Thick sheets of rain started falling in Lyons on the night of September 11, 2013. Most people didn't think much of it until a few hours in, when sirens wailed through the deluge and a flat voice came over the town's public-address system: Floodwater warning. Move to higher ground immediately.
The sirens interrupted guitarist Gary McCrumb's first date with a fiddle player named Jean Ballhorn; the two were playing songs in the kitchen of his 110-year-old house. McCrumb lived in the heavily wooded neighborhood at the confluence of St. Vrain Creek's north and south branches, and he went outside to investigate. He found six inches of water rushing through the alley and waded one block farther to the creek, which was already bulging at its banks. The scene looked surreal, like something out of a cartoon. "We need to get the hell out of here," he told Ballhorn.
McCrumb is not the typical Lyons resident from 25 years ago. He plays in a few bands and works as the performance production manager for the University of Colorado's ATLAS Center for Media, Arts and Performance. He has been a live-music engineer at nearly every major venue in Boulder County and invests in rare and vintage instruments rather than stocks and bonds. You didn't see many career musicians around in the late '80s -- the majority of the town's population worked in nearby sandstone quarries or commuted to desk jobs in Boulder.
But Lyons has become an artistic hub, and McCrumb and his ilk are a common sight today. The town is the headquarters of Oskar Blues Brewery, and every Tuesday night for the past ten years, the brewery has hosted an open-mic night called the Lyons Jam. It's a low-key affair -- except that the people on stage often have Grammys on their shelves or just got home from world tours. Lyons is now home to Sally Van Meter, who is among the most celebrated dobro players in the world; former national banjo champion Jeff Scroggins; and session drummer Brian McRae, who has recorded with Jerry Douglas, John Medeski, Sam Bush and others. Members of nationally known bands, including the Infamous Stringdusters, Bohemian Springs and Elephant Revival, live here. KC Groves, who co-founded the band Uncle Earl, moved to Lyons in 2001. These days, Groves says, "every third home is a musical home -- maybe every other."
Lyons's transformation was a gradual process. Rising costs of living elsewhere in Boulder County made the town attractive to the creative community, particularly those artists looking for proximity to the mountains. Businesses with an interest in music, such as Oskar Blues, helped, too. But no single entity has had a greater impact than Planet Bluegrass, an organization that produces three of Colorado's largest music festivals: Telluride Bluegrass, RockyGrass and the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. It hosts the latter two on a twenty-acre ranch in Lyons that has served as the organization's headquarters since 1994.
It's hard to find a musician in Lyons who isn't connected to Planet Bluegrass in some way. Many, like Groves, were introduced to the town as either an attendee or a performer at one of the festivals. Others, like McCrumb, found work there. Planet Bluegrass, Oskar Blues and the people they attracted to Lyons have had an impact that goes well beyond particularly good jam sessions. Their influence helped the town reinvent itself in the mid-2000s as a thriving commercial and tourist destination.
Then came the flood. Last September, the heaviest rainfall in Colorado's recorded history led the federal government to declare a state of emergency in fourteen counties. None were hit harder than Boulder County, where the two swollen branches of St. Vrain Creek decimated Lyons, driving thousands of people from their homes and causing millions of dollars' worth of damage. Before it was a music town, Lyons was a quarry town. Edward Lyon showed up at the mouth of the valley leading to Estes Park in the late 1800s looking for gold. He found none, but he recognized the quality of the sandstone in the cliffs. It's particularly red and, because of the way it formed in the Permian period 260 million years ago, particularly resilient.
Lyon established a quarry and a town to go with it in 1881. He never made much money on his discovery, but a healthy collection of quarries opened and started shipping sandstone around the country via the railroad. Taverns, shops and schools made of the rock emerged along Main Street.
In 1919, the invention of cement made Lyons's chief product obsolete as a basic building material. The quarries all closed; some converted to cattle ranches or farms. "It almost killed the town," says Jacquelyn Watson, Lyons's economic-development and community-relations manager, who also serves as deputy town clerk.
But in the 1920s, the University of Colorado built its campus from Lyons sandstone, putting in an order big enough to reopen several quarries. By 1930, interest in the distinctive red rock for decorative purposes had created enough demand to revive the town's economy. The quarries have been busy ever since; their wares are on display everywhere from the sidewalks of the Denver Performing Arts Complex to homes throughout the American West.
