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Roots Music Branches out at Folks Festival

It was August 15, 1969, in upstate New York, and they were getting ready for the bands to play. It was going to be three days of peace, love and music.

Flash forward 40 years. On Aug. 14-16, 2009, they were celebrating that same communal spirit in an idyllic setting, with words and acoustic guitars resonating and blending together during another summer of love. Only this wasn’t Woodstock.

Fifteen miles north of Boulder, Colorado, along the banks of the St. Vrain River just minutes from downtown Lyons, the 19th Rocky Mountain Folks Festival attracted accomplished performers, devoted fans (known as Festivarians) and curious thrill-seekers. But this was all about the music.

Just plain folks still call it folk, the all-too-inclusive term for a pop-culture phenomenon from the early ’60s, when poets such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez preached the power to the people. But in the 21st century, folk means a lot of things to a lot of different people.

At the end of the day, it comes back to music that is just closely connected to the stories that people are writing with their lives; to me that has a lot to do with place as well, said Linford Detweiler, who for 20 years has teamed up with Karin Bergquist to pack a formidable 1-2 songwriting punch as Over the Rhine. The Ohio-based husband-and-wife pairing performed at this year’s Folks Festival in Lyons on the 40th anniversary of Woodstock’s opening day.

Folk music for me isn’t so much tearing up roots and moving to Nashville or moving to L.A. or moving to New York, the lanky pianist/guitarist added. It’s more about this American tradition of staying connected to a particular place. …

It’s a pretty big net, isn’t it? he asked rhetorically before laughing hysterically.

Colorado certainly falls under that net, where forms of no-joke folk call it Americana, bluegrass, folk rock, alt-country, rockabilly and more are heard in places as delightfully distinct as Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, The Walnut Room and the Botanic Gardens in Denver and Oskar Blues restaurant and brewery in Lyons.

KC Groves, a member of the all-female bluegrass quartet known as Uncle Earl (featured in Rolling Stone in April), knows Lyons and its residents well, having lived there since May 2001. She said she chose the bluegrass path because I’ve always loved playing with other people, taking solos and generally being in a band. I also love harmony singing and traditional songs and tunes.

While the iPod generation might prefer pop, rap and hip-hop on its playlist, folk and roots music has more than its fair share of listeners, especially in Colorado, said Tom Scharf, executive director of Denver’s Swallow Hill Music Association.

The (folk) music scene in Colorado, particularly the Front Range, is very rich, probably the strongest I’ve ever seen in 25 years here, he said. The Boulder, Nederland, Lyons musicians are a super strong music solar system of their own, happy to live and play in their respective spheres without a great need to necessarily gravitate elsewhere. And why would they? They’re in heaven.

Of course, support groups such as Swallow HIll, a nonprofit institution founded in 1979 that practices what it preaches, has a lot to do with trying to help its form of heavenly music rise above the rest while making sure folk doesn’t turn completely into folklore. Swallow Hill includes a music school with 18 classrooms, a recording studio and two concert halls featuring prominent recording artists and up-and-coming acts alike.

One of those young Colorado musicians who can attest to the state’s love for folk music is Megan Burtt, a Denver singer-songwriter who recently was on a bill with Shannon McNally at The Walnut Room, a cozy but comfy venue about 10 blocks north of Coors Field.

Folk music is constantly evolving, but because of that I think it will always be a genre of music that people resonate with, Burtt said. Singer-songwriters who have a roots or pop edge can still be ‘folk’ singers, but not pinned down to wording that screams Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. To me, folk music is organic. It’s lyrics and music. It’s words and poetry. It’s opinions and life made into song. For that reason, all ages will be singing, playing, writing and listening to the music.

Burtt adores Swallow Hill, the Folks Festival (which she attended all three days) and being part of the state’s folk fellowship. Hmmm, I think Colorado has some amazing festivals, mostly thanks to Planet Bluegrass, she said of the organization responsible for not only the Folks Festival but also RockyGrass and the nationally renowned Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I think that brings people here. I think the music scene in general is growing a ton, and getting more recognition. We seem to be pretty accepting of all styles, including folk music. Bluegrass is huge here, and I put that into the folk category.

Groves, who plays mandolin, bass and guitar, has firsthand knowledge of that, having recently performed at RockyGrass with another group she formed called the Blue Maddies. For some reason, Lyons, and Colorado in general, is a magnet for great, young bluegrass musicians, said Groves, who has hosted bluegrass jams on Tuesday nights for the past several years at Oskar Blues. There is a thriving folk scene as well but I’m not in touch with it as much. … I’m not sure if it’s the national popularity of the (Denver-based) band DeVotchKa, but it seems hip right now to play arty folky music.

Scharf, a part-time musician, likes what he sees (and hears) from Colorado musicians but … I don’t think they network and interact as much as they could, he said. As far as its popularity in the state, he predicted the scene in the next 10 years will be as robust and revered as Austin, Texas. Popular, schmopular, let’s play some music.

That’s what they were doing this August in Lyons. Burtt previously has attended the Song School held there days before the festival, and appreciates the camaraderie it offers. I went for three or four years in a row, and wish I was going again this year, she said before the event.

Songwriters from all over the country gather to discuss the craft and help enlighten students seeking inspiration, motivation and revelation.

Instructors this year included Over the Rhine’s Detweiler and Bergquist, who got involved as the result of their previous songwriting workshop experiences in Santa Fe. You put these people together, and really interesting things start happening, Detweiler said. You know, I guess it’s a cliche, but we’ve actually learned a lot about songwriting from actually trying to teach people what we care about.

So the spirit of the ’60s and Woodstock, where folkies such as Baez, Richie Havens and Arlo Guthrie performed on that monumental first day in August 1969 lived on in Colorado during a weekend in mid-August. But the motto wasn’t exactly That’s all folk.

Closing the three-day festival on August 16 was Gillian Welch, a Grammy winner and the epitome of a multi-talented artist who defies classification. She performed a few weeks earlier at the 50th Newport Folk Festival, once a home for traditional folk until Dylan turned the genre on its ear.

Detweiler called the mix of performers in Lyons an eclectic group, featuring bluesy guitarist Susan Tedeschi, M. Ward (the Him who occasionally collaborates with actress Zooey Deschanel in She & Him), jazzy chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux and Over the Rhine themselves. Detweiler and Bergquist are a near-perfect power couple who combine touching love stories, inspirational anthems and solid rockers into a well-refined set that’s backed by what he proudly hails as a crack crew of touring musicians.

Asked what first-time listeners can expect from Over the Rhine, Detweiler said, Well, hopefully, they’ll recognize a lot of American music influences. In our music, I see the Midwest as kind of the great melting pot of America; and I think musically, we’ve always been a bit of a melting pot, what we like. Different musical bloodlines sort of mingle.

The same can be said of folk music in general. In the simplest of terms, Scharf likes to rely on a quote attributed to Louis Armstrong.

All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.