Closing out the month of July, the production triumph that is Planet Bluegrass made the magic happen once again with the legendary three-day event RockyGrass. Taking place in the tiny town full of talent Lyons, Colorado, and celebrating its 51st birthday, Festivarians were treated yet again to an event that was run with precision and care on the beautiful grounds of Planet Bluegrass’ homebase, resulting in an experience that generated a whole slew of new memories and music for the five thousand faithful lucky enough to get passes to this sold-out weekend.
Arriving with an hour to spare before the daily opening ceremonies, warm hearts, and shining faces lined the main drive, waiting to get their best seat in the field for the all-day experience. Like many the modern-day event, RockyGrass honors the early birds with a numbered early entry system, distributing physical digits to reward those willing to put in the effort of being early, prompting many in the line to trade for a better lot or give away their position as friends and teammates end up with more fortuitous ranks. Walking the deserted grounds only moments from the start of yet another glorious day of music, scattered employees and guests could be seen putting on the final touches, doing yoga in the nearly vacant landscape, or taking in the last moments of the nearly silent morning before it all got going, the calm before the welcomed storm if you will.
Following a calm, courteous, and organized soft opening for ADA, the time finally arrived for the main gates to open wide, welcoming the stampede right at the mark of ten, and, as the droves ran for the front with tarps in hand, The William Tell Overture playing over the PA, the green field of empty grass, under blue skies and bright sun, quickly filled with the sights and sounds of yet another day of good living. The crowd ranging in every age seemed ready for more and no one demonstrated any signs of fatigue here on day three, the crowd psyched once again to take in this final day of the weekend.
For the cap of the weekend trifecta, as with any day at this special place, Sunday’s lineup was stacked with incredible talent from both the new and old schools. With seventy-five-minute sets give or take interspersed with thirty-minute buffers, the Main Stage roster included a curated all-star set titled The Solar Sisters, followed by the remainder of the day with The Stillhouse Junkies, Jeremy Garrett and River Wild, Fireside Collective, AJ Lee and Blue Summitt, Peter Rowan’s Bluegrass Band, and finally Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway to close out the night.
With the clock hitting half past the hour, the talented multi-instrumentalist and voice of Planet Bluegrass, Annie Sirotniak, sidled up to the microphone with a smile and a whole heart to welcome everyone:
Well, good morning RockyGrass, and hello Festivarians! It is time to gather along the flowing waters of the St. Vrain this beautiful Sunday morning to rejoice together in the RockyGrass gospel. We have a very special collaboration this morning to lift our hearts. Let’s start the day with The Solar Sisters, which are KC Groves on mandolin, Kyra Holt on banjo, Bevin Foley on fiddle, bassist Erin Youngberg, and Amy Scher on guitar. They are going to be joined by sisters Meg and Maddie Cody and maybe just one or two or ten more of their family of musical friends. Please welcome The Solar Sisters featuring the Cody Sisters.
The special collaborative set got started with the appropriate cover of Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”. Led by ‘opera singer turned bluegrass junkie at her first bluegrass festival’ Megan Morino, this one welcomed the steady flow of attendees trickling in, many happily displaying some of the symptoms and remedies mentioned in the song.
With The Sisterhood recognizing the addition of guitar talent Tyler Grant, the group moved into the upbeat gospel traditional “Sun’s Gonna Shine in My Backdoor Someday”. Hazel Dickens’ “Won’t You Come and Sing For Me?” was up next and came on strong and soulful. Released by Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard in the 1960s, a duo often noted as breaking the glass ceiling of the male-dominated genre, this tune rang genuine and inspired being performed by these powerful ladies.
Taking a moment, KC Groves paused to introduce some of her peers, namely Bevin Foley of Trout Steak Revival and guitarist Amy Scher before pivoting and bringing some bluegrass brothers to the sisterly stage. Groves first welcomed Martin Gillmore on guitar and described him as being akin to ‘the man baby of James Taylor and Tim O’Brien’, a comment that had Gillmore receiving resounding applause. Adding more talent to the already full stage, mandolinist Jason Norris stepped up and reported that this beautiful morning was ‘the first time in thirteen years he had been on the RockyGrass stage’. Pulling out another traditional and keeping with the Sunday theme, “Gospel Plow” was next, led by Gillmore, and tilled the fields of the festival grounds, making ready the earth of Planet Bluegrass to receive the seeds of love throughout the day.
Deepening the talent pool, Groves welcomed to the stage Boulder-based mandolinist Steve Remmert to front the ever-expanding family with the Lambert, Ingram, and Randall original “Amazing Grace (West Texas)” of the 2021 collaborative release The Marfa Tapes. The vocal harmonies were as sweet and cool as the dewy morning air of the moment and sounded pitch-perfect, no easy feat considering the number of people on stage.
Introducing the low end of The Solar Sisters, bassist Erin Youngberg sang “It’s A Beautiful Life” from Jerry Douglas’ album Slide Rule, and not only did she nail the lyrics and playing but did it having just run a 60K race the day before. Of note, she did have a stool at standby if the race in the rearview and the musical marathon taking place became too much.
Keeping the revolving door of the feminine force spinning, The Cody Sisters Megan and Maddie brought their guitar and banjo and shared Gillian Welch’s “Red Dirt Halo”. Reducing to a trio, The Cody Sisters with ‘Will (Pavilonis) on the bass’, added some speed to the set with some great musical caffeine, flatpicking on Gordon Lightfoot’s “Cold on the Shoulder”.
Filling the stage once again, the hour of girl power continued and added proclaimed banjo-lego master Abigail Washburn and progeny Juno to join the mix and were followed by Washburn’s Uncle Earl compatriot Kristen Andreassen. Emmylou Harris’ “Bright Morning Stars” called to the angels, acapella style, and gave a great opportunity for onlookers to center and reflect on the power of the pipes as a multitude of voices belted this out as one.
Keeping the Sunday theme alive and well, Andreassen led the ever-expanding group on the next traditional tune “I’m Gonna Wear That Starry Crown Over There”. “The River Jordan” followed and was led by Devin Foley, flowing peaceably like the child-filled waters of the St. Vrain bordering the grounds, many parents taking in the innocence at the river’s edge.
Closing out the set with a high note, the assembly brought out vocal powerhouse Bonnie Sims to the stage to run through the Springcreek song “High Up In The Mountains”, this one left everyone, everywhere charged and prepped for a great day of music.
Following a quick stage change out, Sirotniak returned to stage left to introduce the next group:
Winners of the IBMA 2021 Momentum Band of the Year, this Durango, Colorado-grown trio is now on the road full-time and their chemistry together elevates every performance. Ranging from Texas swing to classical and blues, they are here today to bring their undeniable groovy aesthetic nuanced songwriting craft, and stop-you-in-your-tracks harmonies. Consider us junkies, and give them a great big RockyGrass welcome: The Stillhouse Junkies.
Opening with “No Ambition”, the words of Sirotniak never rang truer. From great harmonies and tight musicianship, this one proved to be the first track of this fine Sunday morning that would put some jam in the middle of the breakfast biscuits. The sweet reserves of the middle contained varied textures, including Bolero-colored measures and a slow build that ended with everyone lining up for another hit. Fading into a bass solo from Cody Tinnin on the upright, the group moved as a unit into another of their originals “On The House”. Getting the hips off the field swinging, this got more than a few up from their seats to shake off the recovery rust of the previous day and welcome the new with an open heart and a groove in their feet. This one was filled with great chopping and line work from fiddle siren Alissa Wolf. In the end, the trio returned to “No Ambition” and got a noticeable round of applause with the coda.