LaVern Johnson is a fourth-generation resident who graduated from Lyons High School in 1945. No discussion of the town gets very far before her name emerges; in her official roles, she serves as president of the Historical Society and curator of the Lyons Redstone Museum, but civic and business leaders routinely turn to her for advice and consultation. At 87, she has a strong handshake and a bright, easy laugh. Her short hair is, of course, red.
In its early years, the town never developed too much culture beyond its rock. Johnson remembers the extent of the music scene when she was a young adult: The occasional touring ensemble would play songs in the parking lot of a burned-down grocery store. She went there with her husband, also named LaVerne, whom she'd met at a similar show in Boulder. "They'd have a fiddle and a banjo and a piano," she recalls. "And they played 'I Found My Thrill on Blueberry Hill' and all those old songs." She and LaVerne did their part, starting a square-dancing club called the Red Rock Ramblers in 1958 that still meets regularly at the Lyons Elementary gym. But while some musicians ended up in town as the years passed, there were few places for them to play.
"We were always kind of considered a bedroom community for Boulder," says Watson. "People would drive through, and we were always desperate to get them to stop. Sometimes they would remember us, if the light was red."
As the town grew beyond stonecutters to include Boulder commuters, the need for commerce in Lyons increased. The quarries are all just outside the town, in Boulder County, and without a strong base of businesses providing sales-tax revenue to match its growing population, Lyons struggled to provide basic services to residents. That was the town to which Craig Ferguson moved Planet Bluegrass in the early 1990s. He and his fledgling music-festival business could not have been much less like LaVern and LaVerne Johnson and the rest of the town's leaders. After he graduated from the University of Colorado with a law degree, Ferguson had moved to Arizona to be the office manager for a guitar repair shop. Or, as he describes the experience, "I was building guitars in the Sonoran Desert, having slept outside for a year...my long hair, carrot juice and almonds." He still has long hair today, but it's thinned out over the course of twenty-plus years and more than sixty music festivals.
After Ferguson returned from the Sonoran Desert, he opened a small law practice in Boulder and started working at a guitar shop called HB Woodsongs. The shop soon became Boulder's biggest ticket vendor for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Ferguson had always been interested in the festival -- first as an attendee, then as a vendor of tickets at the shop as well as a vendor of guitars in a booth at the festival itself.
In spite of its then-fifteen-year history and solid reputation in the bluegrass community, the Telluride festival was a tenuous affair, run by Fred Shellman and Durfee Day out of Shellman's basement in Boulder. They were losing money and asked Ferguson for help. Soon Ferguson had the operation set up in a corner of his law office. On Halloween 1988, they reorganized Telluride Bluegrass Festival Inc., introducing new shareholders and investors.
"You set up an organization that can put on these festivals, and it was kind of fun," says Ferguson. "But you'd hire these people, and we'd learn as a team all the different ways to work together successfully, and then everyone would go home. It seemed to make sense to find a complementary festival thing." So in 1991, the organization started the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Estes Park. The next year, it took over the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival, now known as RockyGrass, from the Colorado Bluegrass Society. "We couldn't keep answering the phone, 'Telluride Bluegrass...Telluride Bluegrass," remembers Ferguson. So the partners came up with a new name: Planet Bluegrass.
One of those partners, Jerry Moore, was co-owner of a Lyons ranch that had been founded in 1870 as the Griff Evans homestead and at one time served as the depot stop between Boulder and Estes Park. Moore and the property's other owners were trying to turn it into a conference center, but Lyons officials were skeptical and would not grant a needed zoning variance. In 1992, Ferguson and his Planet Bluegrass partners proposed hosting RockyGrass on the ranch. "Planet Bluegrass was not well received by the locals," says Watson. "There were just a lot of tensions." Still, the town board hesitantly agreed to allow the festival, and it agreed again the next year. "After the second year, various little omens and things caused us to reflect on the possibility of buying the property," remembers Ferguson. Planet Bluegrass was able to make a compelling case to the town's leaders, including the Johnsons, that the organization be allowed to move there permanently and continue hosting events on the property. No incidents of violence or major disturbances had marred the first festivals, and there was no denying the financial benefits of all those people looking for hotels and meals. So in 1994, Lyons granted a permanent zoning change, allowing the ranch to host a certain number of music festivals and events each year.
