20 Years of Folks

1st Folks Fest poster
1st Folks Fest poster

Only a few major music festivals dotted the American musical landscape in the early ‘90s. In the Mountain West, Telluride Bluegrass was “the” festival. And in 1990 Craig Ferguson and Steve Szymanski had guided that festival to its most successful year ever, thanks in part to headliner James Taylor. That success got Craig thinking: “You get all geared up and you have this team together and you figure we should do something else.”

The Idea

The idea for a second festival came to Craig in a Chicago hotel room, dreaming about trading his law practice for a full-time gig in the music industry. It was a simple idea: songwriters from around the world convene for a summit on the song.  Envisioning a community feeling, it would be FolkS with an “s” (early artwork exaggerated the size of the “s” to distinguish the event from another folk music gathering).

That simple idea was the nexus for the Ranch in Lyons, for The Song School, for Planet Bluegrass as a year-round business, and for the multiple venues, eras, artists, and musical directions that have steered us to Lyons for this 20th Anniversary celebration.

Estes Park Era

Early Folks Fest stage in Estes Park
Early Folks Fest stage in Estes Park

The first Folks Festival was held August 23-25, 1991 at Stanley Park. “We thought we had found nirvana up there,” says Steve. With a dramatic mountain backdrop, an intimate in-town venue just for locals, a rented stage from Omaha, and beer shakes on tap, the inaugural festival attracted about 1,000 music fans to the small town just outside Rocky Mountain National Park.

True to Craig’s initial idea, the lineup in those first few years included Celtic (Altan), Canadian (Blue Rodeo), reggae (Walt Richardson and the Morning Star Band), jazz (Wind Machine), Slamgrass (Leftover Salmon), Americana (David Wilcox) even Russian (Limpopo). The artist budgets were akin to an established festival and the luxurious artist condos up in the hills hosted legendary jam sessions.

David Wilcox at the 1st Folks Festival
David Wilcox at the 1st Folks Festival

But Steve admits, “We had the confidence, but we didn’t yet have the skill set.” The first year’s program misprinted the length of Pierce Pettis’s set as nearly 2 hours (rather than 75 minutes). Laughs Craig, “We’re watching the set thinking, geez, he’s getting tired up there.”

In the second year one of the stage generators mysteriously shut-off prior to headliner Marc Cohn’s set. Marc performed an abbreviated set with amplified sound but no lights – including a stirring “Blue Train” with Maura O’Connell. A quick read of the generator’s instruction manual had it restarted, but not before the festival was canceled for the night.

Dramatic mountain weather conspired to wipeout the festival year after year. One year both highways into Estes Park were closed due to storms; the next year a monsoon in Denver kept fans away as the festival enjoyed dry sunny weather. The rain and wind forced the audience and musicians into cramped tents – leading to some fantastic jams, but financial disaster.

A New Home in Lyons

Building the stage in Lyons
Building the stage in Lyons

After scouting property near Eldora, the festival moved to a rented property in Lyons in 1994 – the same property that had hosted the newly adopted Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival since 1992. “We showed up in Lyons bruised, battered, and in debt,” confesses Steve.

The term Planet Bluegrass came into use around this time. Inspired by the cover art for a Telluride live album featuring planet Earth in the background, the name stuck. “We didn’t really plan that as our name,” laughs Craig, “we just started answering the phone that way. It was a big enough umbrella for all that we wanted to do.”

Similarly the term “festivarian” was born during a breakfast at the Harvest Restaurant in Boulder, the result of a brainstorming session about a rewrite of the poem “Ithaca” for that year’s holiday brochure.

The property in Lyons, which soon became the Planet Bluegrass Ranch, contributed to the new character of the festival. Reacting to the gentle currents of the St. Vrain River in August, the festival’s focus began to shift to one of introspection and intimacy. The Folks Festival was becoming a relaxing, peaceful gathering of artists and poets, seeking inspiration in the power of beautiful songs.

Greg Brown Era

The arrival of Greg Brown in 1995 defined the festival’s new focus and artistic direction. After hearing Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin covering songs by the Iowa folksinger in Telluride and Lyons, Greg’s Folks debut was a revelation. His casualness – fishing in the St. Vrain one minute, onstage the next – epitomized the festival’s relaxed personality. Greg’s universal respect as a songwriter and undeniable power as a live performer sparked a newfound dedication to singer-songwriters. “He helped the festival get an understandable identity,” says Craig, “both as a way to explain it and to help focus us on picking the cream of the crop in a particular genre.”

Festivarians at the Folks Fest
Early Folks Festival in Lyons

Indeed, there were years in the late 90s when the Planet Bluegrass winter brochure would list the Folks lineup as simply “Greg Brown & Friends.” These “friends” were a rotating cast of the country’s great singer-songwriters – John Gorka, Cheryl Wheeler, Guy Clark, Dar Williams, Patty Larkin, even a young Buffalo-based artist named Ani DiFranco.

Similarly, The Song School began to attract solo singer-songwriters from around the country. Anchored with a Janis Ian master class in 1994 for about 50 people (at $25 per day) the Song School provided an inspirational retreat for singer-songwriters in the days leading up to the festival, further focusing on the genre of contemporary troubadours. One of a handful of programs of its kind in 1994, The Song School has inspired students, instructors (including the improvisation-based performer Peter Himmelman, another of the festival’s formative artists), and new programs around the country.

The Independent Era

With the confidence of consistent ticket sales and the completion of the major festival infrastructure (stage, bath house, offices), the festival entered its modern “independent” era, broadening its musical boundaries once again. “Every year can be a new year,” says Craig. “We don’t have to rely as much on our musical history.”

2004 Folks Festival artwork
2004 Folks Festival artwork

This new formula allowed the festival to bring in John Prine for a spectacular headlining set in 2002, as part of his first major tour since recovering from throat cancer. Then the following year the festival set new attendance records by booking Norah Jones weeks before her historic sweep of the Grammy Awards. That year’s lineup reached further outside the traditional singer-songwriter box for fellow heavyweights Chris Robinson (of the Black Crowes) and Warren Haynes, as well as modern folk icons the Indigo Girls.

“Early on it was all about tents and fences – and where to put a garbage can,” says Steve. Two decades into the festival’s history, the focus has now shifted to carefully crafting an experience.

Craig compares the first two decades of the festival with childhood. “At first you wander around aimlessly, picking up anything to play with. Then you start getting a feel for who you are (thanks to a parent like Greg Brown). Finally, you’re out on your own, feeling comfortable enough to weave around.”

As well, the festival has actively re-embraced its original mission of presenting international songwriters, with a particularly strong reputation among Australian artists (The Waifs, Xavier Rudd, John Butler, Kasey Chambers, Missy Higgins). Posits Craig, “Sometimes the dreams you have for your kid aren’t realized ‘til they grow up.”

After 20 years, the Folks Festival has firmly established itself as one of the country’s premiere music festivals – with its own musical genre (“folks”) and its own community of dedicated festivarians who plan their summer around the festival, independent of specific headliners. Look around you this weekend: the next era of the festival may be shaped by a young musician seated on a tarp near you.