Taking to the mic, guitarist Fred Kosak shared his appreciation:
Holy Moley! I cannot imagine a more beautiful sight for us to get to stand in front of so thank you so much for making this festival the most magical experience anywhere on planet Earth!
Chiming in agreement, the crowd let the band know their efforts were appreciated. As the rousing recognition faded, “River of Lost Souls”, a tale of the Animas River that runs through Durango, kept the turbulent tuneful waters turning. Coming off their 2022 release Small Towns, this track contained some serious bow work by Wolf as Tinnin and Kosak provided the punchy backdrop. Another great creation, this one shifted from fast friction to light and alluring, pulling the listeners in intently.
Keeping the segues coming and coloring the air with more images of their part of the Centennial State, the trio shifted into the upbeat with the boot-scootin’ “Saturday Night”. Referencing the town of Mancos in the first stanza, this invitation to go out and paint the town red finished with a bang and even had the band changing the final city reference to Lyons.
Although heralding from Durango, the band recognized that this stop at RockyGrass was their first return home in two months and that they could not think of a better welcome home gift than playing to great people in a beautiful place supported by the care and diligence of the incredible people at Planet Bluegrass. From the response they got to these feelings, it was true, once again, that they were not alone in their assessment. Keeping things moving and showing that this band is always working on something, Kosak introduced the next selection as a new unreleased piece penned in January. “Hold On To It”, with its uplifting hook, was quality through and through. Inspired and warm, this one proved audibly that the band is loving what they are doing, holding onto their dream in the making.
Intent on packing in as much as they could, “Haskell Town” picked up the pace again and the Kosak inferno tore through the canyon. Flatpicking with fury, the centerpiece had everyone focused stageward, listening to the barrage of notes. Tinnin’s vocal delivery was quality continued, delivering this tale of Kansas with heart and soul.
As Planet Bluegrass and the genre, itself are built firmly on the foundation of community, it certainly seemed fitting to spotlight one of the people instrumental, pun intended, in making the notes possible. In preparation for the next choice and the special acoustic tool about to be employed, Kosak took a moment:
Bobby Wintringham is front and center right here folks. Back in 2019, we all went to a show at Delores River Brewing and Bobby was there with this octave mandolin that he had just built and let me take it for a spin. I played it and said, ‘the next time you are thinking of building one, please let me know because this is amazing’. Fast forward another year or so and I have this beautiful instrument in my hands. This is a Colorado-made octave mandolin so I would like to thank Bobby for that and if you haven’t met Bobby, he is one of the best instrument builders in the world.
Following the recognition, Wolf stepped to the mic and steered her original “El Camino”, describing it as ‘a pandemic tune for the lovers of a weird car’. Co-written with fiddler Becky Buller out of Nashville and written for no particular reason other than affinity, this tale of automotive love starting in Vermont and ending in abandonment high up in Telluride, this one checked all the boxes and was warmly received.
Acknowledging their families and thanking them for their gifts, “Colorado Bound”, also from the Small Towns album, was described by Kosak as being inspired by ‘his grandpa Al road-tripping across the country from northern Minnesota to the West Coast in the 1940’s family Ford. He kept his speed at 35 miles an hour because he figured out, he would save the most money that way’. Just like Al, this one took its time across the musical landscape but caught all the scenic vistas along the road, making the most of the journey.
Keeping the new stuff coming, “Moonrise Over Ridgeway” was told by Tinnin as emanating as ‘a sci-fi thriller integrated with his own Star Trek obsession, containing cowboys, alien abduction, and time travel in Compadre Wilderness in Ridgeway Colorado.' With a strong gallop, this unique piece just kept everyone smiling and grooving.
With the final note, the band pushed into “Roll It Home” off their first release Calamity. This one was written for all the musicians and crew out there who schlep the gear endlessly to do their part in making the music happen. For those paying close attention, Kosak threw in a tease of Phish’s “First Tube”. Appropriately to the tune, Wolf took time to thank the crew and sound engineers for making everyone sound so good at Planet Bluegrass, an observation everyone was happy to agree with.
Another newcomer, “1963” was introduced as a song dedicated to anyone who is aging and cool with it. Packed with a feeling of nostalgia, this one proved to be another quality creation and was enjoyed by many. Hitting up another small town from Colorado, “Five Doors Down in Leadville” spoke of a traveler leaving the high-country town in the fall and setting out for the unknown, the narrator reminding the main character that the porch light will always be lit at ten thousand feet above sea level if ever they want to return to the comfort and sanctuary of home. Once again, the harmonies and musical structure were spot on and from the seventy minutes presented on this fine Sunday, this group got a lot of new customers hooked this weekend.
To close out the set, the band opted for a cover and prefaced ‘that as a Colorado band, we are obligated to play a certain number of Grateful Dead songs per year, and we don’t want to lose our license. We want to remain in good standing with the state.’ Appropriately, this one was deadicated to sound engineer David Glasser sitting down front, whose laundry list of mastering credits includes a multitude of Grateful Dead reissues for more than a decade. Getting to it and starting with a lengthy intro, “Brown Eyed Women'' was the choice, and by the end, Glasser was not the only one wearing a Jerry-sized smile.
As the day continued, the sun climbed high and many took refuge in the shade of the family area and more and more friends and families were seen getting into their tubes and shorts, submerging themselves in the cool river waters of The Saint. Children lined the banks with all sorts of squirting devices, spraying those floating by, giggling, knowing full well that their smiling victims weren’t going to exit their crafts to set them straight, their parents encouraging them with laughter and helping them to pick out their next targets.
Prompted to introduce the next group, Sirotniak returned to keep the day going:
You know him, you love him, and he’s best known for his strong bluesy fiddle work with The Dusters. That, plus his soul-searching singing style gets in your ear and stays there. You are going to hear yet another aspect of his musicality today as he performs right here, right now on our RockyGrass stage. Please give him a great big welcome, Jeremy Garrett and River Wild.
Sporting a clean-shaven face and his usual impish grin, Garrett stepped to the mic and welcomed everyone. Wasting no time he opened the set with a cover of Blue Highway’s “Say, Won’t You Be Mine”. Booming with confidence, this new project River Wild started the set off as a fused unit, sounding as though they had been playing together for a long, long time.
Checking in with the festival in full swing, Garrett spoke:
It's really great to be back here at RockyGrass so thanks for having us. I’ve been doing this festival a long time, since I was a kid I guess, you know, playing in different configurations over the years and it's always a blast. Planet Bluegrass is the best, right?
Next up was a piece inspired by the imagery of how the harrowed waters of The Colorado begin. Whether by rain or snowmelt, the title tracks off of Garrett’s latest endeavor, “(I Am The) River Wild'' cut like the erosive precipitative flow does, barrelling through stone, washing away everything in its path. Garrett’s vocal range certainly sends shivers up the spine, able to hit those high notes that just fuel excitement.
