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| July 24-30, 2008 firstname.lastname@example.orgThe new face of bluegrass
RockyGrass breaks free from tradition while staying true to its roots
by Margaret HairCompared to its relative Telluride Bluegrass Festival, RockyGrass is a slightly smaller, more traditional affair. Traditional, that is, in a vague sense.
“RockyGrass is sort of the cousin of Telluride, in that Telluride pushes the boundaries of bluegrass and with RockyGrass we try to keep it traditional, in the sense that we try to keep it acoustic,” said Brian Eyster, director of communications for Planet Bluegrass, the group that sponsors those two festivals along with the Folks Festival and the Wildflower Concert Series.
In its 36th year, RockyGrass has grown to a three-day festival that spans more than a century of American roots music, from the banjo and mandolin songs with which we’re most familiar to 21st century acoustic songwriting. The lineup boasts newgrass pioneers Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer and Psychograss (featuring Darol Anger) and traditionalist Peter Rowan. There are Celtic acts and young string bands, a Sunday morning gospel set and the one and only Béla Fleck.
“In the beginning we sort of reached out to the artists that we love to have them play our festival, and at a certain point we realized that they were all doing different kinds of things,” Eyster said. “It just sort of branched out from there.”
As it broadens its musical horizons, RockyGrass looks to the future by encouraging attendees to ride their bikes to the festival grounds while a shuttle carries their bags to Lyons; by hosting a week-before bluegrass academy featuring instruction by The Infamous Stringdusters, members of Psychograss, John Cowan and Bryan Sutton; and by shunning plastic water bottles for reusable canteens. As the event lowers its environmental impact, Eyster said the laidback atmosphere and core of American roots music remain the same.
“I think it’s a little broader festival than we’ve had in the last couple of years. But the roots are still there — I mean, J.D. Crowe is playing.”
As bluegrass reaches back to its roots and forward to a new sound, its structure keeps touching people on a personal level. Chatham County Line guitarist Dave Wilson explains the music’s broad appeal and wide array of uses as part of an almost innate American liking for string band music.
“This type of instrumentation, it’s something that touches everybody,” Wilson said, attributing that impact to the generations when bluegrass music came into its own.
“I think back in those days, everybody played an instrument and everybody sang and played piano, so there’s something about what we do in our live show that really touches people deep down, almost subliminally,” he said.
In the band’s four studio records, Chatham County Line has moved away from bluegrass music, keeping a banjo and a mandolin in its lineup while it explores other sonic traditions. The latest of those releases, IV, has little to do with the banjo-driven images bluegrass might usually evoke, and instead finds itself in a realm of folk music that exists outside of tradition.
“We like to tell stories, and we’re real comfortable with some of the great tenements of bluegrass. We’re using these elements to forge a new path as opposed to just walking along the same path that has been walked before,” Wilson said.
“A lot of bands just perpetuate the 1946 style of bluegrass, where the banjo starts every song and every song is quick. And where we don’t necessarily hate that, we’re more of a songwriting band,” he said.
As part of a growing guard of young American roots musicians, Wilson and Chatham County Line make a point of bringing their personal stories over an acoustic backdrop to non-traditional venues, from small rock clubs to large blues festivals. Wilson said he’s known some bands that have met opposition for using the banjo in unorthodox ways, though Chatham County has, for the most part, avoided that kind of reaction.
“Bluegrass is weird. It’s one of those types of music that people cling onto the most. It’s like people will feel a really personal attachment to bluegrass, and they’ll get upset when you do different things,” he said. Chatham County might not have that kind of attachment to a delineated bluegrass sound, but the personal aspect certainly is there.
“I grew up on classic rock radio, listening to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and all that stuff,” Wilson said. “And I wish I had had an avenue to listen to acoustic music, because when I finally did, it changed my life.”
The thing about bluegrass, said Carolina Chocolate Drops guitarist Dom Flemons, is that bluegrass is not traditional music.
The Chocolate Drops, a young, black string band that draws its repertoire from old-time Piedmont musicians, play music that has faded in and out of popularity since the last part of the 19th century.
“It links into bluegrass, because a lot of times bluegrass is fast, and I think that the bluegrass crowd has been relieved to hear different types of music that are similar to bluegrass in speed or virtuosity or musicality,” Flemons said of the band’s popularity and natural fit at bluegrass festivals. “It’s different musically than regular bluegrass, and I think that some people have been relieved [by that], whether they knew it or not.”
It’s a music that predates bluegrass and an individual format, Flemons said, as the Chocolate Drops stick more to ensemble playing and simple tunes. He likened the development of modern, virtuosic bluegrass music to the shift from big band to solo-driven jazz, drawing a connection between Louis Armstrong encouraging extended solos over traditional tunes such as “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and Bill Monroe doing the same thing with his bands.
“We do old-time music [that fits into] the ensemble area,” Flemons said. “There’s a rising interest in old-time music with younger people as well as with older people, and more people have been interested in old-time music. That kind of situation is where our band sits. And we play some black string band music, which is a lesser-known genre of old-time music.”
Even though technically the Carolina Chocolate Drops do old-time music — songs they learned from Piedmont string band legend Joe Thompson, and songs that are driven by timeless stories with fiddle, banjo and jug backing — the band brings in different types of music “every which way we can get it,” Flemons said.
“We play his (Thompson’s) repertoire, and then we also add in a lot of difference, just taking the ideas of different elements of each of these types of music, and linking them together in a way that traditionally you wouldn’t have the two [styles] together, but musically [they] do fit together,” Flemons said.
“It’s natural fusion music, instead of smashing two genres together that don’t really go.”
On the Bill
Chatham County Line perform at 11:45 a.m. on Saturday, July 26, and The Carolina Chocolate Drops perform at 6:45 p.m. on Sunday, July 27, at Planet Bluegrass, 500 W. Main St., Lyons, 303-823-0848. Tickets for RockyGrass are sold out, but tickets for Folks Fest are still available at www.bluegrass.com.
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