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Top young musicians, hot bands, great festival

The fourth annual Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass Festival will take place on Reservoir Hill in just three short weeks, with the traditional Free Friday kickoff concert on Friday, June 3, beginning at 4 p.m. in Town Park.

On the lineup this year are 12 phenomenal bands: Eddie From Ohio, Solas, Crooked Still, Joy Kills Sorrow, MilkDrive, Warren Hood and the Goods, The Grant Farm, The Dixie Bee-Liners, Town Mountain and this week’s three featured bands: Rockin’ Acoustic Circus, Spring Creek, and Finnders and Youngberg.

Every so often a group of musicians come together and form a band that brings a fresh sound to captivate a listening audience. One such band, Rockin’ Acoustic Circus, has developed their own unique sound by drawing influence from musical heroes and various genres of music. Their dynamic acoustic fusion allows them to express creativity and push the boundaries of typical stringed instruments. 

Comprised of four teens (one a female cellist) and a musical veteran, Rockin’ Acoustic Circus is turning heads by demonstrating musicianship beyond their years. 

“This group works hard and is open to different styles of music,” says veteran musician, Rick Morton, guitarist and leader of the Rockin’ Acoustic Circus. Morton, a retired fire chief, once made a career out of fighting four-alarm fires but now, as “ringmaster” of RAC, is fanning flames of one of Oklahoma’s hottest up-and-coming bands. “We don’t discuss much about where it all might lead. If we consistently play great at each opportunity, then where we play and how far we go will take care of itself.”

An outstanding instrumentalist on fiddle, guitar and mandolin, Morton has already garnered an impressive musical career. He won a national talent contest with Ronnie Dunn not too long before Dunn hit the big time with partner Kix Brooks. Playing fiddle, Morton toured with Dunn, opening for well-known artists Ricky Skaggs, George Strait and Kathy Mattea. In 1994, Morton recorded with The Tractors on their debut CD, which was Grammy-nominated and sold more than three million copies. Prior to working with RAC, he enjoyed teaching music and maintained a large private student roster.

Morton is not the only Circus member with music credentials; the younger members have spent the better portion of their lives involved with music too. Sterling Abernathy, founding member of RAC, started guitar and mandolin lessons with Morton when he was eight. He’s been recognized as an ”Outstanding Oklahoma Young Musician” and accumulated several top contest finishes. Eric Dysart has taken fiddle instruction from Morton since the age of six and gathered a list of achievements including three-time Oklahoma Junior State Fiddle Champ and semifinalist in Nashville’s Grand Masters. Emma Hardin, RAC’s “bluegrass cellist” received her classical training at the Barthelmes Conservatory of Music in Tulsa, but now works with Morton to innovatively charter a journey into new musical territory with the cello. Emma’s brother, Zac Hardin, has been a finalist in the International Society of Bassists (ISB) competition. He enjoys style variety and currently studies under one of Oklahoma’s leading jazz musicians.   

Now these powerhouse teens — along with their musical mentor — have merged into one impressive band. As they continue adding to their impressive repertoire complete with unique sound, creative arrangements and dynamic originals, listening to their acoustical fused music influenced by bluegrass, folk, country, jazz, classical, and even some old rock-n-roll, makes them an incredible listening experience. Rockin’ Acoustic Circus is slated to kick off Sunday’s performances with an 11 a.m. set on the main stage.

Spring Creek is quickly gaining a reputation as the hottest young band in the Rocky Mountains. The quartet plays a mix of bluegrass standards and compelling originals, and all four musicians are also accomplished vocalists. While the band is built on the fundamentals of bluegrass, its members manage to create their own classic contemporary style. The young band, whose members met in music school in Texas, have studied and performed together for several years, creating a tight, polished sound. Spring Creek’s members have a deep respect for tradition, as well as an innate sense of musical innovation.

“We choose songs that suit our style,” says guitarist Taylor Sims. “I enjoy the pilgrimage — learning songs the way they’ve been played for years and years, staying close to tradition. But a lot of different kinds of songs can fit into the traditional bluegrass style if they are done really well. We try hard to do each song justice, with real bluegrass-style harmonies and arrangements.”

Judges at two recent band competitions agree that Spring Creek has what it takes to deliver the high, lonesome sounds in the Appalachian tradition. The band won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival band contest in June 2007, and won their second Planet Bluegrass title later that summer at the 35th annual RockyGrass Fest held in Lyons.

“We won Telluride based pretty exclusively on the strength of our original material,” says Alex Johnstone, who plays both mandolin and fiddle in Spring Creek. “People are learning our tunes now and that’s so exciting.”

Though the band clearly appeals to traditional bluegrass fans, Spring Creek mixes in a little something for everyone at their live shows. Expect to hear an Elton John or Gillian Welch cover squeezed in between a blazing fast Carter Stanley instrumental and a rip roarin’ Bill Monroe tune. Band mates agree that they want to have a hand in initiating younger audiences into the bluegrass fold.

“I’m into the idea of playing for general audiences where people might be exposed to traditional bluegrass for the first time,” says banjoist Chris Elliott, who earned top honors at the Rockygrass banjo instrument contest. “When I first saw younger people playing bluegrass, I thought, ‘Wow, this could be really cool,’” says Elliott. “If more young people are exposed to bluegrass at the right time, they’ll like it too.”

Following up on 2006’s “Rural & Cosmic Bluegrass,” Spring Creek released “Lonesome Way to Go” in March 2008 and their third disc, Way Up on a Mountain on Rebel Records in May 2009. This 12-track album of kickin’ Colorado bluegrass has charmed fans, critics, DJs and festival producers alike with its expert vocals, instrumental work and impressive writing. Traditional music lovers can catch their main stage set on Saturday, June 4 at 1:15 p.m.

Finnders and Youngberg is not a law firm. Oh, they might know some things about speeding tickets and noise ordinance violations, but they are most definitely a band. One could call them a bluegrass band, which they are; however, the band’s focus on original material, incorporation of the pedal steel guitar, and the entire quintet’s adventurous approach to all types of Americana music make FY5 truly an exciting development in acoustic roots music. Anchored in the northern Front Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, this band plays the music of its time and place, and plays it at a very high level.

Songwriter and guitarist Mike Finders (pronounced Finn-ders) is a two-time winner of the Merlefest Songwriting Contest. Erin and Aaron Youngberg {yes, that’s right}, were founding members of Hit and Run Bluegrass Band, which won both Telluride and Rockygrass band contests in 2003, as well as subsequent SPGMA and IBMA honors. Fiddler Ryan Drickey is a former Rockygrass Fiddle Champ and a much sought after session player with the likes of Matt Flinner and Michelle Shocked. Rich Zimmerman is best known for his mandolin and vocal work as a founding member of the Colorado-based band Slipstream. With such combinations of musicianship, creativity and experience, the band is finding some serious momentum heading into the 2011 festival season.

2010 was a great year for Finnders and Youngberg. With powerful sets performed at such venues as the Durango Bluegrass Meltdown, Black Hills Bluegrass Festival and the International Folk Alliance in Memphis, the band’s performance breathes like an intimate porch jam, yet the tight arrangements, lilting harmonies, careful choreography around a central microphone, and instrumental precision display the group’s commitment to their music. Finnders and Youngberg will play the Folk ‘N Bluegrass festival on Saturday, June 4, at noon.

To purchase tickets, or for additional information, visit www.folkwest.com or call (877) 472-4672.  Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass is supported by a grant from Colorado Creative Industries, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

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