It’s not quite the Hatfields versus the McCoys, but there are two distinct camps at bluegrass festivals in Colorado.
Stereotypically, on one side of the field are the beer-drinking traditionalists sitting in lawn chairs who only want to see and hear traditional bluegrass music played on the allowed instruments: banjo, guitar, fiddle, acoustic bass and mandolin and an occasional dobro. They tend to frown a lot when songs longer than four minutes or anything resembling jam-grass of using drums is onstage.
Standing up on the other side of the field are the progressives, young, pot-smoking neo-hippies who like to dance and twirl and sing along to 18-minute imprivisational jams. They tend to smile, twirl and sing along to the traditional bands too, causing the lawn chair-ists ongoing aggravation.
Very few bluegrass bands appeal equally to both camps.
One of Colorado’s best-known national bands, Yonder Mountain String Band, is firmly on the alt-progressive side of the bluegrass divide. According to bassist Ben Kaufmann, “We don’t play a lot of traditional bluegrass festivals because we’re never sure how we fit in.”
Yonder frequently performs at the new breed of progressive festivals popping up across the country, often as the headlining act. “There are a lot of these festivals,” he said. “Often they focus on a subgenre like ‘Americana’ or ‘jam bands’ and others go for a lot of variety.”
Yonder Mountain String Band decided to create a festival that reflected their taste and values. The home state location for the Kinfolk Celebration on August 24 and 25 was easy to choose. The Planet Bluegrass site is an intimate (4000-person) creekside venue in Lyons where the Rockygrass and Folks festivals take place annually. Kaufmann, banjoist Dave Johnston, lead singer and mandolinist Jeff Austin, and guitarist Adam Aijala played their first gig as a band at a holiday party on the property in 1998. An early version of the Kinfolk celebration took place here in 2003.
“This is where our band was born. There’s always been something special about the way people here interact with music,” Kaufmann said.
When it came to booking musical guests the band had a guiding principle. “These musicians we invited to Kinfolk approach music the same way we do,” Kauffman said.
“But it’s really the spirit that they bring to their music. It’s about the energy of the whole event.”
Yonder Mountain String Band will play two long, leisurely sets each day with the acclaimed dobro wunderkind Andy Hall sitting-in. Guests Todd Snider, Greensky Bluegrass, Split Lip Rayfield, and Larry Keel also get long sets – unlike the 45 minute opener sets that are common at bluegrass gatherings.
“It takes time for the audience and the band to get comfortable before the magic can happen,” he said.
And rather than set after set after set, there will be longer breaks in between so that everyone will have time for talking, cooking together, and jumping in the creek.
“We’ve been talking about the real meaning of kinfolk. The whole thing is to celebrate the family experience – our extended family,” he said.
“I bet there will be no more than one degree of separation between two people there – everybody knows someone that they know.
In honor of the event, Yonder asked its Facebook followers to suggest cover songs for the band to play over the two days. Fans suggested hundreds of songs by such bluegrass artists as Lady Gaga, Pantera, Jim Henson, Blind Melon. Radiohead, Wilco and a lot of Grateful Dead tunes. “We tend to pick obscure stuff that can transition to bluegrass instruments without sounding cheese-y,” Kauffman said.
“The only cover song we will never play is ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ by Cyndi Lauper. It’s a rule.”
The sets will focus mainly on on he original songs the band is known for including an abundance of new work that strays well beyond the walls of bluegrass. “We’re getting into original music as songwriters instead of writing a jam and putting words to it,” Kaufman said, adding that the lyrics have to have a personal voice and the band members did not grow up in a dark ‘holler’ in Appalachia.
“We’re not from there and we can’t fake it. I’d rather sing about things that are happening to us now,” he said.
Years from now, Kauffman said, he hopes he’s made some lasting mark on his musical kin. He notes that when he visits campfire picking sessions he hears songs by the band’s heroes, Boulder’s Hot Rize, being played as standards. “But the time it’s all said and done, I want to partly responsible for making new music that will be played by people in parking lots,” he said.
• IF YOU GO……….
Aug. 24-25, Planet Bluegrass, Lyons
• Yonder Mountain String Band and Andy Hall plus Todd Snider, Split Lip Rayfield, and Larry Keel on Friday; plus Greensky Bluegrass on Saturday
• Silent auction: Benefit for Colorado Fire Relief Fund includes signed merchandise, band instruments
• Tickets and camping: shop.bluegrass.com; 800-624-2422
• Information: KinfolkCelebration.com
• Free downloads: yondermountain.com
• Traffic note: Since the US Pro Cycling Challenge runs through Lyons Saturday afternoon, festival gates won’t open until 5 p.m. that day.