It’s raining, but the bands play on. Smattered about the Planet Bluegrass Ranch as an early afternoon shower interrupts their lunch break, the musicians are either too happy to care or too focused to realize their parade is being rained on. They cuddle up with their instruments, picking and strumming, or they sit cross-legged in small groups of newfound friends. This is their time to savor, and no rain will wash away the moment.
For the students of the RockyGrass Academy, the five-day intensive that brings bluegrass’ elite to teach fans and friends alike in a setting as picturesque as any refrigerator-worthy postcard, this is their home away from home—for a family whose bloodline is bluegrass. Every year, they come to the Lyons’ musical den to take classes from the likes of Tim O’Brien, Mike Marshall, Tony Trischka, Brian Sutton, Peter Rowan and other Gods of the G-run, and they immerse themselves in music with campground jams, one-on-one lessons, group instrument classes, band scrambles, intimate performances and Q&As with world-class bands.
“For most people, just seeing the arch of Mike Marshall’s fingers over a fretboard is worth the price,” says Brian Eyster of Planet Bluegrass.
This year, about 275 adults and 35 children participated in the academy. Many of them camped in the lots just outside of the spacious ranch, with tents and trailers creating temporary living rooms to share with neighbors. Sometimes it’s entire families that come together; others travel alone and make lifelong friends. They come to learn, to soak in the culture and to “geek-out” with like-minded folks over the intricacies of Del McCoury’s playing style.
“We sit around for hours and talk about the parts of the banjo. My friends back home think I’m crazy coming all the way here for a bluegrass camp,” says banjo player Sharm. “So, I have to relate it to them. I say that having Tony Trischka teach me banjo is like getting private tuition from Eric Clapton on guitar.”
Sharm is from Sydney, Australia, and she traveled overseas specifically to participate in the RockyGrass Academy. She’s played the banjo for two years. She picked it up after visiting Oskar Blues during a visit, and purchased a banjo as soon as she got back to Australia: “I was totally blown away. I thought, ‘S**t, I got to learn this.”
The lessons of the academy have not just been about the technical side of playing the banjo, they’ve been part psychology.
“You get out of your comfort zone, and you figure out what limits you,” she says. “Like working on my speed. I would make mistakes, but it pushed me. It gave me confidence.”
Sharm sits under a large tent, which is filled with basses taking refuge from the storm, talking with Frannie Shields, who also plays the banjo. It’s Shields’ second time at the academy. She fell in love with bluegrass at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, RockyGrass’ big sister, and took up the banjo immediately after.
“We were just saying how we didn’t know what we were missing. Now, it’s so much a part of my life,” Shields says. “Playing the banjo defines me.”
Just yards away from the tent, the Very Devine Sextet practices under a worn veranda, barely out of the rain. They are preparing for the finals of the “band scramble,” a competition in which bands are formed at random, mixing young and old, experienced and novice, friends and strangers into bands that compete for fun and pride.
“You meet people from different ability levels and musical influences and not to mention that we have never met each other before,” says fiddle player Will Scherer. “One of the challenges is being able to showcase your own talents while blending with the other musicians.”
One of the most attractive points of the RockyGrass Academy—besides the incredible, ethereal setting and the one-on-one attention from the likes of Peter Rowan—is the juxtaposition between serious, intensive study of musicality and instrumentation, and fun, casual pickin’ and jamming. There is an intangible nature to the lessons learned here, and it often takes students 12 months to digest what the instructors teach them. They are pushed, and the classes are so intimate no student goes unnoticed.
It means RockyGrass Academy students often go on to do great things: During Saturday performances at the 38th Annual RockyGrass Festival, bluegrass starlet Sarah Jarosz told the large, sun-stained and sweaty crowd that attending the academy since the age of 11 was a major part of her musical foundation and the people a part of her musical family.
“I’m so happy to be back to my favorite place on earth,” she said.
Sam Talley, a 17-year-old from Virginia, also began attending the academy when she was 11. She and her mom come together. In the beginning, she took guitar classes. But for the past two summers, she’s come to Lyons to build instruments. RockyGrass Academy offers an instrument-building class, in which students spend their five days constructing, sanding and staining a mandolin, mandola or travel guitar. Talley built a mandolin last year (You must build a mandolin before you build a guitar), but she doesn’t play the mandolin. So, she came back again to build a guitar.
“When I built the mandolin, I didn’t want to let it go. It was crazy,” she says. “It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. It’s interesting to see how much goes into something you can’t even see. Like, you’ll spend hours on the parts inside. You really learn to appreciate the details of an instrument after you’ve made one.”
The rain has stopped, and the sun now shines down on the St. Vrain River. A few pairs of tubers float by as the last session of classes begins. Miriam Dickinson and 10 other fiddlers sit down for the intermediate fiddle class with Darol Anger of Psychograss and David Grisman Quintet fame. Dickinson is a classically trained violinist who plays in the Jefferson Symphony Orchestra. She came to Lyons to learn to play the fiddle.
“I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven,” she says, just as her group is gathering post-lunchbreak. For Dickinson and musicians here like her, the academy is a lesson in loosening up, in not necessarily following the rules or the notes. Take jamming, for example.
“I’m learning that’s one of the things I need to focus on. It’s really an amazing ability, and it’s so different than classical. It connects you to the instrument and it takes you away from the notes on the page,” she says.
Dickinson is here alone, camping in a tent for one. Her concentration is purely on the music.
“It’s very intensive. All our classes have been very focused,” she says. “People are here to learn. They are very focused on the music.”
Just as Anger gets himself ready for the course, a woman asks to be quoted: “This man is the most amazing teacher and one of the most amazing violinists of his time,” she starts, sitting just a couple of feet from the subject of her homily. “I am in awe of him. The first time I saw him play, it changed music for me. It changed how I thought about the fiddle. I realized that there are no limitations.”
Her name is Marianne Mayer and it’s her first time at the academy. Like Dickinson, she has a classical background and has played the violin for more than four decades. She later says Anger is the Beethoven of our time.
Just in time to end his own embarrassment, Anger starts the class. During the next two hours, he covers a variety of topics and teaches them the “Evening Prayer Blues.” In his casual, quiet voice, he covers vibrato and finger placement. It’s a blend of theory and practicum.
“You’re jamming in a bar and someone comes in and says they want to sing. And it’s like, ‘Great, we have a singer.’ And you pick a song, and someone asks what key, and you realize that she can only sing it in D flat,” he says. “It’s the uncomfortable key syndrome.”
In the background, the empty lawns surrounding Planet Bluegrass’ big stage are slowly being taken over by signs, vendor stands, equipment and workers. Soon, a long line of cars will make its way to the ranch to set up camp for the sold-out festivities. In 24 hours, thousands will descend onto Planet Bluegrass with tarps in tow. The students will become faces in the crowd, and the academy teachers will become headliners—the beloved stars of the modern bluegrass era.
That is the rub of RockyGrass Academy: Your personal music heaven will always eventually be taken over by swarms of people.
“It’s almost like the festival is going to start tomorrow,” says Bobby Wintringham, Western Slope luthier and an instructor, “and then all this fun will come to an end.”