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From Hawai`i to RockyGrass:
My Adventures at a Big Bluegrass Festival


This was our first year at the RockyGrass Bluegrass Festival in Lyons, Colorado! Our friend Helen had convinced us to come on a summer road trip on the Mainland. The idea of camping, rivers, mountains, driving at over 38 miles an hour and drinking some frosty beers while hearing some fine bluegrass music proved far too good to resist. We loaded up her Volvo station wagon to the gills in San Francisco, turned Alison Krauss+Union Station up as high as the radio would go, and I uttered the words that would curse us for the next eight days: "Let the road trip begin!"

It began with a whimper. Helen turned the key and the Volvo whined and groaned but wouldn't start. I won't go into the whole ordeal; I'll just say that the car was towed three times on this trip, including once from Mammoth Lakes to Reno! It stranded us on the highway in the middle of the night and in various hotel rooms along the way, and I now know the location of every Volvo dealership west of the Mississippi.

Just a day before the festival started, we were still in southern Utah dodging another forest fire. We drove like hell and finally pulled into the campground in the early morning to the sounds of parking lot bands picking up steam. Our camp neighbor, Jim from Alabama, was a retired teacher and old hand at these shows. He welcomed us to a cozy spot against a line of trees and regaled us with stories of watching little Alison staying up all night as a little girl playing her fiddle in this very campground. We all took a deep breath, popped a top and hung out for a while. We had made it!

Lyons is a fun little town with health food shops, cafes, and biker bars. We had a fair walk to the main show from our campground and I would advise anyone who goes to try to get camping right up close--I'm not sure what you have to do to get the cherry spot, but it's worth it! They did have bus service to get us close but it was still a bit of a hike, especially once the silver bullets kicked in.

RockyGrass has been going for thirty-five years now and always has a solid line-up. The site of the show is perfect! A river runs right through the venue and all day folks were swimming, dipping their feet in the river, tubing and watching the kids have a blast. It was a real family time; I'd definitely recommend going if you have kids. The atmosphere in the campgrounds was wonderful. I heard some of the better shows right near my tent at four in the morning. A beautiful long red cliff runs along the side of the stage, and it lit up in the evenings with an alpine glow. There was a bit of a mad dash for seating in the mornings, but our lazy asses always found a great spot when we rolled in later in the day.

Chris Thile from Nickel Creek played a great show with his own How To Grow A Band featuring Bryan Sutton. David Grisman also put on a good show the first evening. I was glad to see him back to the bluegrass! But Del McCoury really stole the first night with some fast pickin' that rang through the whole town and had folks dancing like mad things.

The second day was a bit of a blur for me but the afternoon show with Grisman, Bush and Jesse McReynolds was an odyssey through the different sounds, styles and history of this music we love, done uniquely with their own flair and skill shining through. Also, I was lucky enough to randomly catch the best performance of the whole experience for me at the second stage. The Biscuit Burners, an up-and-coming band from Asheville, NC, played with the Greencards, a fun trio comprised of two Australians and a Brit. What a time! I heard some fantastic Dobro (I just got one and am trying to learn--wish me luck!), and the bassist must have been seven months pregnant, still plucking away with the shiniest smile you've ever seen. They had that buzz that happens when people who play for the first time together just make great music! Look out for the Biscuit Burners: they played again the next day and I got some of their CDs at the show and afterwards. It is all just beautiful, heartfelt mountain bluegrass. Best new band by far.

The Sunday morning gospel set was my wife's favorite. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver owned the stage and the crowd. It was a magical moment, listening to old-time themes, riffs and soul while we all soaked in the cool river water. The afternoon was a delight, with Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys; Cherryholmes, an inspiring family band; and Marty Stuart. Nickel Creek played last and they were something of a disappointment. Although Sara Watkins really stole the show with her eerily commanding fiddle, the band is at an end and their show was slow and moody--too bad, because I think the crowd wanted to be sent off with a bang! Luckily, us happy campers were not ready to quit and we jammed all night with a wonderful couple from Florida rocking out behind their motorhome, watching the wonderful ebb and flow of pickers and singers as they came in and out of our jam.

The next day we packed up and headed out, ready to form a band of our own and go on the road! There was a large map near the festival entrance, and people stuck pins in it to mark where they were from. It was sweet to know that there were folks from every one of the Hawaiian Islands there, including other people from our own town of Pahoa on the Big Island! We knew they were there, though we never got to meet 'em.

It was wonderful to see some of our favorite musicians out in the crowd, dancing with us and hanging out! We were impressed to hear about the instrument and band contests at the festival. Winners receive fancy new instruments and a spot on the main stage next year as their prizes! There are many other shows and festivals happening nearby at that time of year, as well as workshops for aspiring musicians in the days before the show. The show was three solid days of sun, good food, great beer and fantastic music, and I recommend it to anyone. Hope to see you there next year.

Graham Silbermann


Graham Silbermann lives in Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawai`i.

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