Over the years, bluegrass has evolved into a multi-faceted genre, encompassing folk, new-grass and jam band and bits of gospel, jazz and even electric rock 'n' roll. Traditional roots bluegrass has begun to get lost in the sea of its contemporary derivatives.Back in the mid-'90s, some fans of the old ways came together and started the Durango Bluegrass Meltdown, a celebration of traditional 'grass with few, if any, of its modern bells and whistles. "One of the main things that makes our festival special is that we're a traditional bluegrass festival," said Steve Williams, Meltdown board president. "We haven't gone the way of folk festivals. We try to stay as traditional as possible, rooted in traditional bluegrass. We don't allow drum sets on stage at all; we hesitate to allow base guitars. We try to keep it as true to the bluegrass vein as possible."The festival began as a way to bring business to downtown Durango during the slow season, and though the event has grown by leaps and bounds, the shows remain intimate."All of the events are held indoors," Williams said. "Our venues top out at 250 to 280 people per venue, so we have three going simultaneously."
Tommy Frederico, a member of the board of directors for the Meltdown, said the national acts the festival has been pulling in for the past 19 years are impressive, but the regional bands and the 16 local combos can hold their own with anyone on the stage.National acts for this year's Meltdown include the New Reeltime Travelers, Larry Gillis and Hard Drivin' Swampgrass and James Reams and the Barnstormers with Blaine Sprouse."Larry Gilles and Swampgrass I haven't seen before, but he's got kind of the Ralph Stanley in his younger years sound," Frederico said. "He plays great banjo. He's all about catching rattlesnakes and making banjo straps out of them. I read that on his website, and I was sold."The New Reeltime Travelers feature two members of the original Reeltime Travelers, Roy Andrade (banjo) and Thomas Sneed (mandolin)."They are bringing with them Betse Ellis," Frederico said. "She was in The Wilders; she can belt them out and sing, and she plays a mean, mean fiddle."The festival also partners with the Colorado College Bluegrass Ensemble, directed by performance faculty member and banjo player Keith Reed."It's the only program we know of where we bring a college class to a festival," Frederico said. "They get to perform with a high-quality sound and good music environment."In addition to his work with Colorado College, Reed will perform with Bluegrass 101, a throw-together band that has done a couple of gigs together, Frederico said. The band features Chris Henry (mandolin), Reed (banjo), Brad Folk (guitar), Mike Bub (bass) and Shad Cobb (fiddle)."I'm really excited about that band," Frederico said. "Those are some well-known national pickers."
The Durango Bluegrass Meltdown starts with a free show Friday at the Railroad Museum and wraps up Sunday with shows from Hard Drivin' Swampgrass and the New Reeltime Travelers, with a barn dance, a Celtic jam, live performances in local schools and more than 60 sets between.Williams said bluegrass comes from the deepest roots of United States music antiquity."It connects people, right down to the lowest rung of society, to the highest rung," he said. "It's a sort of thread of American music."