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'Rockygrass', One of the Nation's Premier Bluegrass Festivals - 2001-08-06

The usually tiny town of Lyons, Colorado, backs up against the red peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, about a 90-minute drive north and west of Denver. But on the last weekend of July, the population of Lyons grows by more than 3,0000 with the coming of Rockygrass - one of the nation's premier bluegrass music festivals.

Rockygrass is one of the most eagerly sought-after bluegrass tickets in the country. Sales are limited to just 3,500 a day, and the festival sells out quickly.

This year, the three-day event showcased a "who's who" of bluegrass and American roots music, including jazz mandolin pioneer David Grisman and the progressive 20-year-olds of Nickel Creek, playing alongside the more traditional Del McCoury Band.

Mike Bubb plays bass in the Del McCoury Band, and welcomes the musical diversity of Rockygrass. He said that some of his band's newer fans were drawn to bluegrass through more progressive music, and then discovered the traditional style. Some new enthusiasts even decide to try their hand at playing the complicated music, and sign up for the four-day-long Rockygrass Academy, held prior to the festival weekend.

Mike Bubb says the mentor musicians love this extended visit as much as their students do. He said, "This year, I think, is the biggest year they ever had as far as attendance. And then we're here for the festival, so we're actually in one place for the whole week, which is great! We love it, you know!"

While the Del McCoury Band plays the traditional form of bluegrass, those in attendance know that the Rockygrass bluegrass tent also includes the more progressive style of bands like Nickel Creek.

That group, featuring 20-year-old Chris Thile on mandolin, 24-year-old guitarist Sean Watkins, and Sean's 20-year-old sister Sara on fiddle, was the main attraction on Sunday.

Over the past year, Nickel Creek's videos have been airing on the Country Music Television cable network. The young band also has become one of the most popular bluegrass groups on tour. Sara Watkins says the band was really looking forward to playing Rockygrass.

Sara Watkins: "So many of our favorite bands are here, and we get to hear them, and play with them, and hang out. And Colorado crowds are always so incredibly kind to us. Yeah, we love these things."

Katherine Cole: "What makes this one special?"

Sara Watkins: "This was the first time we taught at the Academy. I've gotten to know a lot of the audience members a lot more than I usually do, because I've spent so many hours with them, playing. And that just makes it a little more personal than it would have been."

The music runs almost 24-hours-a-day during Rockygrass. After the official show ends, late-night jams pop up throughout the campground with the pros playing beside their fans.

Very early on Sunday morning, Chris Thile was spotted playing Bach on his mandolin as part of an impromptu lesson for a small group of pickers and players gathered around a dying campfire. Twelve hours later, he and the rest of Nickel Creek were receiving a standing ovation on the main stage.

Nickel Creek's debut CD has already sold more than 200,000 copies, thanks, in part, to songs like "Ode to a Butterfly."