Mountain Music comes to our mountains

Article by Bill Hays

Music – July 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHILE IT’S OFTEN CALLED mountain music, the mountains in question are the Appalachians, not the Rockies. Nevertheless, the music better known as bluegrass will be making a high-profile appearance in Central Colorado this month at the inaugural High Mountain Hay Fever Bluegrass Festival, July 11-13, in Westcliffe.

For those who may have missed this cultural trend, bluegrass, along with a variety of other acoustic and roots musics (celtic music, blues) is in vogue. This status is attributed variously to the Coen Brothers’ 2000 movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou, which prominently featured bluegrass and blues, and to a growing cultural inclination to reject all things corporate, including, and especially, corporate music (as purveyed by Sony, Universal, etc.).

Even mainstream country music has taken a bluegrass turn lately: Witness the popularity of the Dixie Chicks, originally a bluegrass act and unusual in country (though not in bluegrass) for being singers who are also accomplished instrumentalists. And such country stars as Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs have also issued bluegrass albums in recent years.

Bluegrass remains stubbornly uncorporate. It was originated in the 1940s by one man, Bill Monroe, a mandolin-playing Kentuckian who is perhaps the only musician to have single-handedly created a musical genre. Monroe, who died in 1996 at age 84, made most of his living touring with his Blue Grass Boys around the rural South; on the Grand Ole Opry stage; and at an annual bluegrass festival — still going today — that he founded in Beanblossom, Indiana.

In the early days the music wasn’t called bluegrass, a name it eventually took when other performers and writers attributed the style to Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. If it was called anything, it was mountain music or hillbilly music. Even today, most bluegrass performers make their money playing at festivals — at first in Appalachia but now found nationwide — where they also sell their own recordings, usually issued by small, niche-market labels.

The pattern Monroe established for bluegrass musicians and festivals also continues. The performers — unlike jazz, rock, or classical musicians — are usually highly accessible to their audiences, engaging in what’s called “shake and howdy” following a stage set. Festival goers might just as easily find themselves standing in line with performers at a food booth or a porta-potty as see them on stage.

And because a high percentage of most bluegrass audiences is made up of amateur bluegrass musicians, workshops by the professional performers have also become part of the festival format — the amateurs get group instruction in playing one of the six acoustic instruments used in bluegrass (fiddle, mandolin, five-string banjo, guitar, dobro, and bass), or in bluegrass vocals, from the professionals themselves.

Among the organizers of the High Mountain Hay Fever festival is Ron Thomason, leader of one of the outstanding bands now playing bluegrass, Dry Branch Fire Squad. He is a new resident of the Westcliffe area, where he operates a horse ranch. Thomason has been instrumental in bringing the festival a number of exceptionally high-level bluegrass bands from around the country.

Prominently featured at Westcliffe will be IIIrd Tyme Out, the Lynn Morris Band, Country Current (the U.S. Navy’s bluegrass band), the Reeltime Travelers, and Bluegrass Intentions, in addition to such homegrown Colorado bands as Open Road, the Bluegrass Patriots, and Sons and Brothers.

IIIrd Tyme Out is a seven-time winner of the best-vocal-group award from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). Lynn Morris, unusual in bluegrass for being a female bandleader (bluegrass was long an exclusively male genre), had a big bluegrass and country-crossover hit a few years ago, “Mama’s Hand.” Country Current, the U.S. Navy’s bluegrass band, generates goodwill for the Navy and no doubt aids in recruiting. Who knew that the Navy had a rank of Senior First Class Musician? It does.

IT’S THOMASON, however, that newcomers to bluegrass music should make an effort to see. His high-tenor voice cracks with emotion as he sings songs of loss and love, both old bluegrass standards and newer pieces, all in a traditional vein. He also stitches the songs together by stage patter that can only be called philosophical monologues — rambling discourses that by turns use humor, bathos and pathos to underscore the upcoming music.

His song introductions often force listeners to confront assumptions and stereotypes. The total — storytelling, humor, love, gentle confrontation, philosophy, and music — can be greater than the sum of its parts. Thomason has been called a national treasure by music reviewer John Romer in a critique of the Dry Branch recording, “Memories That Bless and Burn.”

