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Nine months after Colorado's worst flood, the musicians of Lyons are ready for a comeback

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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.
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Kiernan Maletsky is Westword's music editor. His writing has appeared in alt-weeklies around the country as well as Miley Cyrus's mom's Twitter feed.
Contact: Kiernan Maletsky