Pulling yet another product from his fertile ground, “Potato Farmer” also from River Wild, contained some incredible mando / fiddle exchanges. This instrumental’s high-stepping strut had the band tilling the ground, planting seeds that eventually bloomed into an incredible bounty of tasty delights and superb musicianship.
Taking time to introduce some of the band, Garrett drew the attention to Shadowgrass guitarist Kyser George, this player getting full recognition of his talent from Garrett himself with an invitation to check out his band currently out on the road in force. Moving on to one of Garrett’s favorite banjo players, Ryan Cavanaugh got warm accolades as well from both Garrett and the audience.
After a tight and speedy version of another one off the new album, “What’s That You’re Doin’?”, Garrett turned his sights on Shawn Layne from Blue Highway. Giving high marks to his incredible wrist action, Garrett prodded the audience to encourage Layne to sing for everyone, Layne’s response: “Steam-Powered Aeroplane” by the one and only John Hartford. Leaving the runway, Garrett got the first turn at the stick, eventually handing it off to Cavanaugh. Layne’s vocals rang with the Hartford drawl and his mando centerpiece kept the crowd dancing to the classic bluegrass piece. Eric Thorin’s bassline held the fuselage together and when the craft finally landed, the passengers celebrated their flight crew, having enjoyed both the altitude and turbulence.
Shifting the vibe entirely and throwing down with some serious blues dynamics, Garrett’s penmanship once again demonstrated he has been hard at work, bringing out another new piece with “In the Blink of an Eye”. Soulful, sinful, and sweet, this demonstrated the many hats this man and these players can put on at a moment’s notice. The end had Garrett bobbing and heaving in a heated battle with his fiddle, finishing the tune with a rapture.
For the new album, “Burnin’ The Slash” is a solo fiddle tune, but what got unpacked next on that stage was not so much solo as it was solos. Prompted by an invitation for Kyser George ‘to pick us a guitar tune’, this one was lit from the first notes. George’s flatpicking blur was frictionless and smoking, Garrett grabbed the embers second, and Cavanaugh met the two, fanning the growing flames. Reaching speeds unimaginable, Layne hit it all, and with sparks flying, fireworks blew across the field, dropping jaws and taunting listeners and dancers to try to keep up with the inferno.
Possibility discombobulated from the last tune and thinking that his set time was quickly approaching its end, Garrett shared with the crowd his appreciation:
This is really just a ton of fun always, every time at RockyGrass. Thanks again for having us out here. We got time for one, maybe two more, we’re keeping an eye on the clock up here and keeping things on time. You all are just awesome, always a great crowd! Thanks for supporting us and having us out here today. Let's do it again sometime, alright?
With the crowd cheering in reciprocation, Garrett gets the notification that he has plenty of time from another staple and familiar face around these parts, Skip The Stage Manager, and retracts, “My time is way off. Nevermind. Nevermind anything I just said”, chuckling as the band kept on pickin’.
“Once You’re Gone” kept the Sunday picnic going and everyone seemed to love listening to more of Garrett’s new album. Short, simple, and to the point, this one added more quality to the set.
“In A Song” followed and was described as one of the first songs Garrett and co-writer Josh Shilling ever put together. The two have brought many a work to both the Stringduster songbook as well as to Shiling’s band Round Mountain. Garrett spoke about their relationship and how rewarding it is to get together with the same writing partner over and over again. This new old tune also finds itself on the latest Garrett creation and the live product was a testament to the power of the singer/songwriter collaborative dynamic and this once indeed defined that truth.
The instrumental “Bird of Prey” flew high over Lyons, rising and soaring on warm thermals and circling towards the bright sun. From the onset, the tune encapsulated the lofty vista, while the midsection concerned itself more with the hunt, becoming a bit frantic and dark, in search of prey attempting to escape its inevitable end. With food in hand, the lot returned to its perch and enjoyed the spoils of its labor.
Also included on River Wild, Garrett’s take on Bill Monroe’s “Kentucky Waltz” was recognized from its start and well received. Garrett belted out the lines, once again showing his range, passion, and connection to the old school. The melody dribbled like summer honey, moving at its own pace, dropping sweet nothings along its path as the musicians filled and flowed, leaving no gap between them.
As there is a myriad of translations of the traditional “Dig a Hole in the Meadow”, in researching the lyrics, the amalgam that Garrett produced contained a mix of multiple interpretations, including Flatt and Scruggs, Woody Guthrie, and John Hartford to name a few. The instrumental jam section was over the top and had plenty of room for everyone to take a moment to undertake this labor of love. Garrett’s vocals were haunting over the looming structure of the tune and his guttural delivery had many turning away from their conversations and paying attention stageside.
Pulling another from the home team, co-written with longtime Colorado collaborator Benny ‘Burle’ Galloway, “Oh Little Darlin’” was described by Garrett as one of the pieces that he and Burle put together during one of their early writing sessions. Capturing that old-time mountain sound, this one rang with Burle’s voice and the echo of the Rockies.
Introduced as a banjo tune to close it out, the instrumental unknown to these ears was so much more than just that. Feeling more like a dizzying acoustic merry-go-round that spun the Planet faster and faster, pulling everybody from their seat and tarp with centrifugal fusion force, whatever this choice was, it left the crowd with something to talk about, specifically the desire to take the ride again on the class five waters of Garrett and River Wild.
Pausing once again for the stage change out, more and more folks trickled in, and with only three bands in, the morning population had filled quite a bit of the listening grounds, making it more difficult to find a spot for the larger groups who had opted to sleep in. Whether early or late, the sun was climbing, and everyone was starting to feel the heat of the high noon sun.
Up next was the progressive bluegrass outfit Fireside Collective and this five-piece wonder machine out of North Carolina kept the wheels spinning from the very first note. The band hit the stage pedal to the floor with the anything-but-traditional J.P. Nestor original “Train on the Island”. Cohesive and tight, the band grabbed the attention of everyone right from the start. Finishing the lyrical content, the band went full jam mode, employing pedals and effects while mandolinist Jesse Laquinto addressed the audience, welcoming everyone in and advising all about their intent for fun. Without a breath or pause, the eight-minute jam of the opener turned in mid-air to the band’s high-energy “Let It Ride”. With a great solo from bassist Carson White, the one-two punch of an introduction to the band had the immediate fans of The Collective seriously tuning in.
Pulling one from their new album Across The Divide, “Blue Is My Condition”, written by dobro devil Tommy Maher, this one kept the celebration hot. From great lyrics and even better instrumental execution, many were dancing feverishly. Teasing some U2 in the HUGE ending apex, these gentlemen kept their reputation intact by delivering once again what they are widely known for: the unexpected. The short, sweet, and peppy “Circles” added to the warmth of the afternoon and the soft embrace of Laquinto’s mando produced many a smile across the field of green.
As expected, Little Feat’s “Willin’” had the crowd singing along. Sounding off with great harmonies, the band showed that their vocal chops matched their musical ones. Played at a faster pace than the original, the rework reflected their love for making their endeavors all their own, and guitarist’s Joe Cicero lead would have made Lowell George proud.
Another new one penned by Laquinto, “When You Fall” carried the expected inspirational message and the exploration had the author reaching for the skies, taking an extended solo and bouncing off each of his brothers.
