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The Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival and C.B.M.S.
— The Monroe Festivals

by Mike Dow

In response to an article (“Historical Help Wanted“) I wrote in the March Pow’r Pickin’, I received a number of festival posters, programs, flyers, newsletters, financial reports, bumper stickers, and news articles about the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festivals that CBMS was involved with (1st through the 19th) from two reliable sources: Don Flaskerud, who was active in the early years of CBMS and helped promote concerts and the festivals in the early years for the Society, as well as Sarah and Georgia Watson, whose husband and father, George Watson, was a member of Denver Grass band, which performed in many early festivals, with the whole Watson family active in the first eleven festivals.

I want first off to thank Don, Sara and Georgia Watson for not only getting me the material (which will be turned over to the Society for their archives and the future enjoyment of its members) but also for saving the material all these many years. Some of it is in mint condition and it all has been helpful in writing this article (and possibly future ones) about CBMS’ role in starting and continuing the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival before it was sold to Planet Bluegrass.

According to Dave Little, a founding member of CBMS, the Society began in the Fall of 1972 and one of its stated intentions was to NOT have a bluegrass festival but simply to promote bluegrass music in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Region and coordinate the jamming for the enjoyment of its members. But when Bill Monroe brought his band to Tulagi’s in Boulder for an extended engagement and some of those early Society members, naturally, went to hear the Blue Grass Boys and meet the Big Mon, it wasn’t long before Bill had those pioneer Society members convinced to join forces and put on a festival in the following year.

Bill Monroe agreed to finance the first and subsequent festivals, book the major talent, and work with the Society to establish a first class festival in the Denver area.. The Society members were to handle the rest of the work and book some local bands to complete the lineup. In the early ’70s Bill needed another festival to promote himself and bluegrass music. Another major motivation for Monroe was that he wanted some places to play between the West Coast and locations east and southeast of the Mississippi—traveling those long stretches between gigs was getting to him.

So Bill Monroe can be credited not only with starting the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival, but also with performing (with his Blue Grass Boys) in and financing the first four festivals (the 1974 festival was called “Bill Monroe’s 2nd Annual… Festival“). The exact terms of the financial arrangement between Monroe and the Society has not been determined, but a profit and loss statement of the 1973 through 1976 festivals shows a total profit for the four years of $20,136 and the Society’s cut or fee for the last festival was 10%. So if Bill made 90% of the profits for his four-festival involvement, that’s over $18,000 or $4,500 a year average (Ralph Stanley’s and Jim and Jesse’s bands were each paid $3,500 for performing in 1976).

In any event, the 1st Annual Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival, the first of the four Monroe Festivals, was held August 24-26, 1973. George Watson, CBMS Vice President, wrote in October, 1976 a short summary of the first four festivals: “The first festival was probably the most hectic in that the total (and detailed) scheme of things was new to most of us—and time was short. In a matter of six months the bands had to be booked and all preparations made—where to have the festival, what advertising to utilize, the scheduling, the security required, should there be contests (what type, rules, judging, etc.), should there be vendor booths, and what about food? These were some of the major problems…” In spite of the difficulties, the few CBMS members arranged for the first festival to be held at the Adams County Fairgrounds and laid down the parameters of a festival that would continue at that site for fifteen years. “Radio stations carried spot announcements. . . Newspapers carried pictures and articles on the festival… The McLain Family arrived in Denver two days prior to the festival and presented some live music and interviews for the local television viewers, “ according to George Watson’s summary.

Headliners that first year, according to a poster showing a drawing of a stern Bill Monroe playing his mandolin, were: Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, The Bluegrass Alliance, The McClain Family, County Gazette, Hylo Brown, Hubert Davis, and Ray & Ina Patterson. Others who also performed: City Limits, Denver Grass, The Possum Trotters, Goldrush, Flat Iron Mountain Boys, and Dudley Murphy, according to Sara and Georgia Watson. But I found evidence that Wheeling Steel, The Stone Mountain Boys, Monroe Doctrine, and the Haystack Mountain Boys were also part of the 1st Annual. It appears that every local band that expressed an interest was allowed on stage for some part of the festival. No ticket prices were printed on the poster, but the cost of the festival at the Gate only was: 3-Day-$12, Friday-$4, Saturday-$6, Sunday-$5.

Reports of around 6,500 people attending that 1st festival are probably accurate; the number was many more than had been expected. A four-page festival program was produced, the back page of which was an ad for Bluegrass Unlimited. Again from George Watson’s summary: “Who can forget the winds that tried to carry off the tent at the first festival—how all but Bill Monroe lost their hats in a sudden gust of wind. Also, we were reminded that you don‘t dance during the gospel numbers.” By all accounts, the first Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival was a roaring success and plans were immediately made to continue the festival.

