Planet Bluegrass powers a vibrant acoustic music scene in Boulder County.
By Brad Weismann
For acoustic music lovers, Colorado is the place to be. And in Boulder County, a rolling grassy meadow next to a gently burbling river in Lyons has become king of the acoustic scene, with some of the biggest names in bluegrass, Americana and folk music, as well as the best singer/songwriters, holding forth for blissful all-ages crowds.
Founded by Craig Ferguson and Steve Szymanski in 1988, Planet Bluegrass produces three significant acoustic festivals every year. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival is held in June, and RockyGrass and Rocky Mountain Folks Festival take place on Planet Bluegrass’ 20-acre property near the center of Lyons in July and August.
The festivals, strong contributors to the local music scene, have stimulated countless acoustic musicians. In conjunction with its Lyons-based festivals, Planet Bluegrass holds a RockyGrass Academy every year, providing instruction for aspiring musicians of all levels of experience, as well as a Song School for budding singer/songwriters.
The result is a populous, vital acoustic music scene. The Boulder area is rich with homegrown musical talent, and there are plenty of opportunities for making and hearing great live acoustic music all around. Concertizing venues have blossomed up and down the county, from the remote, rustic Gold Hill Inn to the acoustically renowned Chautauqua Auditorium—all important parts of Boulder County’s music history.
After Covid caused RockyGrass and Folks Fest to be canceled in 2020, the festivals came back strong last year with live-streaming passes for those who couldn’t make it in person. This year, all the action is live and in person.
Since the festivals’ early days, when Szymanski says “it was all about tents and fences and where to put the garbage can,” RockyGrass and Folks Fest have grown into major events, drawing capacity crowds of 4,300. Many festival-goers camp out during the weekends of the shows, creating a mini-boom for local merchants.
Every festival morning, eager crowds gather at the Planet Bluegrass entrance, then race to stake out a spot for their tarps and blankets near the iconic wooden main stage. The festivals are delightfully analog in a digital era, with family-friendly live music, convivial festivarians and a mellow vibe.
Planet Bluegrass manages to keep things under control with a lean staff of eight and a small army of volunteers.
“RockyGrass is incredible,” says Grace Barrett, director of communication and partnerships for Planet Bluegrass. “It’s an all-encompassing musical experience, but it’s more than that. It’s the culture, the people, community, family.”
The 50th-annual RockyGrass Festival (which originated as the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society Festival in 1972) will be held July 29-31 and will feature Yonder Mountain String Band, the Del McCoury Band, Hot Rize and Uncle Earl, among others. Tickets are sold out, but check the online forum at festivarian.com to see if anyone has tickets to sell.
Rocky Mountain Folks Festival will be held on August 12-14 and will feature Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers, Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco and Robert Earl Keene, among others. Check shop.bluegrass.com for ticket availability.
These locally based acts are well worth checking out this summer.
This Nederland-based band combines elements of gypsy, Celtic, Americana and folk for a unique progressive sound. After a four-year hiatus, the band is back together and will perform on June 18 at Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
With a voice that KUNC radio describes as “knock-you-to-your-knees,” this Boulder native has been wowing crowds for more than 25 years. She’ll be at the YMCA Summerfest Concert Series in Estes Park on July 22.
Bending genres into a self-described “all-new tapestry of bleeding rock ‘n roll,” this Boulder-based alt-country rock band draws rowdy crowds on the regular at the Gold Hill Inn and The Caribou Room in Nederland.
Gregory Alan Isakov
This South African-born indie-rock and folk singer, now based in Boulder, tours the world with his band and has performed with several symphony orchestras. He’ll open for The Lumineers at Coors Field in Denver on July 22.
This Boulder-based progressive bluegrass band pioneered the modern jam band scene more than 30 years ago. They’ll be at Red Rocks in Morrison on July 16.
This stripped-back folk-rock band from Boulder is one of the top touring bands in the country. They’re playing Coors Field in Denver on July 22.
The String Cheese Incident
This jam band, which started out in Crested Butte and Telluride but now makes Boulder home, fuses bluegrass with everything from funk to reggae to rock. They’ll be at Red Rocks in Morrison July 15-17.
Read more about String Cheese keyboardist, Kyle Hollingsworth in our recent feature.
Yonder Mountain String Band
This freewheeling jam band, which originated in Nederland, fuses a traditional take on bluegrass sound with diverse musical influences ranging from punk rock to the Grateful Dead. They’ll be at RockyGrass in Lyons on July 29.
Where to Go
Looking to catch an acoustic show? Boulder County is home to several welcoming venues.
Boulder Theater, Boulder
The historic Art Deco theater just off the Pearl Street Mall brings in national and local acts.
Chautauqua Auditorium, Boulder
Musicians and their audiences love this barn-like auditorium, built in 1898, for its awesome acoustics.
eTown Hall, Boulder
A world-class music venue and recording studio, eTown Hall is located in a converted church in the heart of Boulder.
Gold Hill Inn, Gold Hill
This hundred-year-old log cabin rocks with local and national roots, folk and bluegrass musicians in the barroom and the beer garden.
Jamestown Mercantile, Jamestown
A beloved mountain hangout, “the Merc” hosts musicians from a range of genres.
Oskar Blues Grill & Brew, Lyons and Longmont
The original venue in the heart of Lyons has been kicking out the jams since 1997. The Longmont location hosts bands on Saturday nights.