Although heralding from the South, the group showed that the ties of the bluegrass community know no bounds and brought up Travis Book from The Infamous Stringdusters for a run on The ‘Dusters’ “Rise Sun”. Although Book would be welcome on any bluegrass stage, the band’s connection to him runs deep, not only through the shared regional roots but also as a co-conspirator in producing the band’s third album Elements released in 2020. Taking the lead vocal position, the band supported the lineman with enthusiastic instrumentation and backup harmonies that showed their appreciation even further for this man’s contribution to their journey.
Introduced as being ‘played in the key of love’, the group gave up another one from Across The Divide with “I’m Givin’ In”. Maher drove this one vocally, steering the vehicle with his dobro slide action. The group moved in unity and showed off their chops individually in the slow build, hitting the mark, and making everyone live the key they were playing in. With smiles and dancing abounding, The Collective took the amorous dynamic higher, shifting into everyone’s favorite bluegrass tune, Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”. Singing along, the audience loved the left turn. Another deep dip in the low end from Carson White followed by a banjo-led ascent to the end had everyone shaking their bones and calling out when Laquinto kept the good time rolling by moving right into another Simon favorite “Diamonds on the Soul of Her Shoes”. With applause to match the obvious love across Planet Bluegrass, Maher took a moment to recognize Simon and Graceland as ‘one of the greatest albums of all time’ and filled the crowd in on the fact that the preceding medley of goodness was a first for the band, a special Collective collection prepared especially for their stage time at RockyGrass to honor the love they always get at this annual event.
Closing the set, the band chose to do a Townes Van Zandt tune about their favorite state, reeling off “Colorado Girl”. With a majority of their tunes performed with fire, the brotherhood had plenty left in the tank as the finishing piece burned just as brightly as any other one in their set.
The award-winning and talented AJ Lee and Blue Summit were up next. Unfortunately, or fortunately, however, one might look at it, I was busy with my mandolin-playing son having a moment with Sam Bush over in the General Store where the King of Telluride was signing autographs, shaking hands, and exchanging with everyone taking the time to stop by for some face time.
By the time I got back to the action, AJ Lee and Blue Summit were in the thick of it, tearing out a great rendition of “Still Love You Still”. With her distinct sensual vocal character, AJ poured out the words to the open ears already in love with her voice, while guitarist Scotty Gates ripped it up on all six strings that eventually got handed over to Sullivan “Sully” Tuttle for some flat-picking magic.
Following that bit of quality pickin’, Gates kept the energy high by leading the Sunday gathering through a great rendition of Alex Leach’s lonesome tune “Mountain Heartache”. Although there is no banjo on the Blue Summitt, the instrumentation was as authentic as any bluegrass outfit out there and the dual guitar dynamic of Gates and Tuttle fueled itself into many a great moment. Jan Purat’s fiddle mastery certainly took no backseat on this one, hitting all the right notes and the man behind the bow visibly enjoying it all.
After receiving a round of warm accolades from the audience, Lee stepped up and announced that it was the band’s first time on the RockyGrass stage, a fact that was hard to believe based on the tight and tasty musicianship that had been demonstrated only a few tunes in. Adding to the story, Lee also welcomed everyone to celebrate Gates’ birthday alongside the band. With a loud swell of well-wishing, Lee turned the attention back to the music and served up the new tune “Hillside” from their yet-to-be-released upcoming album.
Starting off low and hollow, Lee’s lone words echoed out of the canyon walls, the rest of the strings building quietly to meet the chorus. Lee got some solo time to caress the ear and like her intro, the tune closed with her notes fading off into the air. Keeping it in the same vein, the melancholy “When You Change Your Mind” from the band’s 2021 release I’ll Come Back was approved by the fans accordingly and provided the opportunity to take in the complexity and finish of the band.
Introducing Sully Tuttle, the mild-mannered gent of few words stepped to the microphone with a smile and shifted the setting from bluegrass to swing with a rapid-fire cover of Bob Wills’ “Who Walks In When I Walk Out?”. Although all the solos cooked with this one, Purat’s fiddle just sizzled. With an energetic rift, “Faithful” followed the Bob Wills tune perfectly and kept many dancing and inspired others to do so.
Introduced as ‘a very famous country number’, Gates sang a slowed down, countrified version of The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer”. Although one would think this a comical bit and this one certainly got a bit of laughter at the introduction, the tune done as a country ballad actually came off perfectly, and the leading lines were refined, interesting, and certainly nothing to laugh about.
With hints of Joni, “To Mine” off their first album Like I Used To started from a vulnerable space, but when it got to the improvisation, it was a whole different beast completely. The fiddle-led race and key changes had everyone turning at all the right moments, eventually settling back into the lyrics, AJ painting the air with her range.
Celebrating their illustrious leader and reiterating this being her first RockyGrass performance, AJ Lee’s bandmates made sure to provide Ms. Lee her moment in the sun by asking everyone to put their hands together for the songbird and skilled picker that she is. Honored and overwhelmed with the fanfare, she stood there thanking everyone with her heart wide open.
Following the recognition, Lee replied simply, “So happy to be here. Sometimes you have to take a pause and appreciate the little things you have in life”, a statement everyone eagerly agreed with. Inspired by this truth, Lee introduced the next perspective born of the adage, titled “Lemons and Tangerines”. Hitting with an acoustic Motown feel, Lee gave off tenderness and grit all at the same time and there was certainly nothing sour about this choice, leaving the lucky full of the appreciation regarded at the introduction.
Getting back to Bluegrass, the next Blue Summit selection was a cover of Cadillac Sky’s “I Wish I Could Say That I Was Drinkin’”. This expeditious undertaking was filled with so many lightning-speed solos that before everyone knew it, it was over and the only things left were well-earned sweat and an increased heart rate alongside the smiles that increased in number with every song of the set, begging the question again ‘how come it took so long to get this band to the RockyGrass stage?’
Providing more info on the recent studio endeavor of the band, Lee indicated that even though she has historically done most of the writing for the band, Gates, Purat, and Tuttle were all mentioned as being contributors on the next release, set to come out in the early months of 2024. A father/son Tuttle creation, “Seaside Town” showed that Sully’s penmanship and voice proved to be as talented as his pickin’, and as his father looked up from the first few rows, one could see how endearing the moment was for both of these men. The music of this one moved much like the populace of its setting: at its own pace, with no hurry to be anywhere but to be in the moments that change so very little and are filled with the familiar, innocent, and genuine.
Although Scott Gates’ birthday celebration had been mentioned a few times up to this point, Lee finally took the time to put music to the message and prompted the band and the audience to join in. Starting off with a slow waltz intro, Lee reached the end of the first stanza and counted off a significantly more upbeat tempo, the band exploding into an incredibly fast finish to the yeartide tune, leaving Gates and the band laughing and enjoying the celebratory occasion.
Hijinks and embarrassment of Mr. Gates aside, Lee introduced another new unpublished design, the Gates written and led “Bakersfield Clay”. Regarded by Lee at the moment as her ‘favorite song in the set’, this leisurely spiritual moved deliberately, both physically and emotionally, and its sweet delivery added even more anticipation to the prospect of a new Blue Summit to climb in the near future. Gates crooning quivered and quaked and struck at the heart as that intent on the passage swayed by the breeze-bathed trees that bordered the periphery. Finishing with some impressive yodeling, the close found the crowd seconding Lee’s endorsement of the new one.
