The Young Festivarians


By day four it had become our nightly routine. About 6 p.m. we’d have some dinner. Then we’d settle in to catch one of the last three acts of an indescribable day of music, sunshine, rain, hail, new friends and just about anything unpredictable enough to be part of what was destined to become our most hallowed tradition. About 8 p.m., the sun would begin to set near the entrance to the idyllic, box-shaped canyon we had entered for the first time just three short days earlier.

The rush of cooler air would prompt me to reach into my pack for what would be the first in a series of visits, each bringing forth another layer of apparel designed to counter the elements at 10,000 feet on the eve of the summer solstice.

By the time the inevitable blanket of darkness had been pulled over us, we were putting on the last pieces: hats, gloves, scarves. Finally, after a self-inflicted delay, designed to fool us into thinking we had simply forgotten it and now had a heaven-sent surprise, we unrolled a blanket of our own and cuddled up together underneath its protective warmth.

By 9 p.m., the cycle had once again run its full course. As if on cue, my six-year-old companion began her nightly migration from the chair at my side onto my lap and curled up like a dog in front of a crackling fireplace. A yawn or two later I began to feel that illogical but unmistakable heaviness that only a parent can identify. Julia’s evening was over, but mine was just beginning.

As I sat there in the cold with my natural “heater” contributing another layer of protection to my arsenal, a sad thought came to me. Someday, maybe not next year or the year after, and maybe not even the year after that, but someday Julia will be too grown up to cuddle up on Daddy’s lap and go to sleep during the nighttime segment of an outdoor music festival. But I allowed that thought to be a fleeting one. That day was well in the future, I was at the 1995 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and B%uFFFDla Fleck and the Flecktones were taking the stage.

Fast-forward six years. Julia and I are at our seventh Telluride and have also become annual fixtures at RockyGrass and the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival (see sidebar for this weekend’s line-up). Our Telluride tradition has grown strong over the years. We load up the car and head out on Wednesday, take the same route every year, stop in Montrose to spend the night, and float in to Telluride on Thursday morning, our hearts full of the joy and anticipation that cannot be generated in quite the same way by anything short of our annual migration to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

Julia is 12 years old now, and my premonition from our inaugural year at Telluride has come true. She is now too grown up to end her day at the Festival on Daddy’s lap (and it’s just as well since Daddy’s lap is not as young as it once was, not to mention that Julia is considerably heavier). Over the course of the past six years, Julia has become a seasoned “festivarian,” having embraced the intention, energy and ritual of being part of the festival experience. Julia has grown up on Planet Bluegrass.

“Every year I’ve grown up and done something different,” Julia reminisces. “During the first few years it always used to be my tradition to get a ‘festival dress,’ like a bright tie-dyed dress that I could wear during the festival. But then I didn’t do that anymore and I started other traditions, like I would buy neat little things-I have a beautiful necklace with a water lily that somebody hand-painted. Something new always happens and a new tradition is always started or carried on, and it has really been a part of my life to go.”

Julia and I have shared our annual pilgrimage with a variety of friends and family over the years and, indeed, she began a tradition of her own three years ago when she began bringing a friend along. This has changed the dynamic of the experience, but not its sacredness. We both understand that it’s our ritual, regardless of who may be accompanying us.

“I always go with my dad, and it has sort of been a tradition for us. It’s just the thing that we always do-we can always count on going to Telluride together. I’ve gone with lots of other people, too, though I’ve always gone with my dad. I’ve gone with my step-mom, Mari, and my baby sister, Mia, who went once unborn and once as a little baby. I’ve gone with a lot of our different friends, and part of my tradition now is that I take a friend with me. I took my friend Annie three years and I took my friend Stephanie this past year for the first time.”

The most constant element amid the various changes has been the music. Over the course of nine years (Julia has also attended the Strawberry Music Festival in California three times, beginning at the age of three) and some 30 festivals, Julia has grown to have an appreciation of acoustic music that has matured as she has grown up.

“I have lots of favorites,” Julia says, scanning her memory. “I really like Alison Krauss and Tim O’Brien, those used to always be my favorites. Now I really like B%uFFFDla Fleck and the Flecktones, but they only play at Telluride; they’re not usually at RockyGrass and Folks Festival. I really like Nickel Creek with Chris Thile and Sara and Sean Watkins.