Persuading Lyons town leaders wasn't the only hurdle Ferguson faced in moving Planet Bluegrass to the ranch; there was also opposition within his own organization. The property's primary owner, Preston Davis, was interested in music and had arranged a very friendly $500,000 price tag for the ranch, but some boardmembers were skeptical. They'd signed on to host music festivals, not buy real estate, and at least one of those festivals was already in debt. To soften the financial blow, Ferguson agreed to move to the property himself and lease the land to the organization. "Perhaps the most amazing negotiating solution I ever did was talking my wife, with her six month-old baby, into moving out here into a trailer with no running water," he says.
Ferguson soon restored the old stone building that had once been the depot and moved in with his wife, Sally, and their baby girl, Early. Two years later, they had a son, Griffin. Planet Bluegrass continued to produce Telluride Bluegrass in addition to hosting RockyGrass and Rocky Mountain Folks, which it moved from Estes Park to Lyons. Over the years, the organization built a permanent infrastructure, including a large outdoor stage facing a grassy field; a wooden structure called the Wildflower Pavilion, which hosts concerts and weddings; a bathroom facility; several offices; and a campground. It also added workshops and classes to the weeks preceding both RockyGrass and Folks. Planet Bluegrass has always had impressive lineups at its festivals; over the past twenty years, the three festivals have featured sets by nearly every top-tier songwriter with an acoustic instrument. Alison Krauss played the first RockyGrass held in Lyons. Preston Davis died two weeks after Brandi Carlile's set at Folks two years ago. "He is known to his entire family as having said it was the best set of music he'd seen in his entire life," says Ferguson. "He would talk to his daughter and son about it, describing everything about it, down to how exactly her dress matched the lighting of the show."
Some musicians played the festivals and stayed. KC Groves first saw Lyons as an attendee at RockyGrass in 1996 -- the same year Dale Katechis opened Oskar Blues -- and was a finalist in a Telluride Bluegrass Festival competition in 2000. She moved from Michigan to Colorado the year after that, living in Lakewood and occasionally traveling to Lyons to work on her album with another artist. She enjoyed those trips for the beauty of the mountains and the growing music community. "This is why I moved to Colorado," she remembers thinking, and so she soon signed a lease in Lyons. She quickly got involved in the music scene, co-founding a series called High Street Concerts as well as the Lyons Jam at Oskar Blues.
Even before the Jam started, the brewery was hosting regular concerts of impressive quality, thanks to Katechis's interest in music, particularly Southern blues. Other music-friendly bars and restaurants began opening in Lyons. Articles in Rolling Stone and the New York Times hailed the music scene there.
Still, the town continued to debate the merits of Planet Bluegrass. There were questions about noise and where all the festival-goers should park their cars. "We've had...not a contentious relationship, but she hasn't always agreed with everything," Ferguson says of LaVern Johnson. "I think it was all foreign to her, all these people showing up. A little hippie-ish, a little not in her world. And, really, to her credit, she's been open-minded."
The old guard slowly came around, and today Johnson is complimentary toward Planet Bluegrass. "It does bring lots of economy to the town," she says. The organization has always been meticulous about controlling its impact, both for the benefit of its beautiful surroundings and its attendees, who are sufficiently loyal to have developed a culture of their own. Ferguson and a few of his partners came up with the word "Festivarians" to describe them while rewriting the poem "Ithaca" for a brochure in 1994, and the name has stuck.
Now, Watson says, music is just "a part of life" in Lyons. The town's government began producing a regular summer concert series in Sandstone Park. A new crop of bars and restaurants hosts live music every night of the week. In 2008, Lyons was awarded a federal grant to undertake a massive downtown improvement project. Among other things, the town used the money to build outdoor seating for restaurants and expand the sidewalks, making prominent use of its distinctive red sandstone. Its efforts earned Lyons a Governor's Award for Downtown Excellence from Downtown Colorado Inc. in 2010.