Written when she was 15 years old as a ‘not-your-ordinary gospel number’, Lee’s “Put Your Head Down” was yet another testament that this vocalist, instrumentalist, and writer has been blessed with some serious talent for an exceptionally long time. Belting it with power and ferocity, this one might just get someone thrown out of some churches if it was played on a Sunday, coming off more like Saturday night than the sabbath.
Introduced as a sing-along, Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” had individuals becoming couples, spinning each other, barefoot and dusty, as time in the meadow slowed, losing many to the moment. Dreamy and touching, Tuttle danced on the harmonics of the fretboard and eventually added a steel drum effect to his guitar, Gates following with his own synth dynamic, making the end interesting and unexpected.
With a final band headcount, the group sealed the deal with a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Down Along The Dixie Line” and closed it all out with a bang. AJ Lee and Blue Summit showed everything they had over the seventy-five minutes before them and walking away, many were happy to say that they would be back to catch the view from atop their mountain.
For eighty-one years, the world has been blessed with the presence of Peter Rowan, and for much of that time, this wellspring of perspective has contributed significantly to the creative world in chord and phrase and considering the gravity of this, how could someone introduce such a person, with so much history and connection in a succinct manner? Well, leave it to Sirotniak to do her best:
It is such an honor to welcome this man and his band to our RockyGrass stage. He wails, he yodels, he howls, and always delivers. He joined The Bluegrass Boys in 1963 and created a unique musical bond that birthed ‘The Walls of Time’, an enduring bluegrass classic. His hallmark is a Keating delivery fused with a groovy bluesyness. Now in his eighth decade, he rides the winds of Tex-Mex, Reggae, and Folk, while still staying true to his singer/songwriter roots. Where would the music be without Midnight Moonlight, Thirsty in the Rain, and Free Mexican Airforce? We are thrilled to have Panama Red himself back here at the 51st annual RockyGrass. Will you please help me make him welcome, Peter Rowan!
Without a word, the quintet jumped right into the appropriate nod to The Father of Bluegrass himself Bill Monroe by tearing through the instrumental “Tallahassee”. Although the intro was a little bumpy, the group pulled it together, and by the end, the acoustic machine was firing on all cylinders.
Getting a collaborative welcome from the crowd, Rowan took a moment to introduce renowned flat picker, David Grier, “We sprung him out of Nashville for a bit”, creating a good bit of laughter and applause. Of note, Grier’s father, Lamar, like Rowan, served a stint in the 1960s with Monroe as one of The Bluegrass Boys.
Next up was a great rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country”. A little bit country and a whole lot of Appalachia, Rowan’s vocals sounded as tried and true as ever. Fiddle player Julian Pinelli’s sorrowful solo expanded nicely over Max Wareham’s banjo pops.
Sticking with the Dylan songbook, “I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine” was up next. Chris Henry’s gentle mando fanning filled the body of the cover and the soul of the listeners simultaneously. Grier got a chance to share his skill and Rowan followed with just a taste, tantalizing the audience to more.
Pulling from his ongoing, unending catalog of creation, he optioned from his 2022 album Calling You From My Mountain with “A Winning Hand”. This one rang with that warmth that so many of Rowan’s tunes resonate with and define at least a portion of his multifaceted talent.
As the rest of the band tuned, Rowan took a moment to recognize the leading man on the next selection, and accepting the distinction and decoration, Julian Pinelli nodded to the crowd with a smile. Tex Logan’s “Come Along Jody” got started with Pinelli’s bow and string, but there was certainly enough room for Henry to pick up the pace with some great mando fuel. The leads just kept on coming, Wareham changing it up by clawing in the offbeat, Grier following and putting it on thick, fast, and furious. Rowan’s picking was solid and steady before handing the center back to Pinelli who closed it out. Rowan added following the final note, “Tex wrote that number about trying to round up his daughter at a bluegrass festival”, prompting Rowan to laugh along with the audience at the imagery, “Come along, little Jody”, he said.
Another new one by Rowan, “From My Mountain” had the legend pull new school talents Molly Tuttle and Lindsey Lou to join in. With Tuttle adding her skill on guitar as well as vocals and Lou completing the trinity of tone, the trio backed by The Bluegrass Band, intertwined so sweetly and soundly, that one could have listened to that blessing all day. Of note, Tuttle contributed on both vocals and banjo on the studio version of this one. Obviously feeling it from their side of the stage too, the whole group smiled in the wash of the finish, and the feminine force stuck with the astute gentlemen for another.
As Rowan loves the storytelling of song, anyone who knows him knows that he shares the same joy in sharing the history of the creations he puts to work. Before getting to the next choice, he quipped, “We would like to sing an old number that I had the great honor of writing with Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass. We went on a long journey in a bus called ‘The Bluegrass Breakdown’ that finally lived up to its name. We stopped at the edge of a little canyon called Horse Caves, Kentucky, and Bill stepped out of the bus and said, ‘Listen good to this Pete and don’t you ever forget it’ and I said, ‘Listen good to THIS and don’t you ever forget it’, so we wrote this one together called the “Walls of Time”.
With its inviting descending progression, this definitive always pulls everyone in quickly. Tuttle, Rowan, and Lou’s reading kept opening the hearts of everyone listening. Pinelli got the first run, sliding it out supple and slow. The second stanza had Henry adding some great texture and as the words drifted on the afternoon breeze, Rowan filled the air with golden certainty and confidence that spurred goosebumps throughout the patronage. Henry jumped back in after the third verse and picked up the pace, throwing some good ol’ shred grass over the top. Tuttle got a turn at the wheel and for anyone watching her lead, all we could say is that woman is talent incarnate.
Beaming like the sun, Rowan threw out a big thanks to Molly and Lindsay Lou, the crowd recognizing and celebrating the added skill, the two powerhouses’ youthful smiles said it all as the crowd stood clapping and whistling.
Keeping things moving, Rowan handed over the program to the man to his right, “Alright Chris Henry, take it away buddy. Give us that good ol’ gospel. We got some songs we want you to sing along with. Are you ready to sing? It’s Sunday after all!”, the congregation shouting their proclamation of agreement.
Stepping to the pulpit, Brother Henry spoke, “Whether you believe in the almighty Rubik’s Cube or the Pleadian Elven Goddess or the Seven Buddhas or the Ten Buddhas or even good ol’ Jesus Christ himself, we want you to go ahead and sing along with us if you want to. It's going to switch up a little bit. You’re going to know ‘em because we all love ‘em, we can all do it together here harmoniously. So, if you’ve been looking for the chance to sing, here we go. How about ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’?”
Touched by the spirit, the believers gave themselves over to the soul of the traditional tune and joined in accordingly, the band often going silent so as to let those bearing witness be heard. Although served up as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”, Henry worked in portions of “I Saw The Light” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, making it a true gospel medley that even got an acapella finish. At the end, Henry enthusiastically added, “That’s good singing, neighbors! We appreciate that up here today!”
The instrumental “The World is Waiting For The Sunrise” came down the pike next and showed that regardless of age, all of these gentlemen carry the chops. Although Eric Thorin’s basslines could be felt throughout the set, his solo in this one got strong applause from the crowd, sending a smile across the face of this gentle giant. Max Wareham’s banjo skills were acknowledged by the bandleader at the close, bringing a similar look of joy to his face.
