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Does size matter? 

As the local Bluegrass and Jam Festival grows, its loyal attendees ponder the future

click to enlarge The award-winning Spring Creek brought its sounds to - the Happy Ass Ranchs second Bluegrass and Jam - Festival. - KIERNAN MALETSKY
  • Kiernan Maletsky
  • The award-winning Spring Creek brought its sounds to the Happy Ass Ranchs second Bluegrass and Jam Festival.

Try Mapquesting the venue for the Bluegrass and Jam Festival. Nothing comes up.

So, needless to say, getting there isn't exactly easy. First, you have to head west, for about 40 miles, on Highway 24, well past Zeb's beloved peak. Next, a little beyond Lake George, you turn left onto twisting County Road 90. And then, a short 6.5 miles later, you're stuck searching for an improbable right-hand turn onto a sign-less dirt path supposedly called Forest Road 250.

This road, lined with little craters, miniature ravines and tiny dirt mountains, is a near death trap. And just as you become concerned that it will simply dissolve into the wilderness, you stumble upon an open range.

Here is Happy Ass Ranch. Surrounded by Pike National Forest, somewhat near South Park, Happy Ass is a tiny oasis, fending off the modernity creeping up all around it. Sure, there are signs of the times sprinkled around the open space, but its 140 acres largely exude a rejection of 21st-century America. There are no iPhones or Frappuccinos here.

But there is music.

Now in its second year, the Bluegrass and Jam Festival could simply be dismissed as a wannabe in a state filled with high-altitude music gatherings. Aspen, Breckenridge and, most enormously, Telluride are just a few locales that host similar events, and all have been in existence longer than Happy Ass' rustic equivalent.

Still, the Bluegrass and Jam Festival is marching on. This year, a crowd of almost 300 took in live performances from in-state acts like Grass It Up, COW, Creating A Newsense, ACME Bluegrass, Florissant Fossils, Rhythm Logic, The Ackermans and Spring Creek, which recently won the Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition.

On paper, those numbers and names may seem insignificant compared to those drawn to the other festivals. But considering that only 75 people showed up for last year's inaugural, rain-filled fest, it's a notable step.

Dream big?

click to enlarge Revelers including Melanie Bressan (above) came - prepared with toys. - KIERNAN MALETSKY
  • Kiernan Maletsky
  • Revelers including Melanie Bressan (above) came prepared with toys.

Happy Ass Ranch owner Skip Vena is a proper mountain man, complete with a grey beard of epic proportions. He's a formidable presence you could get lost in one of his massive handshakes but he stands diametrically opposed to the stereotype of a "hands-off-my-land" Colorado ranch owner,

His warmth reflects the overall spirit of this festival, which, in essence, started on a whim just a little over a year ago. Having allowed his ranch to play host to other festivals, like Apogaea, a local event in the spirit of Nevada's Burning Man arts festival, Vena decided the time was right for a more mellow sound, something he found at a Grass It Up show. He'd been considering hosting a bluegrass festival for a while at that point, and the band expressed an interest in seeing Vena's vision come to fruition.

And so far, so good.

"We think we have something viable here," Vena says.

He would certainly welcome the 10,000 who flock to Telluride's crash diet for obese wallets, but his generically titled festival currently fills a different niche. From a musical perspective, the smaller event affords local bands a slew of unique opportunities.

"This is more relaxing," says Grass It Up bassist Jon Bross. "[It] gives us a place to practice and learn."

It's important to note that this nonchalance hardly came at the expense of the festival attendees; instead, low-key was more or less the motif of the weekend.

"The atmosphere is perfect," says Vena. "This is such a mellow group."

That all could change, though.

ACME Bluegrass banjoist John Ramsey, who also owns Tejon Street Music, explains how these festivals generally progress: "They get a following," he says. "Then it just becomes a regular thing people plan around."

click to enlarge Even trashcan fires couldnt match the warmth of - organizers and listeners. - KIERNAN MALETSKY
  • Kiernan Maletsky
  • Even trashcan fires couldnt match the warmth of organizers and listeners.

Grass It Up guitar and banjo minstrel Shannon Carr dreams pretty big: "It'd be nice to see people show up in the thousands," he says.

Or stay small?

Still, many are hoping to keep the masses elsewhere.

For the most part, money and ruthless ambition seem almost alien concepts at Happy Ass Ranch, where the most important time is always right now. A ranch staffer calling himself Hillbilly Morrison doesn't think it's even worth peering into the proverbial crystal ball to try and imagine what could come of the Bluegrass and Jam Festival.

"Be here now," he says, when asked what he thinks the festival might be like in five years.

Regardless of what the band on stage was picking and harmonizing about whether love or bondage or country livin' or cocaine the assembled supporters drank it in deliriously. People went from sharing food with smiling strangers to dancing with them within a few minutes. Vena, too, no proponent of status in any case, was dancing alongside his patrons while the band on stage played to the whims of the crowd.

By Saturday evening, as Grass It Up reached the peak of its third set of the weekend, the nine hours of bluegrass had melted any remaining inhibitions in the Lake George region. When the band announced they would follow their set list and slow things down for a bit, a raucous chorus of dissent greeted them.

"No?" one of the band members responded. "OK, I guess we're not following the list."

It was a prime example of the benefits of keeping the festival small.

After all, convention got lost in simply trying to find this place and with it, so went the traditional rules and planning. Such ideals were left behind in the city, by the stoplights and street signs and police stations, and back where they belong.

Whether or not they'll stay there in the coming years remains to be seen. scene@csindy.com

  • As the local Bluegrass and Jam Festival grows, its loyal attendees ponder the future

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