year’s IBMA Instrumentalist Momentum Awards). Her fun style of fiddle playing is a joy, and was great way to showcase the Good Ol’ Persons lasting impact in the west coast bluegrass scene.

Walking around the festival grounds, I was blown away by the amount of kids running around. Rockygrass is an extremely family friendly event, which even included a Family Tent, featuring nature lessons, crafts, and face-painting for kids. Children could even build toy boats at the craft tent, and then test them out in the creek which winds by the stage and festival grounds. A small beach area was even cleared off for the little ones to safely play in the sand and the water. It was so encouraging seeing an abundance of young folks having such a fun time and enjoying a bunch of great bluegrass music in the process.

Tim O'Brien & Friends at RockyGrass 2016 - photo by Daniel MullinsThis was the second weekend in a row that I had had the pleasure of enjoying Tim O’Brien and his talented friends, Noam Pikelny, David Grier, Shad Cobb, and Mike Bub. Some of the greatest pickers on the planet, their set was marked by warm tones and precision in their execution. Tim’s original songs like Workin’, I’ve Gotta Move, and Pompadour (the latter are from his last album, Pompadour) had the crowd patting their feet. The set even included some Bob Dylan (Señor and Tombstone Blues), much to the audience’s delight.

Three of acoustic music’s most prolific instrumentalists, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, and Sam Bush teamed up for an awe-inspiring instrumental set on Friday night. The music created by these masters was powerful. Few musicians could captivate an audience’s attention for an hour and a half by only playing instrumental compositions, but these three musicians are among the exceptions. Virtuosic performances of such fun songs as Duke and Cookie, Green Slime, and the ironically titled, Death By Triple Fiddle, made for a spell-binding set of acoustic music. It was a thrill to watch these masters at work. Their encore performance even featured surprise appearances by Béla Fleck and Mike Marshall.

The Grammy award-winning, Steep Canyon Rangers closed out Day 1 of the 2016 RockyGrass. Every time they step onto the stage, the Steeps bring an undeniable cool factor that demands your attention. Their inclusion of a full drum set into their bluegrass ensemble may be eyebrow-raising to some, but it fits perfectly into the Americana-infused style of bluegrass the Steep Canyon Rangers have begun playing lately. (Think bluegrass meets The Band.) The Steeps have never sounded better. Their love and respect for bluegrass is still evident by their stellar musicianship and first-class presentation, but their inclusion of new and exciting ideas and original songs have helped them carve out a niche of their own over the past few years. Leaning heavily on the material from their previous two albums, Tell The Ones I Love and Radio, SCR put on a fun show full of energy and a few special guests. Andy Hall, Sam Bush, and Jerry Douglas (who produced the band’s latest release, Radio) took turns joining the band on stage for some musical magic, to the surprise and delight of all in attendance.

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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel Mullins is an IBMA award-winning journalist and broadcaster from southwestern Ohio, with an American Studies degree from Cedarville University. He hosts the Walls of Time: Bluegrass Podcast and his daily radio program, The Daniel Mullins Midday Music Spectacular, on the Real Roots Radio network. He also serves as the station’s music director, programming country, bluegrass, and Americana music.