By last year, there were more than 130 independently owned businesses in Lyons, and the town was earning enough sales-tax revenue to stave off those budget shortages of the past. The music scene was just one factor, but it was in many ways the spark. "Without a doubt, they changed the face of this town," Watson says of Planet Bluegrass and Oskar Blues.
Sally and Craig Ferguson eventually divorced; Early is going to school in North Carolina in the fall to study business. On balance, Ferguson has no regrets, not about moving to Lyons or raising a family in the center of several music festivals. "I never thought I'd graduate law school and go work for half price with a bunch of music heads," he says. "But I'm very glad I did. Although it has been a challenging year." When Gary McCrumb returned home from his exploratory mission to the creek last September 11, Jean Ballhorn suggested they move his valuable collection of instruments as far away from the ground as possible before they left. So they crammed a vintage 1989 Martin guitar, a Boulder-made Ome Sweetgrass banjo, a Fender Telecaster, an upright bass and more in the crawl space and atop shelves. McCrumb moved his two motorcycles to a nearby hill, and by the time he and Ballhorn drove away in his truck, the water was already flowing knee-deep through the ground floor of the house.
Ferguson was home at Planet Bluegrass that Wednesday night when he got a call from Sally, telling him that sirens were going off due to flooding. He went outside to find water already rushing across the ranch. Fearing that Button Rock Dam had burst and that the contents of Ralph Price Reservoir were rushing down the canyon in a twenty-foot wall, he scrambled into his car and drove to higher ground. He left everything behind, including his two dogs, Maple and Ranger.
Planet Bluegrass director of communications Brian Eyster lives south of the confluence of the North and South St. Vrain creeks in Lyons. He was standing with his neighbors, looking at the foot-deep water flowing down the street. Like most people in town, he didn't sleep that night. He called Planet Bluegrass the next morning and got a busy signal -- the phone servers were underwater, along with the computers and the rest of the organization's electronic infrastructure in a building usually several hundred yards from the creek's edge.
At that moment, Ferguson was standing with his family on the cliff adjacent to Planet Bluegrass. "My property had become a six-foot-[deep] rolling lake," he says. Early shot a couple of videos on her phone. In them, the water seems remarkably calm, flowing around roofs of offices and houses. Underneath the muddy surface, though, it was finding the weak spots in the soil and structures, gouging deep channels through the terrain and gutting buildings.
There was supposed to be a concert in the Wildflower Pavilion that Friday. In a text-message exchange that morning, a Planet Bluegrass staffer who lived in another town asked if it should be canceled. "We aren't having shows for the fall, at least," Ferguson replied.
That afternoon, he took his children to Sally's house, safely out of the flood's path, but he returned to Planet Bluegrass Friday morning for Maple and Ranger. From the St. Vrain's new banks upstream of the property, he traveled in an inner tube through the rushing water. He found the dogs waiting on his king-sized bed on the second floor of the half-underwater house. And with the flood at its peak, the three of them spent the next 24 hours sitting atop Lake Planet Bluegrass.
By the morning of Saturday, September 14, the rain had mostly stopped, and the extent of the damage was starting to become clear. The storm had dropped seventeen inches of rain on Lyons and surrounding areas. St. Vrain Creek, fed by a torrent of runoff from the mountains, had swollen to ten times its typical volume. Floodwaters had destroyed or severely damaged the Lyons Town Hall, the library, a handful of businesses and 20 percent of the town's homes. It had wrecked crucial infrastructure including the Lyons Public Works facility, knocking out electrical, sewage and potable water services for six weeks. Bridges and roadways were washed out, isolating residents onto six islands.
The town estimates its recovery costs at $50 million -- a number that doesn't include the damage to private homes and businesses.
The neighborhood where McCrumb lived was one of the most inexpensive in town and therefore attractive to artists. It was also the hardest hit. Ranch-style homes were ripped from their foundations and, nine months later, remain slouched against trees. Bohn Park, on the east side of the area at the confluence of the north and south branches of the St. Vrain, was once a gently rolling field with sturdy oak trees; the floodwater tore it to shreds. A picnic table that used to sit by the road, away from the water, now dangles off an eight-foot-deep gash. Most of the park is closed indefinitely, save for a large area away from the flood's path that has long served as the Planet Bluegrass parking lot.
