Honoree Peter Rowan, The Infamous Stringdusters and more perform at inaugural, 3-day American Music Legacy Festival in Dillon
Musical legend played with ‘Father of Bluegrass’ Bill Monroe
A new festival is debuting at the Dillon Amphitheater this weekend. Called the American Music Legacy Festival, the one-of-a-kind event will see talented musicians play modern and classic bluegrass — in addition to blurring genres — from Friday, July 23, through Sunday, July 25.
As the name implies, the inaugural festival is about preserving America’s diverse musical history. Film crews will interview the artists backstage as well as capture the live performances. Footage of each show will be archived online and made available to museums.
Peak Performances founder and CEO Mike O’Brien got the idea for the documentary from Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” film about The Band, and he solidified his desire to create the festival after the death of country folk singer-songwriter John Prine in April 2020.
“We should celebrate people while we still have them,” O’Brien said. As the programming director for the venue, he is in charge of regularly booking talent each season and used his skills to put together an all-star lineup.
Starting at 6 p.m. Friday, people can hear Fireside Collective, The Lil Smokies and The Del McCoury Band. Saturday’s concert begins at 4 p.m. and the day includes the Tim O’Brien Band and The Infamous Stringdusters. Closing out on Sunday is Ferguson, Carbone and Peck, Bowregard, Dan Tyminski Band and Railroad Earth.
Honoree Peter Rowan performs all three nights: first with Big Mon on Friday, solo on Saturday and with Los Texmaniacs on Sunday. Lastly, a jam session that puts a cap on the festival has Rowan, Bill Nershi from The String Cheese Incident, Railroad Earth and Tyminski — known for being a member of Alison Krauss’ band Union Station and George Clooney’s singing voice in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” — confirmed to perform.
“There’s going to be a lot of collaboration and cross pollination,” O’Brien said. “There’s going to be quite a few really musical gems reveled on that stage. The stew of players mixing up on the stage together, I’m excited. Sometimes you feel like you’ve seen it all, but I’m looking forward to it not only as a producer but as a fan.”
There is no set schedule, but O’Brien said the first acts will perform for about 30 minutes, 75 minutes for the middle acts and headliners end the evening with 90 minutes. Sunday’s finale is expected to last roughly 20 minutes.
What: American Music Legacy Festival
When: Friday, July 23, through Sunday, July 25
Where: Dillon Amphitheater, 201 W. Lodgepole St.
Cost: $35 per day with three-day passes starting at $99. Visit DillonAmphitheater.com to purchase.
O’Brien selected the groups based on Rowan’s influence. He and Del McCoury were both members of the Blue Grass Boys with Bill Monroe, known as the “Father of Bluegrass.” The Grammy winner has also notably toured with Railroad Earth to play the entirety of “Old & in the Way,” the bestselling 1973 album made by Rowan, Vassar Clements, Jerry Garcia, David Grisman and John Kahn.
Future editions of the festival — in which O’Brien hopes to honor musicians such as Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and Neil Young — will likewise be tailored to the specific honoree.
O’Brien chose Rowan because he frequently heard other bands cover his songs, like “Panama Red,” for instance, while staying under the radar and believing Rowan deserves wider acclaim. He’s worked with Rowan over 20 times since 1994, as well.
“You don’t often get to work with artists on that genius level,” O’Brien said. “I have a great admiration for his talent, and I’ve seen the respect he gets in the industry. … He has some of the most influential songwriting in the wider bluegrass genre.”
Born in Wayland, Massachusetts, Rowan was surrounded by music from a young age. The first live music he remembers hearing was when his uncle came back from World War II playing the songs “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” and “My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaiʻi.” That sparked his interest and led to Rowan receiving a plastic Mario Maccaferri ukulele — the same designer of Django Reinhardt’s guitar — from his dad.
In 1956, Rowan formed his first band, the Cupids, while in high school, and he was influenced by Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly — especially after the death of Holly. Rowan was also influenced by Eric Von Schmidt singing classic Lead Belly blues songs in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter, he listened to a Monroe record at a store and became hooked.
“He was doing a lot of those blues, but in a kind of a way that was a little more accessible to me, not racially but culturally,” Rowan said. “The blues were a really inspiring, especially the people who sang them. … The bluegrass thing had harmony, and that really appealed to me.”
Monroe hired Rowan in 1963 and remained with the Bluegrass Boys through 1967. Singing is Rowan’s favorite aspect of performing, and to this day his first duet with Monroe at the Boston Symphony Hall remains a highlight of his storied career.
“To be hired by Bill Monroe sort of validated my dreams of wanting to make these musical sounds that really inspired me and make them for other people,” Rowan said. “That became my main motivation. It was less about me satisfying myself and more about how do I reach out to the public.”
He formed psychedelic rock band Earth Opera with Grisman in 1967 and frequently opened for The Doors. The collaboration then led to the “Old & in the Way” album with Garcia after moving to the West Coast. Rowan has continued to blur genre boundaries with his groups Peter Rowan & Crucial Reggae and The Free Mexican Airforce.
Like America’s own melting pot of cultures, Rowan makes music that has a unique relationship to the broadest term of bluegrass by playing island and Southwestern sounds, among others.
“I don’t want to play music that just sounds like bluegrass,” Rowan said. “I want to do something in the bluegrass medium that speaks to our time. People tend to think of bluegrass as just sort of a nostalgic story. Subject matter is everything. … I want to speak to these times in this traditional medium, with its beautiful harmonies and its sentiments. I want to make people cry when they hear these songs.”
With numerous bands throughout the decades, Rowan called the pandemic the first break he had in 50 years. He spent the time writing, reflecting and appreciating his relationships with friends, family and peers.
This festival isn’t a retirement party for the 79-year-old. Rowan is still touring, working on a memoir and will get back into the studio this fall with Los Texmaniacs in addition to soon recording his own in-progress bluegrass album. But at the moment, he’s simply excited to play.
“Here we are with the country’s so-called reopening now,” Rowan said. “The joy of people getting together to share this inspirational sound fiesta called music, it’s quite remarkable. It’s remarkable that audiences are very forgiving and enthusiastic, which helps the music. And we help them and give them what we can. There’s something magical about that interplay.”
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