“Preparations were started early in 1974 for number two. For the second festival we applied some lessons learned from number one—solid stage protection in lieu of the floppy tent material, for example,” according to George Watson’s summary. Indeed, as judged by surviving printed materials, the CBMS members were better prepared to present ”Bill Monroe’s” 2nd Annual Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival August 23-25, 1974. Gate-only prices were the same as the prior year and were put on the posters (with drawings of banjo and mandolin) and flyers. Bumper stickers were printed up and distributed. On August 18th the Denver Post’s Roundup section featured a full-page announcement of the festival (with the same banjo and mandolin drawings reproduced) and three-quarters of a page article by Pat McGraw on the upcoming festival, just after the movie review of Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown.” (The Post and Pat would follow up on Tuesday, August 27th with a full photo-filled page and article on the 2nd festival.) The Festival program, edited by Carolyn K. Webb with cover art by Lynn Morris, was now twelve pages, included advertisements, the schedule, articles and pictures of some of the bands, and even a tabbed-out banjo piece (“Flatiron”) by Warren Kennison.

An impressive number of headliners performed the second year: Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys, Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass, Clyde Moody, James Monroe, Bobby Smith and the Boys from Shiloh, Country Gazette, Bluegrass Alliance, Monroe Doctrine, McLain Family, and Bobby Smith. Others included in (squeezed into?) the program: Dudley and Deanie Murphy, Colorado Sage, City Limits, Denver Grass, Haystack Mountain Boys, Tzigane Balalaikas, the Williams Family, Tyndall County, Wheeling Steel, Ray & Ina Patterson, Big River Boys, and the Possum Trotters. The Society newsletter reported the attendance at 8,252; profits from the second year were $5,966. Bill and the Society were on a roll, yet the memories of what happened were predominant in George Watson’s summary: “Who can forget Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley singing together in the finale or Roland White and Bill? Was Bluegrass music being promoted in the Denver area—you betcha!”

By 1975, the Society was flourishing and well organized for the third festival which would take place August 22-24, 1975. An April newsletter reported “most of the preliminary planning and preparation for the festival are well in hand” and “another of our famous ‘Festival Poster Contests’” was announced with a May 5th deadline. In the May newsletter, Norman Blake was among the named-performers-to-appear but he never did.

The flyer for the Third Annual printed the “same as last year” admission prices (tickets at Gate only ) as well as a long list of performers ending with “& Minnie Moore” The July newsletter included a humorous article about Minnie the “famous or infamous” woman performer along with letters to Miss Moore. By the August newsletter all was about ready, with “no regular meeting and jam at the Global Village this month due to festival preparations.“ From all reports, this was to be the most successful of the Monroe Festivals.

Headliners for the 3rd Annual Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival were: Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys, Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys, Country Gazette, Crossfire, James Monroe, Country Cooking, Joe Bethancourt, The McLain Family Band, and Dudley Murphy. Other bands who performed that year were: City Limits, Tecumseh, Whiskey Before Breakfast, Colorado Stump Jumpers, Bluegrass Crusade, Front Porch Pickers, Tyndall-Okeh Sting Band, Denver Grass, Williams Family, Possum Trotters, Haystack Mountain Boys, Town & Country Review, Ray & Ina Patterson and Appleseed from Japan.

The twelve-page program was full of advertisements, including a full-page ad from Ferretta’s Music Service asking, “Would you let your daughter buy a used guitar from this man?” with a photo of David. There was a slight decrease in attendance (7864), but the profits from the festival almost reached $7,000. KUNC radio from Greeley recorded the festival and would broadcast it as part of their FM programming.

Back to George Watson’s summary: “Interest in the CBMS meetings began to wane in mid 1976… much of the lack of enthusiasm can be directly related to the fact that the Society has accomplished its mission—Bluegrass has been promoted in Denver.” (Perhaps a premature Mission Accomplished statement.) In any event, there were many signs that the fourth festival would not be as successful. Ticket prices were finally raised to $14-3-day; $5-Friday, $7-Saturday, $6-Sunday (again Gate only). The Society’s newsletters got skimpier. It was reported that “the May CBMS meeting produced a minor eruption of anger resulting in finger-pointing, shouting and buck passing. The question being dealt with was the ‘apathy’ in the Society.”

In spite of the apparent difficulties with the Society membership, the 4th Annual Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival was held August 27-29, 1976.

Headliners for the fourth year were: Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys, Ralph Stanley, Country Gentlemen, Jim & Jesse, The McLain Family Band, James Monroe. Other bands who performed were: Stone Mountain Bluegrass Company, City Limits, Ray & Ina Patterson, The Denver Grass, Sunday River, Well Spring, Haystack Mountain Boys, Dudley & Deanie Murphy, Town & Country Review, Sandy Creek Pickers, Rambling Drifters, and the Nessic Expedition from Japan. The 12-page program included two full pages of photographs, a bluegrass band directory, and a list of contacts for these bands such as Charles Sawtelle for The Drifting Ramblers, John Ramsey for Mountain Belle, Jack Davis for Tecumseh, and Rick Riman for Horse Feathers.

By the end of the fourth festival, Monroe had a business manager, who, according to Dave Little, was hard to get along with and got crossways with the Society. The fourth festival was also the low point for by-year festival profits (only $2,071) and the $1,864 paid Monroe that year was less that was paid to his son James Monroe’s band. Whether Bill bailed out of future festivals due to diminishing profits or Monroe’s business manager had something to do with it, Bill Monroe never performed at the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival again. One wonders what might have happened had the relationship between the Society and Bill Monroe continued to be amiable. Would the Festival be now known as Beanblossom West instead of RockyGrass?

Thanks to Mike Dow and the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society for allowing us to reprint this article - which originally appeared in Pow'r Pick'n.

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