At Planet Bluegrass, the main office was ripped off the ground and carried halfway down the driveway, where it sank with all its memories and documentation deep into the mud. The monstrous creek dug a deep channel directly in front of the main stage, decimated the offices and left enormous deposits of mud and debris throughout the ranch. Several buildings that initially seemed salvageable turned out to have critical damage to their foundations and needed to be entirely rebuilt. But the old stone buildings from the depot days still stood, as did the main stage, saved by its height and the strength of its base.
Ferguson never seriously considered shutting down Planet Bluegrass or even moving it. As soon as he escaped Lake Planet Bluegrass with his dogs, he was working with ranch manager Chad Soulia to buy a dump truck. They found one in Colorado Springs. By Tuesday, they'd also bought a backhoe and hired several Lyons high-schoolers (no one else could get into the town) to join them in digging out their music-festival ranch.
The first public comment Ferguson made about the flood was published in an online publication, Bluegrass Today, a week after the rain had started. He assured the writer of the piece that he was "just power-washing the property."
Lyons licked its wounds alongside Planet Bluegrass. The town estimates that in the month and a half that businesses were closed because of a lack of utilities, it lost a total of $3.5 million in sales revenue. And it feared the losses would continue, with the route to Rocky Mountain National Park still largely washed out and most of the area's trails and parks demolished or inaccessible.
KC Groves was out of town during the flood, but she rushed back. The regular Lyons Jam that Tuesday could not be held at Oskar Blues headquarters because it had no utilities and the roads were gone, so Groves called Katechis and asked if they could instead hold it at CHUBurger, one of the brewery's two restaurants in Longmont. "It was important for us to be together," she says, "to stand our ground."
The regular Lyons Jam performers, including musicians from Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, Morrison and elsewhere, all showed up. So did an unusual collection of far-flung fans and supporters, including Groves's orthodontist. "It was the first time a lot of people in Lyons had seen each other since the flood. The energy was just crazy -- people were crying. It was really intense," Groves recalls. They decided to make the jam a benefit for musicians like McCrumb who had been personally affected by the flood, and sent around a collections jar. "People were just shoving money in there," says Groves. "It was out of control." They raised around $4,000 that night.
Groves posted word of the impromptu benefit on Facebook; so did Oskar Blues. The response was overwhelming, and Groves made the effort more formal, founding the Lyons Musicians Relief Fund. An oldtime string band in Washington raised $600 for the fund in five hours of busking. The Highland Ramblers, a Denver band, recorded an EP called Four for the Pour and donated all proceeds to the cause. Contributions came in from individuals, too. "The goodwill was out there; we just had to channel it," Groves says. To date, the Lyons Musicians Relief Fund has raised $21,000. It's a small drop in a very large barrel, when you consider the losses that many people in town suffered. But it's made a critical difference for many artists.
Planet Bluegrass, too, was inundated with Festivarians eager to donate to its recovery. But Ferguson was adamantly opposed, reasoning that the organization had the resources to rebuild and a revenue stream intact as long as the festivals continued. He insisted that donations be directed to the Lyons Community Foundation, founded in 2007 to distribute funds to nonprofit public-service agencies.
That left Planet Bluegrass heavily reliant on ticket sales to cover the $1.5 million that Ferguson estimates it will take to completely rebuild. The organization did have flood insurance -- but only on two of the property's structures, as those were the buildings that insurance adjustors had initially determined were at risk for flooding. FEMA distributes grants to private citizens, but businesses struck by disasters get low-interest loans instead. Planet Bluegrass took out one from the Small Business Association for $1.3 million.
Nine months later, it has spent a million of that loan. The staff and construction crew filled up the dump truck with debris again and again. They poured new foundations and rebuilt the campground. On a wild prayer, they dug the servers out of the muddy office -- and discovered that somehow the data had survived. In November, CenturyLink ran temporary cables to a temporary office, propped off the ground awaiting a new foundation and sporting only holes in the walls where windows belonged.
Planet Bluegrass always puts tickets for its three festivals on sale in early December. Last year, those days happened to fall on the coldest December 4, 5 and 6 on record in Lyons, with temperatures ranging from eighteen degrees to eleven below. Soulia wrapped the servers in thick comforters, and phone operators in the next building (which at least had windows) bundled up in hats and jackets and huddled around a space heater.
