Longform

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

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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."
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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