“I was with my friend Stephanie last year at Telluride and we got these big posters from the 1999 Festival that have the fiddler girl on them. Then we got them autographed by all our favorite musicians. I got B%uFFFDla Fleck, who signed it the first time upside down so I asked him to sign it again; and I got Chris Thile from Nickel Creek, who’s like the new star; and I got Paul McCandless; and Sam Bush; John Cowan; Peter Rowan; Jerry Douglas; John Randle, who’s the guitar player for the Sam Bush Band; and Drew Emmitt from Leftover Salmon; and I got Edgar Meyer, who hurt his hand and you can’t really read his autograph very well. And it was really fun because I learned which people are left-handed like I am, and it was just really fun meeting them and seeing them up close and not on the stage.”

As I awakened to the idea that my daughter’s experiences at the Planet Bluegrass festivals have played a significant role in shaping her into the young woman she is becoming, it occurred to me that countless other kids have had similar experiences celebrating the traditions associated with going to Telluride and Lyons, where the RockyGrass and Rocky Mountain Folks festivals take place at the Planet Bluegrass ranch. Eric Jacoby Brown will be 11 years old on the day this story publishes (Happy Birthday, Eric!), and he has been to the Folks Festival every year since he was three years old. Eric’s experience has been rich and diverse, although mostly centered on the St. Vrain River that rolls lazily alongside the stage and festival grounds in Lyons.

“For the Folks Festival,” Eric states, as if it’s a given, “you get tubes and you go down the river. That’s real fun.

“There used to be this, like, clothesline over the river. What we would do is we would ride our rafts down and then we would try to keep our tubes from going down the river by grabbing on, and that was really fun.”

Being the experienced festivarian that he is, Eric has developed some insightful opinions of the crowds that attend the festivals.

“They are usually pretty fun. They always do hula-hoop and talk to you and are dancing. They’re kind of like modern day hippies or something, ’cause they’re all dancing and they dress with baggy clothes and all that stuff.”

Eric’s mom, Dawn, may be one of those “modern day hippies” to whom Eric refers. Dawn sees Eric’s participation in the festivals as being a rare opportunity to show him a simpler way of life that has been largely lost in the age of MTV, cellular phones and Nintendo.

“My hope is that it exposes Eric to that kind of lifestyle that’s a little less bogged down in what life tends to be about sometimes: computers and money and the day-to-day grind. (Going to the festivals) kind of breaks the pattern of that and lets him experience, with his friends, a more free way to be.”

Dawn especially enjoys seeing Eric dancing freely to the music. And, she feels it may even be good for his future love life.

“Especially being a boy in this culture, a lot of boys are not encouraged to get up and dance. I remind Eric all the time, as you keep growing up and become a teenager and start asking girls out on dates, if you can dance you have it made. Women love that!”

The people in the Planet Bluegrass organization have made obvious efforts to create an environment that is both family-friendly and safe for kids. The extensive programming in the kids’ tent at Telluride is probably the best testimony to that. This year, for the first time, there’s a kids’ tent in Lyons for RockyGrass and Folks Festival, as well. With so many kids at the festivals, safety is a concern for most parents, yet most parents feel that the situation is so safe that they allow their kids to venture off on their own to explore.

Eric’s friend, Nalani Clisset, has been going to the Folks Festival for seven years, since she was four years old. Along with making rock statues in the river, Nalani enjoys the sense of freedom she experiences at the Festival.

“I like the independence, that I can go and look in some of the little shops there and get some ice cream or go hula-hoop or something. I can walk around and know that it’s OK and safe.”

Nalani talks freely about what it has meant to her to be a part of the festivals over the years and about the role the festivals have played in her life.

“It means a lot, actually, because I really don’t have that much family tradition. So it’s pretty special to have it come every year. It’s special that I get to be with my whole family for a whole weekend, every day.

“When I’m at the festival, I’m much happier than I am usually because I love music and I love being outside. I’m kind of more aware of my life because it happens every year so I can think of what’s happened during the past year.”