As Rowan has played with everyone, he took a moment to recognize someone sharing the stage in Lyons who has orbited his light more than a few times over the years:
Peter: Having David Grier up here is such a great pleasure.
David: Well, It's good to be here, Pete.
Peter: Well David, how you feeling about things?
David: Well, I’m feeling pretty good. This is my favorite festival, and it is good to be back here and y’all look like you’re having just as much fun as I am and that’s a great thing.
Peter: That is a great thing, David. Yes sir!
Anyone familiar with Rowan’s work knows that his talent for metaphor is a voice he loves to write in and certainly one well-known song epitomizing this skill is his 1982 release “Thirsty In The Rain”. Depicting the struggle of humanity to make existential ends meet when everything we need is already before us, this one is a thinker as well as a player. The melody is emotional and the dialect with which Rowan sings in just makes it all the better. Grier’s solo was dynamic and opened the door, prompting Wareham to gladly step through the entrance, rolling sweetly over the pasture, Henry packing it in between the two.
A little winded with delight, Rowan prefaced the next one with some backstory:
Whew! Thank you! Wow! Alright! David Grier to kick this one off here. This is a tune… When we got together in Stinson Beach, California in 1970, I sang this song for Jerry Garcia, and he liked it and he recorded it. I hope you enjoy it, our version of it here, ‘Mississippi Moon’.
First recorded by Seatrain in 1971, this Rowan original passes like a lazy river, its instrumentation meandering under the luminosity of the lunar lady. Pinelli’s fiddle moaned with the yearning of distant love, Henry’s pickin’ tender, Grier poured the wine, and Rowan shone like the sunset. Rowan showed that he can add yodeling to almost any tune and make it sound perfect.
Taking a final pause to thank the audience, Rowan began the set closer by crooning “Midnight Moonlight” acapella, the rest of his band joining in after the first few lines. The audience was quick to jump in on the singalong on this familiar beloved, Rowan happy to step away from the mic to let the assembly take over. Grier’s solo, swinging and on point, made for good times for all participating. Henry’s energy was just as high for the closer as it was for any other part of the set, his fire never waning, his piercing eyes and enthusiastic smile reflecting what was going on inside at any point in time. Rowan wielded his mandola as spry as players half his age and for those who have followed him on this journey, it was great to see him still pulling it off.
Walking off stage and waving to the standing ovation, the group rallied for a minute before returning for the only encore thus far in the day. Returning under a shower of joy and recognition, Rowan took a final pass at the mic:
Good Sunday, huh? I would like to dedicate this song to a friend of mine who really was the origin of the Free Mexican Airforce and probably the real original Panama Red. He started out his illustrious career in the herbal business, swimming across the Rio Grande with garbage bags full of Miojuacan..uh…Mexican…. Miojuacan….. whatever that stuff was that we can’t remember anything about. So, this is for my old partner Temple Boone, Buck Boone. This is for you, Buck. God bless you always. Panama Red. One..Two..Three..
Closing his set with the moniker he is often associated with, Rowan’s “Panama Red” had people singing, smoking, and swooning to the tale of the lady’s man happy to corrupt anyone’s sensibilities with a good time, and a good time is certainly what we all had under the direction of this living legend and wonderful band as the sun set on the river.
With a day full of more notes than one could count and finally reaching the closing set of the night, Sirotniak returned with some final words of appreciation and recognition for the teams that make the magic possible at RockyGrass every year:
As we settle on our tarps and chairs for the night, I am so grateful to extend some heartfelt thanks to all of our festival partners and folks who have supported us for this year’s RockyGrass. I am grateful for all these folks who have worked so hard to put on our 51st Anniversary RockyGrass: our volunteer coordinator and all of our volunteers, our ops crew, our box office, parking and transportation crews, Country Store, our sponsor coordinators, hospitality, grounds crew, festival artistry and ‘foof’, our communications and marketing crew, security, sustainability and waste crew, our sound crew, and our stage crew, and most of all thank you, our Festivarians, for making this such a wonderful event! Here’s to another half-century of music at Planet Bluegrass!
With the masses cheering on all the behind-the-scenes teams that truly make this festival run like clockwork, the voice of RockyGrass announced the final players of the weekend:
And now to close out our 51st annual Rockygrass, multiple IBMA award winner, Guitar Player of the Year, Song of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year, and more, including this year’s Grammy Award winner for Best Bluegrass Album Crooked Tree. Are you all ready? Please give them a great big RockyGrass welcome, Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway.
Walking on to The Beatles’ “Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, the band smiled humbled and proud to a standing ovation, and welcomed everyone to their set, “Hello RockyGrass, how you doing out there tonight? We are so excited to close out Sunday night with you all!”
The band hit the ground running with the fast-paced “Evergreen, OK”, a selection from the group’s City of Gold. Released a little more than a week before RockyGrass, this one demonstrated why the band is riding high on the train of success. Tight, focused, and filling every moment with the perfect note and pitch, this one speaks of a girl born to be free, shrugging off the struggle of her expected future in the Midwestern red dirt state. The band grabbed everyone by the ear, and all were happy to come along.
“San Joaquin” kept the RPMs high, flying at a breakneck speed. The sheer precision of Kyle Tuttle and Dominick Leslie on banjo and mandolin respectively is without compare. True fire! Let’s not forget the flaming fiddle wielded by Bronwyn Keith-Hines. With ponytail whipping the air as her wrist and fingers blurred, the lines she pulled showed that she was certainly no backup player.
Breathing heavy and glowing, Molly giggled, “If you can’t tell, we’re pretty excited up here!”
Keeping it original, “Castilleja” was up next. This one from last year’s multiple award-winning album Crooked Tree, kept spirits high and showed that the musical mistress and her band of pickin’ gypsies is not relegated to Appalachia, but can take this traveling show anywhere. The mid-section contained some Eastern textures, Kyle pushing the flow, Shelby Means droning out on the upright, Brownwyn conjuring the desert winds, and Molly striking her notes with accuracy and passion. With lyrical imagery, this one was the full package.
Pausing from the high of three in a row and a crowd eager for more, Molly radiated at the microphone:
Thank you all so much. Wow, I can’t believe it, we’re here closing out Sunday night at RockyGrass. It is an understatement to say that this is a dream come true for all of us up here. Some of us grew up going to this festival. I think Dom was saying he has been here twenty-six times now. Shelby remembered when she played here as a kid. We all have such fond memories of this festival, and it is so wonderful to be back here in Colorado with you all here at Planet Bluegrass. Thank you for having us. We’re celebrating just one week of our new record City of Gold. We just played a couple of new songs for you and we’re going to do another. This one’s called “Next Rodeo”.
With the strength of a solid country tune, “Next Rodeo” turned many a pair of Birkenstocks into boots and had everyone channeling their inner cowboy or cowgirl and loving the conversion in a two-stepping fashion.
