'Nonstop' summer for Planet Bluegrass with Folks Fest up next, bringing big names, valley vibes

·7 min read

Aug. 10—Late last month, a sold-out RockyGrass brought three full days of music to Planet Bluegrass for the festival's 50th year. Kicking off Friday, stages will once again be filled for the 32nd Rocky Mountain Folks Festival — another beloved Lyons happening that promises river wading, camping and chilling sets from a cross-section of talent.

"It's pretty nonstop," said Grace Barrett, director of communications for Planet Bluegrass. "That's festival season, though, we prep for it all year. We used to have another week in between, but we moved Folks back one weekend because it was falling at the same time all the kiddos were going back to school. We thought people would appreciate having a little bit more space between the two."

Throughout the years, Rocky Mountain Folks Festival has always delivered a diverse lineup and made sure to offer artists that don't always fit into the typical singer-songwriter mode to shine. Previous performers have included powerhouse eight-piece jazz outfit Saint Paul and the Broken Bones, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, The Violent Femmes and piano man Ben Folds.

"The Friday lineup is a dream for me," Barrett said. "I love Sarah Jarosz, and I can't wait to see Yola live. I've been listening to her albums on repeat for months. I'm also a big John Craigie fan."

Yola, a Grammy-nominated artist, delivers the same energy and spunk as Tina Turner or Aretha Franklin. She continues to garner praise for her soulful songs that pack a nostalgic punch, yet also provide a fresh take and weave genres together with ease and purpose.

In June 2021, she joined Orville Peck at Red Rocks where the duo performed an electrifying cover of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's "Islands in the Stream."

The festival also welcomes back acts like Indigo Girls and Ani Difranco.

Making her Folks Festival debut will be Courtney Hartman, a creative who used to live on her family's eight-acre farm in Loveland. While she now resides in the Midwest, it's fertile property she still holds dear. Not just a place where vegetation sprouts, it's in the family barn that she recorded her 2021 album "Glade."

For Hartman, returning to Planet Bluegrass is also a homecoming of sorts.

"The valley where Folks Fest happens feels like a musical home to me," Hartman said. "The first time I attended a festival at Planet Bluegrass I was about 12, and I haven't missed too many years since. Now I live in northern Wisconsin, so I treasure any time I have in Colorado that much more. This is my first time playing a set of my own at Folks. I've been looking forward to it for a long time."

Joining Hartman on stage will be Emma Rose Finders, of Big Richard and Sound of Honey.

"I first met Emma (Finders) when we were just kids running around at festivals," Hartman said. "She would hang out with my sisters and I whenever we ended up at the same shows. It's been so fun to hear her own music evolve over the last few years. Music is rich in her family, and you can hear those roots so clearly in her voice and in her songs."

For Hartman, like many performers, getting an opportunity to play in a venue that boasts a rushing river, tall cottonwood trees and burnt-orange rocks makes for an incredible experience. Fusing artistic camaraderie with the lush surroundings of the ranch always creates a memorable few days.

"One of the things that makes this festival so special is the care and intention that the staff puts into every single aspect of the weekend," Hartman said. "They also host a song school prior to the festival, which I've been grateful to be a part of this year. It brings in a spirit of creativity and togetherness so that even before the music begins on Friday, the stage has already been set for a magical weekend of music and community."

Much like RockyGrass hosts an academy for aspiring musicians to connect with talented teachers, Folks Fest makes sure to do the same with Song School — a program that offers barbecues and sessions on the art of crafting a poetic track. Organizers are also adamant about allowing local talent to shine during the Songwriter Showcase.

"The showcase is always super fun," Barrett said. "We listen to the submissions in house, which is a cool opportunity for our team to connect over music. We end up being so busy during the fests that we don't have much time to do that together. We listen for quality of composition, caliber of vocal renderings and quality of delivery."

This year, there are 10 finalists that will compete for a grand prize of $400, a Taylor 7 Series acoustic guitar and a coveted spot on the main stage at Rocky Mountain Folks Fest in 2023.

The 2019 Songwriter Showcase winner Alexa Wildish performed on the main stage in 2021 after the festival returned following a pandemic-related hiatus.

Last year, the Songwriter Showcase wasn't held due to staff navigating pandemic changes.

"This year we chose to have Rachel Baiman kick it off for us in place of the 2021 winner," Barrett said. "We're psyched to see who will be opening it up in '23."

Planet Bluegrass offers up a smorgasbord of sound for music fans of all kinds, including those who haven't yet obtained their learner's permit.

Jenn Cleary — an artist known for her educational tunes that teach children about the environment and more — will play a set at the Wildflower Pavilion on Sunday at 11:45 a.m.

"I love performing in front of this warm community of folks and having friends from the Song School joining me on stage," Cleary said. "It is so special. I have been attending these festivals since the 1990s. Then I started participating in the Song School in 2004, and I have only missed one year since. Boy, has it been a life changer. Summer music camp for adults, followed by a top-notch folk festival. What could be better? The staff, the community, the talent is all simply unbelievable."

Joining Cleary on stage will be vocalist Cindy Calder, of Erie, singer-songwriter Ken Langford, of Broomfield, harmonica bluesman Mark "Mad Dog" Friedman of Lafayette and International touring rocker Mike Beck, of Chicago.

"This year we will perform a full set of kids songs off of my last two albums, 'Happy Day,' winner of the 2022 Family Choice Award and 2022 NAPPA Award and 'All Together Now!,' winner of the 2021 Parent and Teacher Choice Award and 2021 NAPPA Award," Cleary said.

Festivities kick off 10 a.m. on Friday when enthused festival-goers make a jolt for the best festival real estate during the "Tarp Run," where they'll claim coveted festival spots with tarps. Then the Songwriter Showcase begins at 10:30 a.m. and opens up days of music.

In addition to performances by acts on the main stage, the Wildflower Pavilion will host a rotating selection of artists throughout the course of the festival.

"We're focusing on returning everything to its full pre-COVID glory before we put too much energy into anything new," Barrett said. "Gotta build back up."

Often referred to as "Summit of Song," Rocky Mountain Folks Festival has earned a reputation as one of the not-to-be-missed events of the season for locales and traveling attendees.

"I'm just thrilled to be here playing music with people I love, for people I love," Hartman said. "There'll be some new songs, old songs and songs by artists I adore. And a few special guests."