By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
The 13th annual Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass festival is just two weeks away, taking place June 8-10 on Reservoir Hill.
The three-day outdoor event will draw hundreds of music lovers from around Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Texas and beyond for amazing live performances on two festival stages.
This year’s stellar lineup includes Tommy Emmanuel, Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, The Way Down Wanderers, The Giving Tree Band, Luke Bulla Trio, Caitlin Canty, Bonnie and the Clydes, Coral Creek, The Good Time Travelers, The Arcadian Wild, Thunder and Rain, Sugar and the Mint, Tallgrass and this week’s featured artists: Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, and FY5.
Considered one of the premier bluegrass fiddlers of his generation, Michael Cleveland picked up a fiddle at age 4 and his talent was recognized early. In 1993, he was chosen to be part of the Bluegrass Youth All Stars at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) award show. Later that year, Cleveland made his Grand Ole Opry debut as a guest of Alison Krauss. His list of guest appearances over the years is a virtual who’s who of bluegrass legends including Bill Monroe, Jim and Jesse, Ralph Stanley, Mac Wiseman, Doc Watson, Larry Sparks, Doyle Lawson and J.D. Crowe.
After high school, Cleveland briefly toured with then-named Dale Ann Bradley and Coon Creek before joining Rhonda Vincent and The Rage in 2000. At the 2001 IBMA awards, Cleveland took his first Fiddle Player of the Year award, and shared the title of Entertainer of the Year with Rhonda Vincent and the Rage.
In 2002, Cleveland rejoined The Dale Ann Bradley Band. That year, he won the Fiddle Player of the Year award and then again in 2004. Cleveland’s first project as a Rounder recording artist, “Flame Keeper,” was released in February 2002 and was chosen as the IBMA’s Instrumental Album of the Year.
In 2004, Cleveland shared the Instrumental Album of the Year award with Tom Adams for “Tom Adams and Michael Cleveland Live at the Ragged Edge,” an album of fiddle and banjo duets. In September 2006, Cleveland took home his fourth Fiddle Player of the Year Award from the IBMA, and his second solo album on Rounder Records, “et ‘Er Go, Boys,” won Instrumental Album of the Year.
A year later, in 2007, Cleveland won his fifth fiddle player award and has won it every year since for a total of 10, making him the most awarded in that category.
Today, Cleveland is a sought-after guest and has performed with Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, The Mark Newton Band, J.D. Crowe and the New South, Audie Blaylock and Redline, Melvin Goins and Windy Mountain, and The Wildwood Valley Boys. He is also an active studio musician, and his credits include the 2005 Grammy-nominated “A Tribute to Jimmy Martin: The King of Bluegrass” and a 2003 Grammy winner, Jimmy Sturr’s “Let’s Polka ‘Round.” Cleveland lives in Charlestown, Ind.
As impressive as Cleveland’s credentials are, one would expect him to select only the cream of the crop side-men to make up his band, Flamekeeper. In that regard, he does not disappoint. The ensemble is one of the fastest, most accurate and flat-out entertaining groups in traditional bluegrass music today.
Originally from Louisville, Ky., mandolin player Nathan Livers has been engulfed in music his entire life. From his grandpa’s claw-hammer banjo playing to the sounds of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers on the turntable, bluegrass music is in his blood.
Inspired by Monroe’s mandolin style, Livers picked up the instrument at the age of 10 and learned a few chords and melodies from his father, Bill Livers, whom he credits as being the driving force behind his learning to play. Now making his home in Charlestown, Ind., Nathan Livers, a husband and proud father of two, has played in such bands as The Get Down Bluegrass Boys with Michael Cleveland, Charlie Lawson and Oak Hill; Gary Brewer and the Kentucky Ramblers; Tony Holt and the Wildwood Valley Boys, and a Louisville-based bluegrass band, Storefront Congregation, that featured Nathan Livers’ songwriting on its 2011 release, “Kaleidoscope.”
