In Lyons, Music Is a Family Affair
Every Tuesday night about eight o’clock they pull back the chairs in the upstairs bar at Oskar Blues and line them up in a circle. Various guitars, banjos, mandolins, dobros, fiddles and a big acoustic bass are pulled from cases, and players begin to sit down and tune up. Soon enough someone calls a song, and the Lyons Bluegrass Jam is underway.
More players arrive as the night goes on, and as diners start to leave over in the next section, some pickers standing around the edges break off and start their own circle. Sometimes upwards of fifty musicians are huddled in different circles, passing around songs. The jams generally wind down around 11, but occasionally, like one night in March when Vince Herman and his son, Silas, stopped by, the picking went on after midnight.
Seeing someone like Herman, a founder of Leftover Salmon, isn’t that unusual in this little town, now home to a growing number of world-class musicians. Lyons and the mountain communities from here up to Nederland have quietly become a roots-music artist colony. The gypsy jazz group Taarka, Grammy-award-winning slide guitarist Sally Van Meter, the bluegrass quartet Spring Creek, bassist Sally Truitt, Elephant Revival, bassist Eric Thorin, Dave Watts from the Motet, songwriter Nancy Thorwardson, guitarist Jason Hicks of the Blue Canyon Boys, Caleb Roberts of Open Road, drummer Brian McRae, luthier and guitarist Romano Paoletti, bluesman Lionel Young, classical violinist Mintze Wu and multi-instrumentalist K.C. Groves are just a few of the many accomplished musicians living in the Lyons area.
What is curious about the jams is that despite the plethora of talent, players of all levels are encouraged to pull up a chair. “Bluegrass, by nature, is a pretty competitive music,” explains resident Eric Zilling, a jam regular. “At festivals there are contests for best fiddler, best guitarist etc. Here, everybody knows where they stand. You go around the circle, you get your opportunity to play, and then somebody from Spring Creek, who’s sitting next to you, plays. It’s a welcoming atmosphere.”
Longtime resident Dave McIntyre books music and runs the soundboard at Oskar Blues. Fresh from New Jersey, he fell in love with Lyons, at that time, he says, “a sleepy bedroom community, good-old-boy oriented place.” McIntyre, who bought a house near downtown in 1976 and has watched the music and arts scene blossom over the last dozen years, says, “Planet Bluegrass was the catalyst for people to move here.”
Craig Ferguson, who heads Planet Bluegrass, which books the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and brings high-profile national events RockyGrass and the Folks Festival and other concerts to its local stages, first moved to Lyons in 1994. “I would guess we had something to do with it, probably more to do with bringing people to experience Lyons and having them fall in love with it — like we did. Now I’d say there really are a lot of musicians in town.”
Ferguson says that the scene is “more self-generating” today. “There is so much music in town, pickin’ parties, jams, that we really have nothing to do with.”
Singer and bassist Jessica Smith relocated to Lyons with the other members of Spring Creek three years ago. “We had been in Crested Butte and knew Colorado was a good market for bluegrass,” she says. “We wanted to be closer to the Front Range so we can get to places more easily, but we didn’t want to live in the city. We had been to RockyGrass, knew of other musicians living here and decided it would be a good place for us.”
Annie Sirotniak moved here in 2007 from Boulder. “There are folks to pick with, friendships form and there’s a great vibe,” she says. Sirotniak books 4-7 shows a year through High Street Concerts, an all-volunteer consortium started in 2003 by Sam Tallent, Mike Whip and K.C. Groves. This year High Street has presented guitarist Beppe Gambetta, fiddle wizard Casey Driessen and Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum, among others. “Profit isn’t the motive,” she says. “We have a committed volunteer crew. We’d rather put on a show and give as much as we can to the artists. I’ve been a performer as well, and know firsthand that it’s tough to make it as a musician. I guess that’s part of the reason I volunteer all my time.”
Profit isn’t the motive at the blues jams Patrick Cullie hosts each month at Oskar, or at the popular Tribute Nights that Jami Lunde manages once a month, either. Up to 20 bands each perform two or three songs from the catalogues of, so far, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Neil Young, Hank Williams (I, II or III) and Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris.
The idea, Lunde says, grew out of endless nights in living rooms and festival backstages when guitars are passed around the circle. “Oftentimes the circle will come around to cover songs,” she says, “and it ends up that we are having so much fun playing, singing, dancing.” The format has caught fire with musicians and audiences alike, making it one of Oskar’s biggest nights.
Last year several people, including Zilling and Groves, who co-hosts the bluegrass jams with Eric Thorin, started Redstone Radio, a station that streams the music of Lyons over the Internet. Zilling says the idea started at a Spring Creek show last May. “I had bought a handheld digital recorder, and I was walking around Oskar and I showed my new toy to K.C., and she started walking around interviewing people like a television reporter. It was pretty funny, and afterwards she came over and said we should start a radio station.”
The idea stuck, and working incrementally, they created Redstone Radio, an internet-only station. Without doing a lot of promotion, the station logs about 800 listener hours per month playing 80 percent local musicians and 20 percent musicians with local ties, like Herman or Tim O’Brien. Everybody gets paid for their music, and Zilling says that after a year of operation, “It’s pretty darned self-sustaining.”
Redstone recently took a further step, renovating an abandoned cinderblock building at 4th Street and Broadway. Volunteers, many of them musicians or local music fans with trade skills, are bringing the building up to code, adding drywall and converting it into the Groove Shack, which gives Redstone Radio a physical space, but more importantly, adds a rehearsal and teaching space for musicians.
The gap that usually exists between artists and fans is absent here, and the synergy between residents, fans and musicians is as organic as it is self-sustaining. “Mostly, I think that musicians attract musicians at this point,” says Ferguson. “They also seem to attract other artists, as I’ve felt that there are so many more ‘artistic’ people around now, painters, potters, you name it.”
“It’s a great little town with a great mix of people,” Smith says. “There are people whose families have been here for generations, and people like us who come for artistic reasons. Planet Bluegrass brought people who wouldn’t have come here for any other reason and settled here. And it’s still happening.”
This article appears in the Summer issue of Boulder magazine.