Lyons RockyGrass: 50 years of memories shared
There are a few ways that you can store memories of a great event. One would be lots of photographs. Another would be to write down all the facts, …who, what, when. But the ones that stick with you the longest and clearest, and you can pull out of your brain on a moment’s notice, are the stories you remember. This year, Planet Bluegrass’ RockyFest is celebrating its 50 years anniversary. While the festival started outside of Lyons, and initially had a different name, it is branded in our brains and hearts as just plain Lyons’ Rocky Fest.
Bob Waddell, Colorado Springs, said he has been coming to the festival for 30 years. He has seen many changes, but more so in recent years.
“In the early years, before it got so crowded and popular,” said Bob, “we just parked our car over at the high school or Bohn Park, and walked up to the ticket booth. Now there are long lines to wait in, and rules to follow. There use to be shuttle buses for the tubers, but now they are used for designated parking lots, and the tubers have to walk. But I still love it, and come every year.”
The one year that stands out for him was 2004 when it rained during almost the whole festival weekend. He said people called it “Soggy Grass.” Newcomers to the festival wondered if they’d ever want to come back. But old-timers knew it was normally sunny, like this weekend in 2022, with just a short 10 minute rain.
On the 90 degree final day of the festival, Rondo Scoggins rested for a few minutes on a folding chair by the river, near the campground. He has worked security for ten years. As the workers move up in rank, they request spots near the stage when a favorite is performing. Now, he is the supervisor, and can take an occasional break, of his choosing; and he got to see his favorite artist sing for a half hour with some friends. One of his favorite memories was when Leftover Salmon performed; and his kids got wiped out ‘dancing’ to the music. The one thing he noticed that has changed is that the “grounds have gotten better.”
Attendees come early to set up their chair or shelter tent, but often wander off for an hour or two to grab a bite to eat or check out the vendors, at the festival and/or in town. The earlier acts in the day are not as well-known as the later bands, but all are top quality; and you won’t hear a complaint from the audience. It’s a credit to the band if they can get people clapping, and standing and dancing in the middle of the afternoon (which WeBanjo3 did on Sunday). There seemed to be a lot more shelter tents this year, than in the past. Often strangers would cross over, and share food and laughs.
Bob Koss and Joan Wernick sat with new friends Jayson and daughter Chelsea Levy. Bob and Joan have been coming for more than 30 years. She played in a band at her first Rocky festival, which was Rocky’s 3rd festival, when it was in Henderson. But she downplayed the fact that she had been in several bands, saying that the festival was the star here.
“I’ve been to concerts all over the world, and this is the greatest one,” said Joan. “This festival just evolved into the wonderful festival it is today under Craig Ferguson’s direction, and his staff.”
On the other hand, it was Chelsea and Jayson’s first time at RockyGrass. They were friends of one of the old owners, and had attended the Planet Bluegrass Telluride Bluegrass festival a couple of times. They were in love with the Lyons venue, as you can imagine, with them coming from Manhattan.
One of the things that the musicians and those buying the backstage or VIP tickets can count on is quality food. You might think the backstage food would be an ordinary buffet or sandwiches served quick and easy. But Planet Bluegrass provides meals that you would find at a fine restaurant. Saturday’s meal had pork chops and/or perch, and Sunday’s meal had chicken and/or salmon.
Chef Marcus Chesla started out at Telluride as a cook for two years, and soon became the overall chef for both venues. Taking a peek behind the canvas curtain, you can see that he and his cooks work long hours, but share comfortable friendships, and laughs. They also share their appreciation of the great music, which they may not see performed, but hear backstage. Marcus, having started working the festivals back around 2006, has heard a lot of acts and trained a lot of cooks.
“I love teaching the kids, and then seeing them go out as a cook and work elsewhere,” said Marcus. “One of my favorite memories was when the (Tibetan) monks came and played, and my kids were here. They had a special menu. That’s one thing that’s changed is that we now pay more attention to people’s special dietary needs or restrictions.”
Uwe Kruger, from the Kruger Brothers band, agreed with the joy of teaching. He and his brother Jens perform and teach at the festival’s week-long RockyGrass Academy every other year, since 2004, counting nine times total. Uwe teaches guitar, and Jens teaches banjo.
“We see all these kids grow up and become musicians on their own,” said Uwe. “I perform ‘We walk the fields of gold’ because of the line ‘Watch the children playing as the sun goes down’.”
Planet Bluegrass and KGNU got together and expanded the audience by putting the festival online. The public radio station in Boulder has had a streaming presence since 2008. It now is heard across the US, as well as all over the world.
“We started airing highlights, from 9 a.m. to 12 noon on our ‘Old Grass Gnu Grass’ radio show,” said George Figgs, a staff person who handles the digital aspects, but wears many hats. “Then we went on to stream the entire festival about ten years ago. We were trying to expand our coverage on the radio. It would pre-empt the regular programming. We saw a huge bump in viewership on the weekends, and from web listeners. We got a lot of great feedback. Such as from parents who were excited to hear their kids perform in the instrument contest on Saturday.”
Another couple who met over lunch were Penny and Patrick Andino, from Louisville, and Damema and Brandon Mann, from Lyons. The Mann’s had attended some festivals, and got to know Lyons, and decided to move here in 2004. Brandon’s favorite memory was when three well-known musicians sat down in the tent where acoustic instruments are sold, and they did an impromptu jam back in 1994.
Penny was backstage representing one of the vendors. About 20 years ago, she used to work for the band Yonder Mountain, but now works for Justin’s peanuts, Boulder.
“Yes, we come to hear the music,” said Penny, “but also you find here the great experience that you’re bound to run into other people you know, and connect with friends.”
But it is hard to beat Brandon’s story. He celebrates his birthday each year during the RockyFest weekend. Sometimes the party starts at his home, and sometimes it happens on the festival grounds. But this year he celebrated his 50th birthday on Friday – while Rocky Grass celebrated its 50th anniversary!
1. Preview of Rocky Grass, lesser known bands who rock (7/28/22)
2. Post concert review of bands’ performances
3. 50 Years of Memories, attendees and staff (this article)
4. 50 Year Anniversary, history, facts
5. “It takes a Village to put on a Festival” (award winning photo essay)