Written by: Mikala Lugen | Photo(s) by: Courtesy of Planet Bluegrass
30 Years Of Planet Bluegrass: Shaping The Mountain Music Scene Through Community & Sustainable Action
When you picture an optimal setting for fast-pickin’ bluegrass tunes, a landscape surrounding scenic mountains and a strong, loving community may emerge in your head. Bringing this scene to life over the past 30 years is Planet Bluegrass, the front range’s leader in creating exceptional music and community-oriented experiences.
As the producers of the famed Colorado Telluride Bluegrass Festival, RockyGrass, and Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, Planet Bluegrass has been redefining what a festival represents by not only hosting some of the world’s finest acoustic musicians, but also through its collective community mindset and environmental leadership.
Like most of the music community, Planet Bluegrass was forced to shut down its usual festival operations in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and was able to resurface its mountain music festivals in 2021 with limited capacity and reduced programming. Now, the certified B Corporation has a full summer planned of top-notch mountain music vibes for all generations to enjoy.
“It’s my first full blown festival season as director with Planet Bluegrass. Even though we held our festivals last year, COVID still hindered a lot of our programming,” Grace Barrett, Planet Bluegrass Director of Communication and Partnerships told Volume. “This year, I feel like its Planet Bluegrass’ full year back with our usual programming, sponsors, and partners. To see it in all of its might at full capacity will be incredible! It’s all very new and our whole team is very excited to be back.”
And back in full swing they are. Kicking off Planet Bluegrass’ programming will be the 49th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival on June 16th-19th. Nestled in the rugged San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado, the festival gathers thousands of bluegrass fans from far and wide to dance under the solstice sun. While its name could say otherwise, the festival boasts an iconic representation of all kinds of music, placing more of an emphasis on community building than anything else. This year, the festival will host an exceptional lineup fronted by folk and bluegrass icons Béla Fleck, Aoife O’Donovan, Chris Thile, Greensky Bluegrass, Tyler Childers, Molly Tuttle, The Infamous Stringdusters, Sam Bush Band, and many more. Taking a closer look, you’ll also find “wildcard” Friday headliner Tenacious D and Sunday headliner and Grateful Dead founding member Phil Lesh. How could they fit such differing acts on a bluegrass lineup you may ask? Well, you just have to look at it from Planet Bluegrass’ perspective.
“Throughout the past 30 years, our president Craig Ferguson has created almost this expectation that Telluride Bluegrass Festival isn’t all exclusively bluegrass. We like to throw in wildcards to spice up the lineup in a way where it still works with the other artists,” Barrett said. “Our goal is to keep people on their toes and showcase other rising artists in the music scene while broadening the scope of music to our attendees. Community is a huge part of what we run on, and we hope to bring different cultures and communities together through our carefully curated lineups. It’s a great way for our fans to learn and discover new artists, and people will anticipate our once-in-a-lifetime live stage collaborations between artists that may never happen anywhere else. There’s always something for everyone.”
While it continues to boast genre-defying acts across all of its produced festivals, Planet Bluegrass goes far beyond just the music. Through its community-oriented mindset, the organization also incorporates what they call “sustainable festivation,” or the act of creating a conscious community centered around a love of music and respect for the planet. For years, Planet Bluegrass has been making it a priority to not only produce world-class music events, but literally offset 100% of the emissions created by its festivals by purchasing carbon offsets and renewable energy credits. Additionally, the organization has achieved over a 60% waste diversion rate, enacted a reusable plate program throughout its festivals, and more. To excel its community even more, Planet Bluegrass also hosts two educational series throughout each summer season, the RockyGrass Academy and The Song School, welcoming a space for people to learn from and with their musical heroes while fostering an interconnectedness within the music community as a whole.
“Planet Bluegrass has been very focused on what we call ‘sustainable festivation.’ This year, we’ve been expanding that not only through environmental sustainability, but with social sustainability,” Barrett explained. “Promoting sustainability within yourself and being aware of your own carbon footprint, but also being aware of how you treat your neighbors and those around you. We’re currently rethinking our usual ‘Green Town’ space to rename it and encompass more of social responsibility in that. People’s thoughts and mindsets have changed post-COVID surrounding events and community. We want to give people the space and be open to conversations and enlighten that within our own community. The Drepung Loseling Tibetan Monks will be crafting a mandala all weekend, which will open up a space for people to watch and help be a part of. In the years to come, we want to continue to open the space for more cultural awareness in our programming.”
Of course, what would a community be without all the powerful women leading the way? While some may immediately jump to historically white males as the leaders within the bluegrass community, Planet Bluegrass recognizes that a strong community is only as powerful as its women and makes it an intentional priority to highlight and distinguish those making a splash and turning heads in the scene.
“We’ve been seeing a really cool change in the way that people are perceiving bluegrass music, with the younger generation almost shifting the genre and taking the lead. It means a lot to the bluegrass community as a whole having young women pave the way and be seen as the ‘next big thing.’ It’s almost like the passing of the torch from the older generation to the younger generation, moving the music community forward,” Barrett stated. “It’s bands like Big Richard, Twisted Pine, AJ Lee & Blue Summit, and artists like Molly Tuttle who are incredibly talented musicians, made up of women totally kicking ass. Planet Bluegrass is also a majority female-led team, so it’s a very cool way to learn and challenge each other being in these roles that were traditionally filled by men. It signals a change. The future is female!”
One of those female-fronted groups literally paving their own path towards boot-stompin’ raging fiddle success is Colorado-based quartet, Big Richard. Emerging into the scene less than a year ago, the ladies – comprised of Bonnie Sims (mandolin), Joy Adams (cello), Emma Rose (bass and guitar), and Eve Panning (fiddle) – are gearing up to perform on the main stage at Planet Bluegrass’ next two festivals alongside some of the biggest names in music. And yet, they’re humbled and passioned in the desire to play their music while also smashing the patriarchy at the same time.
“When you talk about hallowed ground in the bluegrass universe, Telluride and Rockygrass are the first that come to my mind. All of our heroes have stood on those stages and made the magic happen,” Adams told Volume. “Everyone who loves this music has a part to play in the shifting history of it, and ladies of Big Richard are peeing ourselves with excitement to be included in both the Telluride and Rockygrass festival lineups.”
Tickets to Planet Bluegrass’ 49th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival and 50th annual RockyGrass are currently sold-out. A limited amount of tickets remain for the 32nd annual Rocky Mountain Folks Festival here. For more information on Planet Bluegrass, visit its website.