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Sound Off: See Who’s Jammin’ Before Colorado’s Folks Festival

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Imagine five prominent players on the roots music scene working their way toward Lyons, Colorado, where the 19th Rocky Mountain Folks Festival is taking place August 14-16. But instead of playing music, they’re singing its praises.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Only this actual gathering never took place. But if it had, it might have gone something like this. All five, contacted separately last week, answered questions about their festival experiences and were almost in perfect harmony while expressing their love for folk and all its spinoffs.

The group included two performers at this year’s festival, two Colorado singer-songwriters and an executive with one of the most influential organizations for folk music in the Rocky Mountain region.

Their replies have been edited and blended together into this informal jam session. One of these days, maybe they’ll unite in the collaborative spirit of folk and break into a rollicking version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Until then, consider this their sound check.

Meet the players
Megan Burtt (left), a young folk singer-songwriter from Denver who plays locally as much as possible while promising to “pour my heart out over my acoustic guitar, and continue to be profusely grateful that people will appease my stories when I get on stage to sing.”

• Linford Detweiler, a superlative pianist/guitarist/songwriter who lives on a farm outside Cincinnati, Ohio, with Karin Bergquist, his wife and co-band leader of Over the Rhine; they’ll perform in Lyons on Saturday – the 40th anniversary of Woodstock's grand opening – when Don McLean closes the second of three nights.

 • KC Groves, a bluegrass musician (mandolin, bass and guitar) who lives in Lyons and performs with a couple of bands, including Uncle Earl and the Blue Maddies, a local group that played at RockyGrass in Lyons earlier this summer.

Madeleine Peyroux, a singer/guitarist who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and can woo a crowd with a voice that adeptly handles jazz, blues and folk; she’ll perform Friday night at the Folks Festival right before headliner Rufus Wainwright.

• Tom Scharf, executive director of Denver’s Swallow Hill Music Association since 2007, a resident of the Mile High City for 25 years and a part-time musician and singer.

Discuss your experiences attending festivals, either as a performer or fan. Do you have a favorite? What are some of your memorable moments?
• Detweiler: “We played (the Newport Folk Festival) in August of 2008. It was phenomenal. We got to see Levon Helm play with a big band; he is one of those performers that can barely keep his joy under control when he’s playing. I love that; Al Green is the same way; he almost has to take a break to get it all under control. Levon’s smile was the highlight of the Newport Folk Festival (laughs). And Gillian Welch was there. So much great music and so much history. You know, it’s a real honor to get to be a footnote of some kind that’s the experiment that’s called American music. (And regarding the festival’s 50th anniversary this year) I wish I could have been there.”

• Groves (right): “I’ve been to hundreds and hundreds of festivals. My first one was Blissfest in Michigan in 1990 and it really changed my life. I was blown away by the all-night jamming and the whole spirit of the place. I still get that feeling at festivals now, but usually when I’m there as an audience member and not working. Of course, my favorite is RockyGrass and not just because it’s a few blocks from my house. My first RockyGrass was in 1997 and it really hasn’t changed much through the years. Because of its geographic constraints, i.e. the mountains, it really can’t grow in size so it will always have this small festival vibe with the best acts in the business.”

• Scharf: “I go to more bluegrass festivals than folk festivals. But I like Lyons very much.”

• Burtt: “Lyons Folks Festival, without a doubt. Best ever. Been the last six years I think.”

Who are you looking forward to see performing at the Folks Festival?
• Peyroux: “I have been waiting to witness both Mary Gauthier and Rufus W. for a good while now. I'm more familiar with Rufus' records, and I'm real excited to see them and the others on the bill.”

• Detweiler: “Is Rufus Wainwright gonna be there? Cool. The whole Wainwight family is an interesting story. Alway curious you know about music progeny. Loudon Wainwright is such a great writer. Obviously, the McGarrigle Sisters (Kate McGarrigle is Rufus’ mother) are quintessential folk singers from Canada. And we’ve been doing a couple shows with … well, we’ve seen Rufus and Martha play and … the Wainwright Roche sister, it’s not Martha, it’s Lucy. So I may see Rufus. The lineup looks great. I’m sure I’ll be checking a lot of it out.”

• Burtt: “I always want Gil (Gillian Welch) and Dave (Rawlings) there.”

• Groves: “I’ll be sad to miss the Folks Fest this year mostly because I will miss Gillian and Dave. They are longtime favorites of mine and I just love any chance I get to see them. They haven’t played much this year so it really speaks well of Folks Fest that they agreed to do it.”