But Thomason says, “I don’t give a hang about the talk if I can just put feeling in the music. If that goes, so do I. For me it’s more important to be understood by ‘thinking’ folks than to receive any laurels — although they are nice. I have had enough success in the horse business to have the luxury of doing what I want at this point in my life, and much of what I want to do is to educate the bluegrass public in a somewhat painless way that may help to preserve and protect a small piece of Appalachian sub-culture for future generations to enjoy.”

Although Thomason’s stage patter has the appearance of being extemporaneous, he confesses that he works it out long in advance. “I don’t think of myself as spontaneous. I don’t find wit to be very entertaining as a rule. My code is prepare, prepare, prepare. Once I’ve done that, I feel a little more comfortable working off the cuff. Being a person who enjoys things that can be done alone, and who chooses to do them quite often that way, gives me a lot of time to think about what I’m going to say to audiences. Activities like running, mountain climbing, skiing, horseback riding, plowing, making hay, even motorcycling and bicycling, give me that kind of time.”

[Ron Thomason and Dry Branch Fire Squad]

PRESUMABLY THOMASON finds plenty of opportunities for lone activities in the Wet Mountain Valley, where he moved three-and-a-half years ago from rural Ohio. He’s originally from Russell County, Virginia, the same general area as the Carter Family who were such a seminal influence on country and bluegrass music (terms that were synonymous at one time in the late ’40s and early ’50s).

Now fifty-eight years old, Thomason was in his late teens when he left Virginia to go to college in Ohio, eventually becoming a high-school and college English teacher, which he remained until he moved to the Westcliffe area.

Dry Branch Fire Squad got its start in 1976, in Springfield, Ohio. Thomason, whose primary instrument is mandolin, formed the band and named it on a whim to perform in a Thursday-night bar gig, not intending to use the name or maintain the band for more than a few weeks. Bill Monroe, touring in the Springfield area, came into the bar, heard the band and encouraged Thomason and his bandmates to open for the Blue Grass Boys in an upcoming performance.

At this juncture, 27 years later, Dry Branch Fire Squad is still together, although a number of musicians have cycled through the band. The band was on the road for about 110 days in 2002, of which 60 or 70 days were actually spent playing. None of the band members (the others all reside in rural Ohio) performs music full time or makes a living playing bluegrass. With Thomason’s move to Colorado, Dry Branch performs in the state regularly now, recently completing May gigs in Salida and Grand Junction.

And of course, with Thomason’s involvement in the High Mountain Hay Fever Festival, Dry Branch will be the anchor band. The other festival organizers are all members of the local community, who’ve set the festival up as a 501(3)C not-for-profit enterprise to help the Wet Mountain Valley Community Clinic underwrite health-care services for people in the area who are uninsured or underinsured.

This non-profit status is a departure for bluegrass festivals, most of which are organized as for-profit ventures. Another departure is that the number of tickets sold will be limited. Veteran bluegrass festival goers know that crowds can be a problem at popular festivals (e.g., the largest bluegrass festivals in Colorado, in Telluride and Lyons, get criticized on this account).

Asked if the limited number of tickets would affect the income of the featured bands or the festival’s ability to meet its commitments, Thomason said… “the people behind High Mountain Hay Fever have made sure that we have enough to pay all the bills whether we sell a single ticket or not.”

One presumes this group includes a political mover and shaker or two, since Thomason also reported that Country Current doesn’t appear anywhere without some strings being pulled — the Navy band was actually booked elsewhere for the July dates until certain of the Custer County organizers got involved, whereupon Country Current magically became available.

AS THOMASON SAID about the High Mountain Hay Fever Festival and its organization, “Collectively, we decided not to take a back seat to any festival in the country in presenting the best music and workshops.” If the festival works out as Thomason promises, it can only be good news for Central Colorado bluegrass fans and for those wanting to experience first-hand the advent of mountain music in these mountains.

The festival will be held at the Saddle Club Rodeo Grounds on the north edge of Westcliffe on Colorado Highway 69, with rough RV and tent camping available on site. More information is available at, or by calling 719-783-0883.

Although he now lives in greater Seattle, where he practices public relations, Bill Hays grew up in Colorado and maintains his connections. He also plays some banjo and attends bluegrass festivals every chance he gets.