Aside from being brothers who can easily be mistaken for twins, Shea and Ian Szymanski share another common bond: they both attended their first Planet Bluegrass festival prior to their birth. Indeed, Shea and Ian are special members of the Planet Bluegrass family as their dad, Steve, is one of the owners. Now 10 and 11, respectively, the boys have attended every festival since their births, with one exception when their mom was sick.

“Some of my first, precious memories were seeing Ian when he was about two and a half,” Steve says, nostalgically. “We were watching Mary Chapin-Carpenter and through powers of his own he decided to get up and he danced through the entire set in front of everybody. People were not even watching Mary Chapin-Carpenter; they were watching this kid who was dancing. You could see the energy the music was having on everybody.”

Now that they’re old enough, Shea and Ian pitch in to help produce the festivals in any way they can. “We help set up sometimes. At the Telluride Bluegrass Festival we helped decorate the place,” says Ian with an obvious sense of pride.

Being exposed to all that great music has encouraged the Szymanski brothers to make music, and even musical instruments!

“I love bluegrass, folks, and blues,” says Ian. “It has inspired me to play instruments. There’s a mandolin class I recently took and I built this really beautiful mandolin. It sounds great and it really inspired me to build things. It was great! It took me four days.

“Me, Shea and a friend of ours, we’ve started a little band. We’re going to call it the Zombie Trio. I’m going to play the mandolin, Shea may play the drums and guitar, we can each play the piano, and our friend, her name’s Theresa, she’s going to play electric guitar. So I’m pretty excited.”

As expressed by this small but representative group of children, the experience of growing up on Planet Bluegrass is a multi-faceted one, replete with tradition, friendship, nature, independence and community. Ultimately, it’s the music that facilitates this rich experience. Steve Szymanski sums this up well.

“The kind of music we produce lends to a certain audience. If we were doing straight rock ‘n’ roll shows, I think we’d be expecting a whole bunch of problems that we don’t have. Acoustic music has been really great, the family part has been really great, and we’ve been really blessed with a devoted audience that really respects each other and the music and is there to experience the scene and listen to good music.”

My erstwhile six-year-old, now twice as old as she was when we first landed on Planet Bluegrass, expresses the same sentiment in the way only a child can as she describes the bond that draws all festivarians together.

“A love of music, mostly. And there’s also a love of the outdoors. The bond is just that everybody wants to be at the festival. There are always people sitting outside who want tickets and everybody’s just connecting.”

Looking into the crystal ball, despite the accuracy of my prediction that Julia would outgrow Daddy’s lap as festival bed, it looks like I can rest assured that another six years won’t result in her outgrowing the festivals themselves.

“When I’m an adult, I’m sure I’ll always try to go, and I’ll always think about it and remember it. And I’ll make it a tradition with my family, too.”

Rocky Mountain Folks Festival Line-up
August 17-19, 2001

Noon Gates Open
12:15 – 1:45 Folks Showcase
2:00 – 2:45 Kreg Viesselman
3:00 – 4:00 Christopher Williams
4:15 – 5:30 Cliff Eberhardt
5:45 – 7:00 Cheryl Wheeler
7:15 – 8:30 John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky
9:00 – 10:30 Rickie Lee Jones

9:00 Gates Open
10:30 – 11:30 Chris Rosser
11:45 – 12:45 Vance Gilbert
1:00 – 2:15 Erin McKeown
2:30 – 3:45 Pierce Pettis
4:00 – 5:15 Patty Larkin
5:45 – 7:00 Eddie from Ohio
7:15 – 8:30 Greg Brown
9:00 – 10:30 Arlo Guthrie

9:00 Gates Open
10:30 – 11:15 Rebecca Folsom
11:30 – 12:30 Steve Seskin
12:45 – 2:00 Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer
2:15 – 3:30 Joel Rafael Band
3:45 – 5:00 Todd Snider
5:15 – 6:30 Peter Himmelman
6:45 – 8:00 Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
8:30 – 10:00 Bruce Hornsby *acts and times subject to change

Planet Bluegrass is located at 500 W. Main St., Lyons. Tickets are $35 for Friday, $40 for Saturday, $40 for Sunday; a three day pass is available for $90. Admittance is free for children under 12 accompanied by paying adult.

Limited camping and parking passes are still available. No dogs allowed. For more information, call 1-800-624-2422 or 303-823-0848 or visit


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