• Scharf: “I’m a fan but I’ll be traveling during the festival.”

Is there another performer not on this year’s lineup that you would recommend for a future Folks Festival?
• Peyroux: “I think Kelly Joe Phelps would be a great addition to any folk music show. Holly Williams also.”

• Burtt: “I'd like to see Blue Mother Tupelo come; they are great.”

• Groves: “I’d love to see some crossover acts from the bluegrass, old-time and Cajun worlds. Bands like the Red Stick Ramblers who write almost all their own songs would be great on that stage. ”
• Scharf (left, on favorites in general): “I like Todd Snider, Loudon Wainwright III, John Prine, Patty Griffin, Gillian and Dave, the Good Lovelies, Steppin’ In It and many others.”

Who on this year’s bill would you like to collaborate with and why?
• Peyroux: “I think Rufus W. would be a stunning vocalist to duet with, if ever the chance arose. …” (They are performing back to back Friday night.)

• Burtt: “Um, everyone!”

• Detweiler (about collaborating in general): “We try to mix it up a little bit once in a while, especially if we feel a deep connection with what somebody else is doing. It’s always fun to try to get the two together and see if the chemistry is there. … Whether we end up on stage, that’s always just something you just have to play by ear. You never know.”

Who are some of your folk favorites and what is it you like about them?
• Peyroux (right): “Joan Baez, Dylan. I am most familiar with that generation of folk music. It all mattered to me as a kid. ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ was one of my favorite songs. …”

• Detweiler: “We’ve been doing a little co-writing with Mary Gauthier. We’re big fans of Mary. She’s got a deep well and there’s a lot of livin’ that comes through when she opens her mouth and that voice comes out. And, again, she’s a songwriter where what she’s doing is very connected to who she is. Her own struggle and the tiny victories that she’s celebrating.”

Anyone from Colorado?
• Groves: “As for the songwriters, I think that Gregory Alan Isakov is pretty much the cat’s pajamas. He recently played to a sold-out Fox Theatre (in Boulder) and people came from Wyoming and Utah to see the show. He’s definitely going to be one of those ‘I knew him whens.’”

• Burtt: “Reed Foehl, Gregory Alan Isakov.”

• Scharf: “I’ve loved just about everyone I’ve seen come through the door at Swallow Hill. Heard Harry Tuft lately?”

Is there one particular folk musician that inspires you or has encouraged you to continue your career?
• Peyroux: “Odetta, of course. I can hardly say enough about it. For one thing, she was not afraid of the blues. And she blazed her own trail, too. In other words, she was a great woman first, a great artist simultaneously, and never put folk music above those two things, so I think she inspired me to continue searching for my own path as well.”

• Burtt: “Oh my, how to answer that. … Joni (Mitchell), big time, Blue was my first and still favorite album. James Taylor, Jackson Browne, I'm in love with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, Chris Thile (I guess he's kinda bluegrass), Ryan Adams (who has made an album for every genre known to man), I went through a huge Sarah McLachlan phase in high school … is she folk? Darrell Scott, one of the best songwriters of all time, ever, ever, ever. Hugh Prestwood. On and on and on. …”

• Groves: “I’ve always been a huge fan of Woody Guthrie. I’ve even talked to his aunt on the phone and visited Okemah, Oklahoma, where Woody grew up. I love that he was such a good songwriter and such a fighter for human rights. He also loved to play for square dances, was a sign painter and a compulsive traveler – all things I have been, so I have always felt a special connection to him.”

• Detweiler (left): “John Prine is one of my favorite songwriters. A guy that worked in the post office, started writing songs, amazing songs at that. There’s a story about John Prine that when he started playing open mics, he thought every time you played an open mic, you were supposed to play a new song. … He’s somebody that we definitely look up to. We got to meet him briefly at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival a couple of years ago. We had given him a shout-out on one of our songs. We’d always been curious how Van Morrison would sort of reference some of his heroes in his songs. People like Jelly Roll (Morton) and Jack Kerouac. So we decided in the song on our last record (The Trumpet Child) called “If A Song Could Be President” to reference some of our personal heroes – Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and some of these people got a shout-out from Ohio. (laughs) We gave a copy to John Prine and his band said that when he played it on the bus that he did rewind it and had a fairly wide grin on his face. So we thought that was a win.”

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