Every year, the town of Lyons comes alive for a week with the old-timey sounds of bluegrass - fiddling, flatpicking, strumming and rapid-fire fingerpicking. We're talkin' about the Rockygrass Bluegrass Academy. It takes place in the week before the main stage heats up at the Rockygrass Festival - a small, (3,500 tickets) three-day festival with an amazing lineup including Yonder Mountain String Band, Tony Trischka, Peter Rowan, Jerry Douglas, Steve Earle, Sam Bush and Earl Scruggs. During the Academy, many of the performers teach the audience, everyone jams together every night, and Rowan usually leads a graduation ceremony of all the students standing in the St. Vrain River singing gospel tunes.For one week, Lyons, near Longmont on the Front Range, is magic. Something special happens when hundreds of people spend all that time singing and playing music together. The small community becomes tight knit. People learn in giant steps. And by the time the festival rolls around everyone is family. It's so good that slots for Rockygrass fill up roughly two hours after they open on the Monday after Thanksgiving.One Aspenite, however, always has a ticket because he and a fellow musician started the academy. In fact, Sandy Munro is the only person who has taught at every single one.
Munro is a talented multi-instrumentalist who spends most of his time at the small music store he owns, tucked away on the corner of Main and Monarch streets, called The Great Divide. It's decorated with concert posters, photos of his past and present bands, and, of course, new and used instruments. And though playing music is one of his passions - something he does with the Flying Dog Bluegrass Band and the Crowlin Ferlies (playing every Tuesday at the Double Dog Pub) - Munro absolutely loves teaching students. "If I'm lucky enough to turn someone on to music then that's amazing; teaching here, I've probably done that a thousand times," said Munro, who teaches fiddle, guitar, banjo and mandolin. "If people have music in their lives there are a lot of other things they don't have to have."But let's go back to the beginning, 20 years ago or so at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where the bluegrass academy first got its wings.
At that time, Rockygrass (owned by the same folks as the Telluride festival) was more of a pickers' gathering, more of a pure bluegrass festival with gentlemen like Lester Flatt, Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. So it was in the '80s, at Telluride, that Charles Sawtelle of the eclectic Colorado band, Hot Rize, and Munro got together to form the academy. But Telluride was getting too big and the academy was focused on the music of people like Bill Monroe, so the academy was moved over to Rockygrass, where it has stayed since."If someone's going to learn any musical form you have to go to the roots of the music," said Munro. "That's what we teach at the academy."Munro and Sawtelle (who died some years ago) put together a song book of all the older, classic bluegrass songs. The book forms a canon of sorts for bluegrass music and is the bread and butter of the Academy, complete with a CD with all the songs. "We teach bluegrass in its roots form," said Munro, who mentioned that the instruments taught are dobro, bass, guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin. "All the legitimate bluegrass instruments."
They also teach music amplification and some musical theory, as well as delving into the unteachable stuff, like how to jam and what to feel when standing in a river singing gospel. "I camp with the students and we play music every night," said Munro. "It's like old family, you get to see everyone."Instructors this year are people like Trischka and Darol Anger."I'm the only guy there that isn't a big star," said Munro. "I get to teach and sing with Del McCoury."Munro has played with all the big boys and picked his own tunes on the stages at Telluride and Rockygrass but what really gets him going is the community, the feeling that happens when everyone plays music, teaches and learns.
"It's just an unbelievable vibe when people get together to play music for a week," he said.Rockygrass Academy starts today and runs through this week. The Rockygrass Festival begins Friday and goes through Sunday. Both are sold out. Next year's tickets go on sale on the Monday after Thanksgiving. They tend to go fast. Joel Stonington's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org