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Bluegrass in Boulder: Carried on a Mountain Breeze

Karleen Lewis, Director of Marketing and Communications for Visit Boulder, knows better than anyone what makes Boulder, Colorado, special.

"I love that you can feel Boulder's kind and curious heart through every interaction you have here," Lewis explained. "From cultivating sustainable living habits to a community that rallies around one another, Boulder has a special feeling all its own."

Part of that "special feeling" includes a thriving bluegrass scene. From Hot Rize to Leftover Salmon, local musicians have put forth music born amongst the rugged peaks. It's a more western reflection of the music that finds its base influences in Appalachia's original rocky bluegrass terrain. There's just something about mountains that pairs with the music.

"In Boulder, a love for folk, Americana, and bluegrass music has long been in the water, with the

natural setting and laid-back vibes providing a muse for musicians," Lewis said, adding that several regular outdoor music series allow audiences to hear tunes "carried on the mountain breeze, often with a view of the Flatirons."

When pressed to describe the dynamic between landscape and music, Lewis said a musicologist might be able to provide a more learned answer, but she gave a stab at it as someone who lives in the region and is deeply immersed in local culture.

"In Boulder, the surrounding beauty in the forests, foothills, and mountains represents a kind of everyday escape – a way to connect with something deeper inside you through the freedom of nature," she said. "That seems to be similar to the feeling of freedom many musicians and audiences connect with in bluegrass, folk, and Americana music."

In addition, there may be a connection between Boulder's historical demographics and some of these musical movements, she explained.

"Between 1960 and 1975, Boulder's population more than doubled, with the majority under the age of 24. Not all of them were hippies, but hippie culture thrived in Boulder, and college students outspoken about political issues transformed Boulder's social landscape. For many people, Boulder still conjures up images of VWs, long hair and peace signs."

This thriving and progressive roots music scene has made Boulder an appropriate "bluegrass destination."

First, there are the festivals. Lewis said the Charles Sawtelle Memorial Mountain Jam usually happens in late July in Gold Hill.

"The Charles Sawtelle Memorial Mountain Jam, aka 'The Charles,' is named for the beloved Hot Rize guitarist, Charles Sawtelle, who helped start the event in 1989," Lewis explained. "After his passing in 1999, the event was renamed in his memory. Celebrating its 35th anniversary, The Charles is a family-friendly mini-festival of al fresco bluegrass and Americana music aimed at music fans who enjoy the clear mountain air and dazzling acoustic music in a spectacular outdoor setting."

The Bluebird Music Festival happens on April 29 and 30, 2023.

"The Bluebird Music Festival is a two-day music event held in Macky Auditorium on CU Boulder's campus," Lewis said. "There are over ten performances throughout the day with something for all age groups, featuring an impressive mix of artists and a unique 'Stories and Strings' format. The ticket proceeds go to The Future Arts Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to provide Colorado schools with instruments and art supplies."

Music fans who want to take in something different might also consider a visit during the annual Boulder Bach Festival, which celebrates the music of J.S. Bach, and Colorado MahlerFest, another classical music happening inspired by composer Gustav Mahler.

Then, there's Colorado Chautauqua, around which Lewis said it makes sense to structure a visit to Boulder. It hosts year-round concerts across genres.

"Chautauqua is worth a trip on its own," she said. "Its auditorium brings visitors and the community together to celebrate shared cultural events. Listening to a concert at the auditorium is a unique experience – it's centuries old, built with an open architecture that produces acoustics like no other."

She added that it is a vital, engrained piece of Boulder and its community. "Chautauqua has a deep history, starting in the 1800s, and now is one of the only Chautauquas left in the country."

In addition to the Chautauqua, Lewis suggests that visitors look into live music at venues such as Boulder Theater, Fox Theatre, Mackey at CU, Boco Cider, The Velvet Elk Lounge, Dairy Arts Center, or The Bandshell.

A more comprehensive experience might include adding a visit to the 63rd St Farm.

"This urban farm hosts live music outside during the summertime, where you can bring your picnic or enjoy food from a local food truck," Lewis said. "Located only a few minutes from downtown Boulder, it is focused on sustainable agriculture that connects with the community through a symbiotic relationship with animals, plants, and people. This farm has educational workshops, tours, and volunteering available to the public throughout the year."

Every Thursday, The Rayback hosts live, local music.

"This venue has food trucks, drinks, event spaces, and a backyard that's dog friendly," Lewis said. "Outside of music, they also host trivia nights, community events, and stand-up comedy every Sunday."

For those who want to get to the spirit of the Boulder bluegrass scene, there's eTown Hall.

"Operated by bluegrass musician Nick Forster, eTown hall is an events production company," Lewis said. "They produce nationally syndicated radio broadcast/podcast shows in front of a live audience. eTown is home to the Hippy Bluegrass Church, an event with community sing-alongs paired with poetry and storytelling with bluegrass musicians."

Lewis said her city is appealing year-round, but fall seems to be her personal favorite season.

"One of the best things about Boulder is how there are things to do all year long, so it's always a great time to visit," she said. "Our fall season usually has the most pleasant temperatures, the 60s to 70s, with a ton of events. There are plenty of opportunities to see fall colors on foot, on a scenic drive, or visit one of Boulder's 20 farms with visitor experiences. Plus, it's CU football season!"

To sum it up, Lewis feels Boulder has something for everybody.

"When it's time to gather round with friends for a great meal, Boulder has an enormous – and delicious – selection of restaurants and craft breweries for a city its size," Lewis said. "At day's end, you can stay in a cottage or adventure lodge tucked into the foothills or in a historic boutique hotel downtown – whatever floats your boat!"

According to Lewis, the following musicians have been, or currently are, a significant part of the Boulder roots music scene:

Tim O'Brien

Leftover Salmon

The String Cheese Incident

Elephant Revival

Gregory Alan Isakov

Yonder Mountain String Band

Townes Van Zandt

Everybody Loves an Outlaw (Bonnie and Taylor Sims)

Hot Rize (Nick Forster)

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