“Open Water” gave opportunity for Bronwyn Keith-Hynes to put on a clinic in the master class of ridiculous playing, peeling anyone left sitting at this point from their chair to, at the very least, get a better look to see if her fiddle would take what this talented titan of tension was dishing out. After catching her display, It is no wonder that she has won the IBMA’s Best Fiddle Player of the Year for the last two years. This one certainly ended any unresolved question about the group’s ability to close out this historic festival, the rest of the band hitting all the notes in perfect sync to Brownyn’s chaotic lead of perfection, just as they had been doing since the beginning of the set.
Still clapping, standing, and begging for more, for the Deadheads in the crowd, “Dire Wolf” got some airplay. Laid back and full of beautiful vocals, this one would have had Jerry’s ear from start to finish. Without a pause, the band downshifted and merged back onto the super highway of fun, putting rubber to the road with “Over The Line”. After a river of notes that just kept moving faster and faster until it stopped on a dime, the band looked around at each other, the field buzzing with delight, and laughed along with everyone on the ride. Molly shared what she was feeling, “There’s kind of like this special feeling you get when you are playing really fast music at this altitude, it’s like WHOA!!!! I feel like I either had too much coffee today or I am about to pass out, but I think it's the former.”
As the crowd agreed and shared their full realization of the dizzying capacity that this band reaches, Molly continued, “I don’t know if you noticed, but there was a Tuttle on stage earlier. My little brother, Sullivan Tuttle, was playing with AJ LEE and Blue Summitt. My dad Jack Tuttle is here and my other younger brother Michael Tuttle is also here. And then there is another Tuttle on stage. Will you please make welcome, Kyle Tuttle.”
Demonstrating his outgoing personality he is often recognized for, Kyle took a moment of appreciation before the two Tuttles of talent put to rest one of the mysteries haunting fans of the band:
Kyle: Ah, Thank you Molly, and thank you, folks!
Molly: With all the Tuttles running around this year at RockyGrass, Me and Kyle have been getting a lot of questions, like ‘Are you guys, siblings? Are you married? What’s going on?’ So, we figured here at Planet Bluegrass, we feel like we’ve grown pretty close, we feel like friends here, so we thought we would let you in on the real reason why we share the same last name, Tuttle.
Kyle: Molly’s right folks, there’s a lot of people asking the question ‘Are you married? Are you brother and sister? Are you cousins?’ And the truth of the matter is this is bluegrass music those don’t…why does it just have to be one of those things? I mean, c’mon?!?!?! But seriously though, on a serious note, It’s true, she did list all the siblings and I wasn't one of the siblings, right? So, we share the same name because we may or may not have been hitched and maybe um…we got divorced, it's amicable…Love takes a backseat to bluegrass, but Molly is just so generous she let ME keep the last name. So, that’s sort of like the down-and-dirty business of how it unfolded and there’s actually a song about it that came out on the newest record.
Molly: But it was too sad, it’s a duet. We were too sad to sing it together, so we had to get Dave Matthews to come in and sing on this one. He’s not here today.
Kyle: I just couldn’t do it, but I can do it today for you guys, you know because we are telling you our deepest darkest secrets here. Yeah, Dave had to stand in for me on the record.
With the Tuttle enigma revealed for many, “Yosemite” detailed the feelings, unspoken and shared, of the presumably deteriorating relationship between these two kindred spirits who, despite all the signs and revelations, kept trying to make it work for six years or more. Despite the sadness and heartbreak, this one from Cities of Gold was another gem and the two sounded healthy and strong singing it out together.
As one can never have too much Tuttle in the performance setting, Molly stuck with this tried-and-true rule and asked everyone to welcome her father, “What do you say we bring out one more Tuttle? I would like to bring my dad, Jack Tuttle, up to the stage to sing this next one with us.”
Receiving the expected warm reception, Molly queried her patriarch, “Are you having a good time at RockyGrass?”, and shining like a kid, Jack responded, “I am having a fabulous time. I’m out there jamming in the wee hours of the morning. That’s what I come to do.”
With a bit of comedy, Molly did her best-exaggerated parenting scowl at her dad’s shenanigans in the campground, "He’s hanging out with Shelby’s parents and Dominic’s parents, they’re all staying up way too late!”, getting laughter from both sides of the stage. Full of that independent youthful spirit of rebellion, Jack just looked at her with a giggle and said, “Who cares?!?!”, prompting more joy from the venue.
Getting back to the business, Molly introduced the next number:
Well, alright, this next song is one that I wrote about the very first bluegrass festival I went to with my dad when I was ten years old. It was like my RockyGrass. It was in Grass Valley, California. It was The Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival and I think the first time I went there; I was just so afraid to even join a jam session, but then I went year after year after that and it was how I kind of fell in love with this style of music. When I was writing my record Crooked Tree, I’d written a whole bunch of songs that were inspired by those first songs I’d learned around the campfire at a bluegrass jam, and I figured I needed to write one more for all the wonderful bluegrass festivals throughout the country like this one. It holds such a special place in my heart, and I think all of us here on stage kinda grew up playing at these festivals, so it really means a lot to be here with you all tonight.
Speaking to the inspired child and painting pictures from Molly’s mind, “Grass Valley” was everything she described in the preface. The closing lyrical stand depicted the author, years later, sitting around a campfire and seeing herself reflected in another, the circular design continuing as nervous promise turns to dedicated practice and finally finds form in confidence, all born from the fertile grounds of the festival. Jack’s solo in this one showed that the apple, or apples as it were, didn’t fall far from this tree.
As the cheers faded and Jack walked off stage with a look of pride, his daughter reaching such great heights and touched by her heartfelt thanks, Shelby thumped out the familiar bassline of Jefferson’s Airplane “White Rabbit”. The tune inched along like the psychedelic caterpillar, until the auditory hallucinations set in, initiated by Bronwyn and Kyle, taking turns spinning the mind and horizon. The tail shifted tempo multiple times, begging everyone to try to hold on.
Bypassing the applause at the end, Johnny Horton’s “Sleepy Eyed John” was up next and Shelby plucking the upright and led the vocal charge. Belting both out with confidence on this rapid relay just further showed that ALL members of this band excel at it all.
Originally featuring Billy Strings on the Crooked Tree recording, the Tuttle original “Dooley’s Farm” tells the tale of bootleg ganja in the hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With a heavy air, dark and brooding, the song is bluesy bluegrass at its finest. The jam got some smokin’ (pun intended) mando from Dominic and was well-received by the Colorado conglomerate. With its subject content, it's no wonder that Strings was called in to bring it on this one.
Keeping with the green theme, Molly introduced a continuation of the last song, written as an open letter to the state of Tennessee. We don’t have a lot of the nice things you have here in Colorado.’ With an old-time swing and a serious message to get things changed for a better South, “Down Home Dispensary” was well performed and received a good laugh from the audience. Kyle’s banjo burned brightly and Molly’s solo smoked, much like many of the patrons were out front. Everyone getting a chance to take a hit off the good stuff, this one was well received on so many levels.
Striking Gold once again, “Eldorado,” told the tale of Gold Rush Kate and the cavalcade of characters dotting her journey in pursuit of the motherlode. The swift midsection sparkled and drew those in with the notes of fortune and siren harmonies. Doing one just for the cowgirls in the house and presenting with another reflection of female empowerment, “Side Saddle” read as a tune of equality for early women, bucking the status quo, intent on ‘riding bow-legged like the boys’. Shelby got an opportunity to walk the neck of the upright front and center.