Spokesman Eyster had been posting on Planet Bluegrass's Facebook page, reassuring Festivarians that the organization would continue as scheduled in 2014 despite the flood. But, as Ferguson says, "It's so easy to lose money doing festivals." To bolster confidence, Planet Bluegrass announced the full lineup for RockyGrass, including Béla Fleck, Sam Bush and Ricky Skaggs. The initial run of tickets sold out in sixteen minutes, faster than they ever had before. Telluride went even faster. Every Christmas Eve, Planet Bluegrass hosts a candlelight service at the Wildflower Pavilion presided over by pastor Sam Tallent, who owns the Stone Cup coffee shop in downtown Lyons. But it's less a religious affair than a general gathering for the Lyons community. Of course, there is plenty of music.
The Pavilion was still wrecked last December, so Ferguson rented a massive tent to set up in the dirt in front of it. That marked the first time Planet Bluegrass was open to the public after the flood. KC Groves played, as she often does, along with Sally Truitt and several other Lyons musicians. Governor John Hickenlooper turned up unannounced with his family. "Seeing all these musicians come together -- the harmonies were breathtaking. But it's part of the resilience of the community, coming back after the floods," he later told Westword. "Music does work wonders."
Groves formed a band with six other women in town called the Watergirls. Some of the members, including Groves and Truitt, are career musicians, but others are hobbyists. They performed at TEDxMileHigh in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in December, showing footage of the floods and playing original songs. One of them, "Little Rain," ends with the lines "You can change our land around/And you can keep all that you found/You can watch us stand our ground/But you can't take our town." The crowd's response was thunderous, and the video has close to 4,000 views on YouTube, making it one of the series' most-watched of the past year. The comments section is full of feedback like this: "Ladies, you make me cry with joy to have lost so much and to love so much."
The TV stations with their helicopter footage of raging floodwaters turned their cameras elsewhere long ago, but the donations continue to come in to both the musicians' and the general Lyons funds. And much to the surprise of Watson and other town officials, Lyons is on pace for a record year of sales-tax revenue. "I don't know how much of that is sympathy," says Watson. "But people want to come to Lyons. It's no longer that they don't even know where it is. People say, 'I love Lyons, and I'm going to go there and make it a point to spend some money there, because I want it to survive.'"
McCrumb doesn't have a home -- at least not one he can live in. At the flood's peak, the river flowed four feet deep through the main floor of his house, depositing six inches of mud and debris. Some of his instruments survived, but he lost a vintage Guild guitar, a homemade banjo, a Fender Rhodes piano and most of his recording equipment. The water wicked up the drywall to the roof and undermined the foundation. He had flood insurance on his house, but it will cover less than half of his repairs. The federal government offered to buy his property, as it has the homes of many of his neighbors, but he plans to rebuild right where he is. "I don't want to be anywhere else," he says. "I love Lyons. I want to be here. I made a place for myself here."
This weekend, Planet Bluegrass will host RockyGrass on schedule, and 4,000 people will drive into Lyons, park where they always have and walk a mile to the ranch. They'll line up hours before the gates open, then reserve their spots in front of the same stage they have for twenty years, on bright, newly planted grass.
Plenty of Lyons residents will be working at the festival. Several of the high-school students who provided manual labor in the days after the flood have earned jobs at Planet Bluegrass. McCrumb will be serving as a sound engineer. The town will earn thousands of dollars from parking and camping fees and still more from the influx of people going out to restaurants, buying souvenirs on Main Street, grabbing cups of coffee from the Stone Cup and bread from the St. Vrain Market, Deli & Bakery.
There is still a tremendous amount of rebuilding to do, but Lyons will survive the largest flood in Colorado's history, thanks in part to the artistic community that it has accidentally nurtured.
The Watergirls are scheduled to play at RockyGrass on Sunday morning. During the set, an ensemble comprising Lyons musicians who lost their homes, including McCrumb, will take the tall Planet Bluegrass stage and play a cover of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile."
"We're all alive," says Groves. "They appreciate all the outpouring of kindness, but they're tired of feeling like victims. They'll play the happiest song they know."
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