By Quentin Young
The time that singer-songwriter Greg Brown stepped straight from the St. Vrain River, where he was fishing, to the Planet Bluegrass stage, where he was performing, has become part of Rocky Mountain Folks Festival lore.
Actually, something like this happened on more than one occasion, said Brown, who refers to the St. Vrain as “that little river.”
“There were times I played with wet pants, that is very true,” he said recently by phone from his home in Iowa City, Iowa.
With his easy-going attitude and mastery of songwriting, Brown came to embody the spirit of Folks Fest, an annual “summit of the song” that takes place at the Planet Bluegrass ranch in Lyons. Brown played Folks Fest for the first time in 1995, four years after the inaugural event, and was instrumental in defining its identity, say festival organizers.
“For a guy like me, it was paradise,” Brown said.
Huge, multistage festivals don’t appeal to him. Folks Fest was “relaxing,” he said. He liked that the audience focus was on one main stage. He liked being outdoors. And a lot of the Folks Fest audience seemed to come back year after year.
“There’s a sense of community there,” Brown said.
That community is planning to come together for the 25th annual Rocky Mountain Folks Festival Aug. 14-16.
Headliners are Sufjan Stevens on Friday, Jason Isbell on Saturday and Gillian Welch on Sunday. Performers also include Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin, Richard Thompson, The Wood Brothers, Kasey Chambers and Peter Yarrow. Brown is not on the bill this year. Three-day passes are sold out, but some single-day passes were available as of earlier this week.
Folks Fest was the first event that Planet Bluegrass owners Craig Ferguson and Steve Szymanski started from scratch. The company also produces the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and RockyGrass, which is at the Lyons property. But those events came to Planet Bluegrass already established, and in 1991, Telluride was its only other festival.
Folks Fest became a transformational business move for Planet Bluegrass.
“It was a way to turn Planet Bluegrass into a business that could support a few peoples’ livelihoods all year round,” spokesman Brian Eyster said, adding it was with Folks Fest that the Planet decided to buy the Lyons property now known as Planet Bluegrass (the first three Folks Fests took place in Estes Park before moving to Lyons).
The return on investment, however, was slow coming. Eyster said it took a decade before the festival made money. But organizers were sure it was worth it.
“With the spirit of the thing, there was no doubt it was going to keep going,” he said.
A significant component of the festival is The Song School, a weeklong series of workshops led by professional songwriters that are attended by students from around the country the week before the festival. Another key part of the festival is the Folks Festival Songwriter Showcase, a songwriting contest that kicks off the program each year.
“It’s an important part of the festival,” Eyster said. “It really sets the tone for the whole festival … People sitting in the audience are tuned into the song.”
True to its vision, the festival over the years has brought top songwriters to its stage. Folks Fest audiences have been treated to sets by John Prine, Indigo Girls, Richie Havens, J.J. Cale, Ani DiFranco, Chris Robinson, Josh Ritter, Norah Jones and Brandi Carlile.
The inclusion of Sufjan Stevens in this year’s lineup represents a coup for the Planet.
“He’s someone we’ve been trying to get for 10 years,” Eyster said, noting that Stevens mostly had not been interested in playing outdoor festivals. “Maybe it was just our unrelenting asking.”
The festival, along with Planet Bluegrass itself, faced its biggest challenge in September 2013, when Boulder County was hit by a devastating flood. At the height of the flooding, the entire Planet Bluegrass property, which is also where Ferguson lives, was submerged.
But the Planet undertook a massive recovery effort and staged successful festivals, including Folks, in 2014.
Greg Brown said he usually can sense how a festival is going, whether it’s still got momentum or the wind has gone out of its sails. He said Rocky Mountain Folks Festival always felt to him to have an energy to it.
“It always flowed along like that little river,” he said.
If you go
What: 25th annual Rocky Mountain Folks Festival
When: Aug. 14-16
Where: Planet Bluegrass, 500 W. Main St., Lyons
TIckets: $60 single day pass