Preempting the purpose of the next draw and getting the crowd riled, Molly made a call to arms for another new track, “Are you ready to get wild with us on this next one? It’s Sunday night! We’re closing out the weekend here at RockyGrass!” With the band and crowd bustling, the band fired up their anthem of letting loose with “Where Did All The Wild Things Go?”, Molly and Kyle handling the vocals and inciting everyone to let loose. With a gritty stomp, things got dusty and had everyone ecstatic to be wild.
Taking a moment to get a bit more personal and vulnerable, Molly softened and engaged the crowd with a different tone:
That last one was a new one, we’re going to do a bit more familiar one now. This is the title track of my record that came out last year it's been such a joy getting to play these songs all over the country this past year and we have dreamed of playing them here at RockyGrass so I just can’t say enough what an honor this is. It was so exciting; we were just pinching ourselves all day. This song is all about embracing our differences and accepting who we are and accepting the hard things in life that make us stronger. For me, I wrote this song inspired by my experience growing up. As a kid, I lost all my hair when I was three years old. I have what is called alopecia, which basically just means your body just doesn’t grow hair. Tonight, was really fun ‘cause I just got this new wig and I was excited to bust it out for the first time here at RockyGrass, but I am also kinda feeling like, you know, it's time to let my hair down.
Finishing her statement with an exclamation mark, Molly removed her crown and stood there baring her soul surrounded by her family of five thousand strong, smiling from ear to ear, showing her strength as she championed the soundness of all witnessing her courage. With an audience, clapping, cheering, and connecting to her substance, Molly finished, “So I want to sing this one for all the crooked trees out there, you are beautiful just as you are.”
“Crooked Tree'' delivered an inspirational message in both word and sound, born from Molly’s spirit, lighthearted and visceral, removing stones of stagnant emotion and making everyone feel more human as every person’s roots drank deep from the flowing headwaters of the Tuttle wellspring. Tears, hugs, and appreciation were shared throughout the tribe moving and feeling as one in that purest of moments, goosebumps abounding, making us all feel so much life and humanity in the moment.
As everyone knows, no respected bluegrass festival closer would be complete without a superjam and certainly RockyGrass consistently refuses to disappoint. For the big finish, the who’s who would happen around the familiar Townes Van Zandt staple “White Freightliner Blues”. Adding to the quintet, Molly welcomed to the stage the string strengths of mandolinist Chris Henry, flat picker David Grier, her own talented sibling Sully Tuttle, and legendary fiddle player Darol Anger. As one would expect, once this eighteen-wheeler got going down the highway, there was no stopping it. With everyone getting a turn at the wheel, this rambling anthem of truckin’ and pickin’ made all the stops and went way over the speed limit multiple times, all to the delight of the cargo strapped in tight for the cross-country adventure.
Observing the moment to recognize the lady of the hour, Kyle got on the squawk box to throw light on Molly:
Holy smokes! RockyGrass, RockyGrass, RockyGrass! Have we had one heck of a time playing for all you people!?!?! Now we’re not done yet and we just had a lot of fun with all of our friends here, but it is now time to take one second to talk about our fearless band leader up here, folks. She is a two-time, not once, but two-time International Bluegrass Guitar Champion of the Universe, you know how hard that is, right? She just won a Grammy too, right? Folks, she is up here writing the songs, she’s playing the songs, she’s singing the songs, she’s getting this bunch of goofballs down the road all year long together, folks, y’all make some RockyGrass noise for the one and only Molly Tuttle!
To close out the set, Molly pulled out one of her older pieces, “Take the Journey” from the 2019 release When You’re Ready and this one was the perfect send-off, reminding everyone, good, bad, and ugly, the journey is worth it and it all eventually leads the heart home.
With such high energy from the beginning, it came as no surprise that the still-filled field was begging for one more at the end of Molly’s set, and with smiles bigger than the crowd out in front of them, the band returned with friends to lift everyone off on more time. Before getting to it, Molly opted to share what she was feeling. Flush with an obvious mix of emotion, modesty, and exhilaration she shared, “Okay! All the words that are coming to my mind are curse words! Oh my gosh! Wow! Thank you so much! That was amazing! Planet Bluegrass, we can feel the love and I really hope that y’all can feel our love coming out to you tonight! We are just so honored to be here!”, driving the audience to cheer the whole of the group on even more.
“Big Backyard” was the pick and this song of unity, simplifying the world as a big backyard we all share in, one better off without fences and division, kept everyone swimming in the positive vibes of the weekend. Upping the bliss ante even more, the circle of friends slipped right into John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”, resulting in the loudest singalong of the night, maybe even the weekend, before returning to “Big Backyard” and a roar that was probably heard from Denver to Boulder, and all across the Front Range.
For fifty-one years, RockyGrass has been bringing the musical community together and at this point, this festival is so much more than an annual event, it has become a legacy. With a multitude of generations in attendance and whether it was one’s first time or their fifty-first, it was easy to see that all who participated in RockyGrass got lost in the moment and for a weekend, time stood still, the outside world faded, and the soul was recharged. From solo-fueled epiphany to group consciousness exercises set to tone and melody, no one who entered the lands bordered by the St. Vrain left the same as whence they arrived.
As community flourishes from family, the vibrance and sanctity of the event exude trust and comfort. With children frolicking about, independent and free explorers, devoid of helicopter parents or concerns for safety, this witnessed experience illustrates the level of solace one feels walking the boundaries of the canyon like the offspring enjoying their innocence, many adults participate much in the same way, investigating every nook and secret garden of wonder, all the while having the best live soundtrack one could imagine.
The RockyGrass experience is focused on just that, the experience of everyone entering its space. Taking care to curate opportunity, not the party puts the celebration of life at the forefront, and with every base need to be considered and met with quality, smiles abound endlessly, strangers converse like unmet friends, head nods and recognition go on without limits, and this 72-hour community functions less like a festival and more like a model for humanity.
The communal dynamic is not limited to just the patronage but can be seen being experienced by the performers who bare their souls on the hallowed stage in Lyons. Backstage, conversations and exchanges of craft and truth are a constant and everyone realizes the fortune they are experiencing getting to be in the historic space along the river. Out front, artists sit, alone or often with their own families, and take in their peers, cheering them on and gleaning their own truths from those they call brother and sister in peaceable arms, showing that here there is no line separating star and fan, but rather a circle that holds us all together as one body, breathing in the air of life and exhaling the gift of gratitude.
As anyone knows, pulling off what happens here at the end of every July does not come to fruition without a significant amount of hard work by people who believe in this dream and make it a reality. From the backstage to the front of the house, the staff of Planet Bluegrass take pride in the history and legend that is RockyGrass. Whether it is their first one as a team member or they have been there since the beginning and believe me I talked to a few with that credential, the dynamic is the same: we are all here to create and be a part of something special that will continue well past our service or this weekend alone.
Even after twenty-plus pages of words, there is so much more that could be stated about what has been bringing fans of bluegrass back for over half a century. With new connections gifted and fresh experiences made, five thousand return to Lyons as individuals, but leave as a group, serving under one moniker as Festivarians, individual celestial bodies, orbiting each other, creating a constellation once a year pointing everyone home to the epicenter of the Appalachian galaxy known as Planet Bluegrass.