Just mention the words “folk festival” to some music fans and you can watch the yawns take hold. Images of earnest people in plaid shirts strumming Martin guitars and singing “Kumbaya” for three days fill their minds.
In its 28th year, the late-summer Rocky Mountain Folks Festival Aug. 17 to Aug. 19 in Lyons is a very different sort of festival that celebrates songwriters and storytellers. The music surrounding those songs can range from modern rock, soul and worldbeat to blues and jazz and a lot of danceable sounds.
“It’s a more expansive view of folk music,” said Steve Szymanski, vice-president of Planet Bluegrass. “What connects it all together is that everyone brings their best stories and songs. What’s changed is that we bring in more music from other cultures,”
Planet Bluegrass operates three annual festivals from its Lyons headquarters. June’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival is widely regarded as one of the nation’s major music festivals, spawning its own jamgrass genre. July’s RockyGrass is renowned as a premier modern bluegrass festival. Tickets to both perennially sell out.
Folks Fest is an intimate gathering with only 4,000 attendees on the 15-acre Planet Bluegrass Ranch in Lyons. A river (with a beach) runs next to the grassy site beneath sandstone cliffs with nearly 12 hours of music a day, delivered by a first-class concert sound system.
The first Folks Fest, held in 1991 in Estes Park, featured the debut of a notable new voice, Marc Cohn, and a lineup of singer-songwriter notables including Steve Forbert, Patty Larkin and David Wilcox. The festival moved to Lyons in 1994.
Through the years, the expansive roster of songsmiths has included Ani Difranco, Janis Ian, Ben Harper, KT Tunstall, Rufus Wainwright, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Neko Case, The Decemberists and Nathaniel Rateliff.
“We really try to surprise ourselves every year. We’re excited about new, young bands bringing old songs into a modern place like Jayme Stone’s Folklife. There is also Les Poules à Colin from Quebec, Las Cafeteras from Los Angeles, and Tinariwen — they play high energy tribal music from Mali,” Szymanski said.
While songs are at the core of the festival, they come wrapped in divergent musical styles in this year’s headliners.
• Legendary East L.A band Los Lobos often performs traditional folk songs on acoustic instruments. However, the electric guitars will also come out for hits like “La Bamba,” the propulsive “Don’t Worry Baby,” and brilliant covers like the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha.”
• Jeff Tweedy’s 16-plus albums with Uncle Tupelo and Wilco have made him an Americana music hero. This rare solo set spotlights Tweedy’s tunes as well as music he wrote for some unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics.
• For the Grammy-winning Indigo Girls, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, social and political activism are at the heart of their hits such as “Closer to Fine,” “Hammer and a Nail” and “Galileo.”
• Darrell Scott is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist and writer whose best-known songs are country hits including “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” (Travis Tritt) and “Long Time Gone” (Dixie Chicks).
• The Milk Carton Kids — Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan — are the close-harmony reincarnation of The Everly Brothers powered by a seven-piece band.
Folks concludes with an intimate solo performance by critically acclaimed singer-songwriter and pianist Regina Spektor, who was a classically focused musician until she encountered hip hop, rock, and punk. With a Joni Mitchell-like voice, Spektor sings in several languages about love, death and religion with a breathtakingly quirky approach.
Over the past decades, Colorado has developed a distinct musical identity, from country rock to jamgrass, in part because of these festivals.
“The people who lived here and migrated here for the mountains tend to be independent, free-thinking folks and that seeped into the music,” Szymanski said. “We have the best audiences in Colorado that are open to anything. They say: ‘Show us something new.’”
Besides the main stage performances, music is stitched in the fabric of the weekend. An annual Song School takes place the week before the festival, giving the endeavor a communal vibe. Free workshops and performances at the onsite Wildflower Pavilion feature noted songwriters, including Vance Gilbert, Rebecca Folsom and Ellis who aren’t on the main stage. The next generation of tunesmiths compete in the Songwriter Showcase, a nationally-recognized, singer-songwriter competition.
For those suspecting a kumbaya conspiracy, it exists. At day’s end, song circles form in the onsite campgrounds and the singing goes on into the night.
28th Annual Rocky Mountain Folks Fest
Aug 17- Aug. 19, Planet Bluegrass Ranch, Lyons
Aug. 17: Los Lobos, Jeff Tweedy, Las Cafeteras, Mary Gauthier, Magic Music, others
Aug. 18: Indigo Girls, Martin Sexton, Darrell Scott, Les Poules à Colin, Jayme Stone’s Folklife, others
Aug. 19: Regina Spektor, Milk Carton Kids, Tinariwen, River Whyless, others
“I closed my eyes and met this song
And the whole damn state of Colorado sang along
And I knew right then that somewhere I belonged.”
– From the song “Colorado” by Darrell Scott