For an afternoon of sultry bluegrass, few venues are better than a wide, sun-drenched patio in the Colorado mountains. Just ask native grass god Drew Emmitt.
As the founding mandolin player for Boulder jam legends Leftover Salmon, Emmitt has the chops to weigh in on summer sonic debates. It comes with the territory: For 26 years, the veteran of the Colorado music scene has traveled the globe playing mandolin for his beloved group, not to mention a handful of side projects and thousands of guest appearances. He’s wowed crowds at just about every outdoor fest imaginable — the High Sierra Music Festival in California, the massive Telluride Bluegrass Festival down the road — and come Aug. 27, he’ll show love to the bluegrass faithful when he closes out the brand-new Vail Summer Bluegrass Series from the deck at The Arrabelle.
“These outdoor festivals are the greatest,” said Emmitt, who comes to the festival not with Salmon but the acoustic-only Drew Emmitt Band. “It’s so much nicer to be outside when you’re playing, and of course, this state in the summertime is just so beautiful. People really loosen up and enjoy being out of the bars and theaters. That’s our entire summer.”
And while the series may be new, it’s nothing short of a decades-old love letter to Colorado’s deep bluegrass roots. The series starts with a bang Wednesday, when all-around guitarist Bill Nershi — himself a sort of local celebrity from The String Cheese Incident — plays with The Travelin’ McCourys. It hardly looses speed on July 16 with the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, followed on Aug. 13 when up-and-coming mandolin maestro Sarah Jarosz plays with her trio. Each series date is tied together with libations from Crispin Hard Cider and Eagle’s Bonfire Brewing.
The Vail series isn’t solely for local musicians — Peter Rowan hails from Boston, while Jarosz grew up just outside of Austin, Texas — but it’s still a tantalizing showcase, even for groups that spend entire summers touring from coast to coast. Even after decades on the road, Emmitt enjoys returning to Vail for an eclectic, wildly enthusiastic evening of grass. The series may be relatively small and unknown, but the atmosphere is alluring.
“We have a lot of fun there — it’s always been a great place to play,” Emmitt said. “I think we’ve played just about everywhere you can in Vail. It’s one of those melting pot places, with people from across the country and world. It’s a great environment, with lots of music appreciation.”
The melting pot
The Vail series isn’t a random way to fill quiet Wednesday nights. Thanks to homegrown talent, Colorado is a somewhat unlikely hotbed for bluegrass with a twist, from Leftover Salmon’s rockified take on jam and grass to The String Cheese Incident’s mountainous sound, a holdover from early days playing in Telluride and Crested Butte.
For series founder Ariel Rosemberg, bringing stellar bluegrass to his adopted hometown is a natural fit — the next in a line of mountain festivals kick-started by the scene’s preeminent showcase, the 41-year-old Telluride Bluegrass Festival. By now, the playful, energetic sound pioneered by early festival favorites such as Emmitt and Nershi is practically part of the state’s DNA.
“You can turn 360 degrees and find bluegrass just about anywhere in Colorado, and it’s just a good fit for Vail,” said Rosemberg, who juggles duties as the series promoter, producer and founder. “It’s about the lifestyle. So much credit goes to those first big festivals, the ones like Telluride Bluegrass, who have made it automatic to associate bluegrass with Colorado. They go hand in hand.”
Although bluegrass enjoys a more fervent following than when the Telluride fest was founded, Vail is no stranger to scene stalwarts. Emmitt and Nershi have made dozens of visits over the years, and again, it traces back to a pitch-perfect pairing: There’s the gorgeous setting, the laid-back atmosphere and the passionate local crowd, all tied together by rollicking tunes from the scene’s most respected — and equally passionate — festivalgoers.
After all, Emmitt was a music fan before he became a sought-after bandleader. One of his fondest memories is visiting the Telluride fest without Salmon in the early ’90s, only to hop onstage for a few impromptu sets.
“Because of Telluride, a lot of people have gravitated to Colorado for good bluegrass,” Emmitt said. “It has brought so many people from around the country and world, just some of the best bluegrass players. It really spread from there.”
Yet even die-hard Salmon fans will be entranced by the Drew Emmitt Band. Emmitt has spent most of the summer touring with Salmon, flitting from Telluride to the Southeast to Crested Butte for the Bluegrass in Paradise Festival. Due to a grueling schedule, though, Vail is one of the few stops for the Drew Emmitt Band. Unlike Salmon, which works rock and jam sounds into its tunes, the group is unfiltered bluegrass: acoustic strings, raw vocals, driving rhythms and meandering solos. Sometimes even legends need to fully embrace their roots.
“I like how it’s all broken down,” Emmitt said of his traditional-yet-progressive bluegrass sound. “You don’t have amps and electric guitars and all the production. It can be refreshing to mix things up, you know, get out on stage with a couple guys who are just picking together in between these big shows.”
The next generation
Emmitt, Nershi and Rowan may boast decades of name recognition, but for Rosemberg, the biggest must-see musician in the series is arguably Sarah Jarosz.
“She’s really the epitome of modern bluegrass,” Rosemberg said of Jarosz. “She plays an octave mandolin with a deep and unusual sound. It’s like playing a baritone sax — it looks the same, but the sound you get is rich.
At just 23 years old, Jarosz has come a long way from small weekend sets outside of Austin. Her trio embarks on a mid-summer tour through England, Ireland and Scotland before coming to Vail, and the band’s globetrotting is upstaged only by a recent appearance at Nashville’s Holy Grail, the Grand Ole Opry.
Yet like her bluegrass heroes — Nickel Creek, singer-songwriter Gillian Welch, jack-of-all-trades Tim O’Brien — Jarosz has a soft spot for intimate, low-key summer festivals. And her Colorado ties run deep: When she was 16 years old, she earned an invite to the main stage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, what she calls the “big turning point” in her music career. The set drew the attention of Sugar Hill Records, and now, three albums later and nearly seven years later, her group has become a force in the bluegrass scene.
Again, like Jarosz’s heroes, that newfound recognition comes with a grueling road schedule — but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“A lot of my inspiration comes from listening to musicians I love and respect,” Jarosz said. “I find it hard to write on tour, but I’m always collecting ideas while traveling. The cool thing about string musicians playing together is it allows for a lot of space — we can fill the gaps left by drum and bass. It’s a really cool configuration.”