Pretty much any bluegrass musician you talk to will say that his or her band feels at home surrounded by the alpine vistas and summer sunshine of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, and whether they originate in the Centennial State or not, many feel a certain kinship with the natural beauty and enthusiastic fans found at shows here.
“You can’t deny the almost metaphysical nature of a show like that,” said Chris Gangi, upright bass player for a band called Cornmeal. “There’s so much good energy out there in the mountains. Every time we come up there, we have some of the most inspirational shows. As musicians, you connect with the environment you’re in deeply, as well as the audience whose listening; it’s a symbiotic relationship. You put a lot of music lovers and a band in a setting like that, it’s undeniable what’s going to come out of it.”
Cornmeal is one of the headlining acts for this weekend’s Keystone Bluegrass & Beer Festival in River Run Village, which will feature free concerts and workshops led by bands from all over the country, plus craft beer tastings from more than 30 breweries.
STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD
Though all of the musicians participating in the festival classify their music as some sort of bluegrass, there’s quite a bit of nuance that separates them.
“We’re really just a rock ’n’ roll band with bluegrass instruments,” Gangi said. “We kind of come in and attack people in a completely different way.”
The bassist describes himself and the other members of Cornmeal as “rock ’n’ roll kids,” born and raised in the squalor and percussive influence of bands such as Led Zeppelin and Queen.
“With Cornmeal, it’s so much of a bigger, more like a rock ’n’ roll show than a lot of the acoustic bands that play around microphones and play without drums, I suppose, and the drums really drive Cornmeal’s music,” he said.
The Steep Canyon Rangers, who will lead a festival workshop titled “Vocals and Harmonies,” as well as holding down a slot on Saturday’s roster, prefer to run the full gamut of bluegrass sounds, said banjo player Graham Sharp.
“From the start, at bluegrass festivals, we’ve always been an identifiable personality,” he said. “We do our own songs and do things our own way a little bit, and that’s grown for us over the years. I never really worried about the next band at a bluegrass festival. We really have our own set of talents that defines our style.”
Sharp said the band genre hops within each performance — from songs that are textured or complicated to more of a traditional influence — and that flexibility to change it up within a set list is what keeps it exciting for the band.
Dobro player Rob Ickes said a focus on instrumentation sets his band, Blue Highway, apart from the rest, along with a dedication to performing original material.
“We’ve got some great instrumentalists in the band, and we’ve got three great singers in the band, and there’s so much good songwriting in this band,” he said. “Most of our records have been all original material for the past 15 years probably, and I can’t think of anther bluegrass band that’s done that. People do a lot of Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, we can dive into that if we want to, but we usually don’t.”
LOVE ME SOME PICKIN’
Bluegrass itself is a fickle mistress, constantly evolving with the rest of the musical landscape, carving out a path while picking up bits and pieces from other genres. Gangi said he thinks what bands these days are doing with the music is amazing, connecting a lot of the old, traditional ways with new styles and reinventing the genre as a whole.
“The instrumentation, the acoustic instruments, the songwriting, the folklore and tales that go along with it have always fascinated me about it,” Gangi said. “I grew up a rock ’n’ roll kid and found bluegrass in my early 20s, and I never went back. I felt a pull toward that style of music, I think. The lyrics and what they are doing with their instruments — it just constantly keeps progressing and moving forward, and it’s really American music at its finest.”
“I feel like in the last 20 years or so that a lot of young people who a while back would have been gravitating to other types of music started to drift into the string side of things,” Sharp said. “There’s been a real influx of talented young people who bring different influences to the music, and I think that appeals to a wide range of audiences.”
Ickes said people keep coming back to bluegrass because they appreciate the inherent truth and honesty in the music, both in the lyrics and in the fact that the genre isn’t surrounded by a lot of hooey and hype.
“There’s so much commercialism on the radio, especially with country music, it’s so bizarre, to listen to it. I do not get it,” he said with a laugh. “It’s all good, but I think there’s something, when you dig into the music and start listening a little more, you crave a little more than what you can hear on most radio stations. There’s something happening in our music that has always appealed to a certain kind of listener.”
“Right now, with the advent of all this electronica music, there’s a huge populous of people who are just really looking for a song-oriented style of music,” Gangi said. “And the timbre of the instruments — it’s just happy, upbeat, fun, positive music.”