Bassist Tyler Griffith comes from a musical family — his mother and uncle were part of a family bluegrass band that his grandfather ran in the 1970s, and his father is an accomplished pianist. Although he sticks to the upright bass with Flamekeeper, he also plays guitar, mandolin, trumpet and piano. Griffith’s influences from the bass world include Barry Bales and Edgar Meyer. He’s a former member of several regional bands playing in Indiana and Illinois, including Vicki and Crew, Penn Central and Grand Central. Griffith was raised in Avon, Ind., where he lives today.
Joshua Richards (vocals and guitar) grew up in the small rural community of Leota, Ind.. His earliest influences were his father, Steve, and brother Jason, who taught him how to play and sing bluegrass music. Joshua Richards has played in several bands through the years, including the Farewell Drifters, Old Louisville Express and Blue River (2008 Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America band contest winners). He is also a songwriter with songs included on the Flamekeeper album “On Down the Line.”
Jasiah Shrode was raised in a rural farming community near Plato, Mo. He developed an interest in music at a young age and began learning to play several instruments at age 11. Although he’s quite proficient on guitar and mandolin, banjo is his first love. Since 2009, he has been a member of Jim Orchard and the Boys, a favorite in the Missouri region. Shrode cites his greatest musical influences as Jim Orchard, Aaron McDarris, Haskell McCormick, Ferrell Stowe, Earl Scruggs, Don Reno and Sonny Osborne.
Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper will close the festival with a headline set at 6 p.m. on June 10.
For decades now, Colorado has been a wellspring for American roots music, combining the traditional Appalachian old-time and honky-tonk strains of the East with the spirit of adventure and openness of the West. Colorado has served as a magnet for musicians looking to find themselves, and it’s become a place for musical kindred spirits to commune and create.
FY5 — formerly known as Finnders and Youngberg — represents this pioneering spirit and, with the band’s latest effort, “Eat the Moon,” we can hear a newfound maturity and purpose that comes with steady gigging, dedication and a renewed sense of purpose. Bluegrass harmonies, crisp as a mountain stream, meld with virtuosic picking and fiddling and the kind of honest acknowledgment of the tough realities of life that’s best found in traditional honky-tonk.
“We’re proud to have come from the traditional folk and bluegrass school,” said band leader Mike Finders, “yet we put all that aside and do our best to build the songs honestly, creatively, with no predetermined agenda to play this or that kind of music.”
With “Eat the Moon,” FY5 brings us a self-assured vision of American music, rooted in tradition, but pointing to new, creative directions that make it vital and relevant in today’s modern world. If you’re looking for the source of this music, there’s a deep vein of country music that reaches all the way back to Appalachia and underpins both bluegrass and honky-tonk.
But it takes an uncommon vision and a powerful band to unite the two as FY5 has done. Much of this connection is built through Aaron Youngberg’s facility on both banjo and pedal steel, but also through the gritty vocals of Finders. You can hear traces of both Jimmy Martin and Lefty Frizzell in his voice, but he has a unique and unaffected sound of his own that comes through on all the original songs.
Female vocalist Erin Youngberg does more than hold her own on lead vocals, and when these two voices join together as a duet, one can’t help but compare them to classic country duets like George Jones and Melba Montgomery or Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner. Combine these vocals with rapid-fire mandolin picking from Rich Zimmerman that, though clean and precise, still contains a gritty edge, and masterful fiddling from renowned violinist Ryan Drickey, and you’ve got the driving force of FY5.
On “Eat The Moon,” all these elements combine in a partnership that recalls a time before roots music became watered down or overly polished. FY5’s synergy of styles carries the traditions of what came before with the frontier elements of the West, giving their music a sense of freedom and adventure that sounds fresh to our ears. If you’re searching for the ensemble that will bridge the gap between the Smokies and the Rockies, between East and West, old and new, the music of FY5 is for you.
FY5 will return to the Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass main stage with a 5:45 p.m. set on June 8. They will also be providing live music for the Bubbles and Bluegrass event at 9:30 a.m. on June 9.
Volunteer opportunities and festival information
We still have a few volunteer spots left for individuals age 17 and over. Work two four-hour shifts in return for complimentary three-day admission.
The festival is produced by FolkWest, a nonprofit company that is supported in part with matching funds from Colorado Creative Industries.
More information about volunteering, tickets, camping, schedules and more can be found online at folkwest.com.