Caleb Olin stands barefoot, curling his toes into the lush grass along the banks of the tranquil St. Vrain River. He smiles and lifts his fiddle to play a bluegrass classic with a small group of students in this alfresco classroom. There are no notebooks. No laptops. The learning process here distills down to playing music – sometimes while standing shin-deep in the river – with others who share a passion for this American roots music.
Each year, Mr. Olin joins 200 fellow musicians on a pilgrimage to this small Colorado quarry town just north of Boulder, which for a week in late July becomes a coveted destination for bluegrass fans worldwide. The RockyGrass Bluegrass Academy, a four-day immersion in bluegrass music, features instruction with top-tier musicians, performances, friendly competition, and impromptu jam sessions from sunrise to late into the night.
"It's kind of like homecoming," says Olin, a Louisville, Ky., Web designer, as strains of "On and On" float on the breeze. "The best thing is that you sit around in a circle and play with all these people that you've only heard of before."
The longing for connection with others who love bluegrass, coupled with an abiding drive to improve as musicians, draws them here from locales as distant and diverse as Australia, England, Norway, Alaska, and Hawaii. "It's a form of portable community," says Robert Gardner, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore.
Like many at the Planet Bluegrass Ranch, Olin was hooked after his first academy experience five years ago, and it's now an annual trek. An accomplished banjo player, he's studying fiddle this year. For Olin, it's a family affair: joining him are his father, wife, and 15-month-old daughter.
The setting for this bluegrass school in the mountains is idyllic: a parklike historic ranch, along the arboreal banks of the St. Vrain, set beneath terra-cotta sandstone cliffs. The 25-acre spread is the home of Craig Ferguson, Planet Bluegrass president, who has been running the well-known Telluride Bluegrass festival since 1980s. But it is the more intimate classroom beneath the cottonwoods and subsequent concert here, RockyGrass, which he took over in 1993, that really delights him. "People say it was the best week of their life," he says. "That's fun."
RockyGrass, in its 34th year, began hosting the music academy in 1994. Classes are held under airy tents or in shady groves by the river. For anyone serious about the craft, the training is much sought after. But only 200 spaces are available. When registration opens on a Monday in November, spaces fill by 10 a.m. Tuition is $450.
Phil Robinson and his 13-year-old son came from the US Virgin Islands to meet up with old friends from Colorado. "We all showed up (two days early) on Friday. We literally came in and squatted on the riverfront," he says. Though it's his first time here, he's an old hand at the fiddle, having played now for 38 years.
Academy students range from novice to advanced. (A concurrent kids' camp caters to the ages 7-14 crowd.) By the fourth day, they are a tight-knit group, picking and strumming together, whatever their level. "This music is about playing with other people," says banjo student David Dettorini of Des Moines, Iowa.
By the fifth day, things really let loose. That's when the three-day RockyGrass festival begins, drawing 3,500 bluegrass aficionados for performances by legends like Earl Scruggs, Tony Trischka, Darol Anger, and Sam Bush. Many of the artists have spent the week here as teachers.
Classes specialize in each of the traditional bluegrass instruments: guitar, bass, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and Dobro. Depending on the instructor, classes are a mix of theory, technique, and philosophy. Richard Greene, a tall man with silver hair grazing his collar, leads a fiddle class in the shade of an open-sided tent.
"There's only one difference between a bad fiddler – or even a mediocre one – and a great fiddler," he says. "It's one word – details." Visibly awed, his seven advanced students listen intently. Mr. Greene is, after all, something of an icon. He rose to prominence as one of The Bluegrass Boys in the 1960s. As the longing notes emerge from Greene's fiddle, the students – lawyers, teachers, and software engineers – study the precise movement of his bow, in the hope of someday replicating each meticulous stroke.
Nearby, Tony Trischka demonstrates the finer points of fingerpicking to eight banjo students. "Snap your index finger as you pull off," he instructs. "It's just a banjo; you can't hurt it at all." Hugging their instruments, they try to replicate the move. "It's pretty simple," he says, his fingers flying along the frets and strings.
"We learned from all of our heroes, the musicians we worship," says Dominick Leslie, a 16-year-old mandolin player from Evergreen, Colo.. "For me, this is like New Year's."
Dominick, a phenomenon in his own right, won the prestigious mandolin contest here at age 14, and by 15 had recorded a solo CD. "I quit soccer because it didn't leave me enough time to play music and do my homework," he says. "Music is always going to be first for me."
Part of the appeal of bluegrass is that it harks back to a simpler time, when families gathered on the porch to play music, evocative of a scene from "The Waltons." Relying on acoustic stringed instruments and vocal harmonies, bluegrass is a blend of old-time folk music, blues, and jazz. The style has its roots in the traditional Celtic music played by British Isles immigrants in Appalachia. It emerged in Kentucky in the 1940s. Bill Monroe is considered the founding father of the genre – named for his band, The Bluegrass Boys.
Today the art form is gaining in popularity. Mainstream influences like the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" have attracted a broader crowd to bluegrass, while groups like Nickel Creek and Yonder Mountain String Band maintain a loyal fan base. More festivals are being held, too. "We live in a world where people don't know their neighbors, where people put fences between their properties," says Dr. Gardner. "Here, the fences are torn down. You can walk up to the campsites of complete strangers and start playing music with them."
Kristin Andreassen, a vocalist who also plays both fiddle and guitar for Uncle Earl, a headline act at the festival, is attending the academy as a student. She wants to add the bass to her repertoire. "Bass is kind of the core," she says. "I think it will help my musicality to learn how to play it."
For instructors, fostering that love of learning keeps them coming back. Sandy Munro, a multi-instrumentalist from Aspen, Colo., teaches here every year. "You don't have to have a yacht or an airplane," he says. "You can be happy without a lot of things when you have music."
As the late-July temperatures top 90 degrees F., students – some with instruments in tow – head to the river for a dip. At the end of the week, they all gather in the St. Vrain one last time for "commencement," standing knee-deep in the swirls and eddies as their voices fall in harmony. "As I went down to the river to pray, studying about that good old way..."
Slow and languorous, the music goes well into the evening and beyond – back to cities and towns around the world as the inspired graduates bring their new skills home.