Nine months after Colorado's worst flood, the musicians of Lyons are ready for a comeback
Thick sheets of rain started falling in Lyons on the night of September 11, 2013. Most people didn't think much of it until a few hours in, when sirens wailed through the deluge and a flat voice came over the town's public-address system: Floodwater warning. Move to higher ground immediately.
Anthony Camera Gary McCrumb stands outside the remains of a home in Lyons' confluence neighborhood, where he lived.
The sirens interrupted guitarist Gary McCrumb's first date with a fiddle player named Jean Ballhorn; the two were playing songs in the kitchen of his 110-year-old house. McCrumb lived in the heavily wooded neighborhood at the confluence of St. Vrain Creek's north and south branches, and he went outside to investigate. He found six inches of water rushing through the alley and waded one block farther to the creek, which was already bulging at its banks. The scene looked surreal, like something out of a cartoon. "We need to get the hell out of here," he told Ballhorn.
McCrumb is not the typical Lyons resident from 25 years ago. He plays in a few bands and works as the performance production manager for the University of Colorado's ATLAS Center for Media, Arts and Performance. He has been a live-music engineer at nearly every major venue in Boulder County and invests in rare and vintage instruments rather than stocks and bonds. You didn't see many career musicians around in the late '80s -- the majority of the town's population worked in nearby sandstone quarries or commuted to desk jobs in Boulder.
But Lyons has become an artistic hub, and McCrumb and his ilk are a common sight today. The town is the headquarters of Oskar Blues Brewery, and every Tuesday night for the past ten years, the brewery has hosted an open-mic night called the Lyons Jam. It's a low-key affair -- except that the people on stage often have Grammys on their shelves or just got home from world tours. Lyons is now home to Sally Van Meter, who is among the most celebrated dobro players in the world; former national banjo champion Jeff Scroggins; and session drummer Brian McRae, who has recorded with Jerry Douglas, John Medeski, Sam Bush and others. Members of nationally known bands, including the Infamous Stringdusters, Bohemian Springs and Elephant Revival, live here. KC Groves, who co-founded the band Uncle Earl, moved to Lyons in 2001. These days, Groves says, "every third home is a musical home -- maybe every other."
Anthony Camera Planet Bluegrass president Craig Ferguson (right) with spokesman Brian Eyster.
Lyons's transformation was a gradual process. Rising costs of living elsewhere in Boulder County made the town attractive to the creative community, particularly those artists looking for proximity to the mountains. Businesses with an interest in music, such as Oskar Blues, helped, too. But no single entity has had a greater impact than Planet Bluegrass, an organization that produces three of Colorado's largest music festivals: Telluride Bluegrass, RockyGrass and the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. It hosts the latter two on a twenty-acre ranch in Lyons that has served as the organization's headquarters since 1994.
It's hard to find a musician in Lyons who isn't connected to Planet Bluegrass in some way. Many, like Groves, were introduced to the town as either an attendee or a performer at one of the festivals. Others, like McCrumb, found work there. Planet Bluegrass, Oskar Blues and the people they attracted to Lyons have had an impact that goes well beyond particularly good jam sessions. Their influence helped the town reinvent itself in the mid-2000s as a thriving commercial and tourist destination.
Then came the flood. Last September, the heaviest rainfall in Colorado's recorded history led the federal government to declare a state of emergency in fourteen counties. None were hit harder than Boulder County, where the two swollen branches of St. Vrain Creek decimated Lyons, driving thousands of people from their homes and causing millions of dollars' worth of damage.