Bluegrass festival keeps Colorado town afloat after flood

July 31, 2014 at 6:48 PM EDT
Lyons, Colorado, was cut off from the world for three days when it suffered devastating floods that damaged hundreds of houses and killed one. Nearly a year later, Lyons celebrates its survival with the return of the RockyGrass Festival, one of the nation’s leading bluegrass events. Jeffrey Brown tells the story of a community uniting over music and their remaining struggles in rebuilding.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, the story of a flood, fiddles and a town’s survival.

Jeffrey Brown traveled to Colorado for our story.


JEFFREY BROWN: The song is called “Little Rain,” but it’s about a very big rain and its aftermath, the flooding of the town of Lyons, Colorado, in the foothills of the Rockies last September.

K.C. Groves is in the band Watergirls, formed after the disaster.

K.C. GROVES: We were trying to address what happened and also represent, you know, the — our strengths and even strength of spirit and our joy even that we still had in this town, but still express the gravity of what happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: What happened is something that no one here had ever seen, the St. Vrain River jumping its banks. Video shot by local residents captured the scene, as the river divided Lyons into a series of islands, cutting off this small town of 2,000 from the world for three days.

One person died; 200 houses were damaged.

Musician David Tiller talked to the NewsHour just after he was evacuated.

DAVID TILLER: Seeing the faces of the houses blown on and realizing that there was nothing salvageable, really, that — nothing of the house that I could tell that may be salvageable, I don’t even know how to describe it.

JEFFREY BROWN: In all, 20 percent of Lyons’ housing stock was lost and the town suffered some $50 million in damages.

But a lot has changed since then, and music has been a big part of it. Nine months ago, this small valley in Lyons was a flooded lake. Against the odds, it’s once again one of the nation’s leading and longest-running bluegrass festivals.

The RockyGrass Festival is an annual celebration of bluegrass, attracting some 5,000 people and major figures from this musical world for 42 years. Festival director Craig Ferguson lives on the ground, and last September, as the evacuation order came, he left in a hurry in the middle of the night.

When he returned, he found his land, his business, that is, and his house under four feet of water. Much of it later turned to mud filled with debris that had been carried downriver.

CRAIG FERGUSON, President, Planet Bluegrass: We took over 1,000 big dump trucks full of gravel, and silt and sand out of here.

JEFFREY BROWN: A thousand dump trucks?



CRAIG FERGUSON: And that took us — they were just going around the clock for two months. We had four backhoes and two excavators out here for six months.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ferguson says he was determined that the show would go on.

RockyGrass is about the music, of course, but it’s also about the community of performers and audience members who come year after year. And for this small town, it’s an important business engine.


JEFFREY BROWN: So getting it up and running had economic, as well as psychological meaning.

CRAIG FERGUSON: I think really having RockyGrass open to a sold-out audience is kind of a signal to the town. Or I know a lot of people in town are excited that, OK, we can start having fun again.

JEFFREY BROWN: The festivities began every morning at 10:00 a.m. with a mad dash, a friendly running of the tarps set to the very non-bluegrassy “William Tell Overture” to claim prime real estate for the main acts, among those, Alison Krauss and Union Station, and banjo master Bela Fleck and his wife and fellow banjo player, Abigail Washburn.

They have both performed widely in separate ensembles, but are now teamed up for the first time. Like other RockyGrass veterans, they were determined to return after the flood.

BELA FLECK: There was a lot doubt that the festival was going to happen at all. It was a real important year to come back and do something.

ABIGAIL WASHBURN: To be a part of this incredible community that has, against all odds, found a way to reclaim this land and turn it into the festival site that it once was.

JEFFREY BROWN: It all looked and sounded great.

But there was also this, the so-called Homeless Band, a pickup group of musicians and their children who lost their homes in the flood and all these months later are living in temporary housing, uncertain what happens next. Gary McCrumb was playing banjo and singing. But a few days earlier, he had shown us where his house once stood.

GARY MCCRUMB: The front door used to be right here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Unlike many others, McCrumb actually had flood insurance, but that covered just half his losses.

GARY MCCRUMB: They only pay for the part that actually touched the water, which was 3.5 feet in my house. So, all the drywall above that, they won’t cover.

JEFFREY BROWN: McCrumb says he’s also frustrated waiting for permission from the town to rebuild.

Most of the houses that were damaged were built before strict government regulations were in place about building in floodplains. In order to qualify for federal aid, the town must now diligently enforce those rules, but that red tape has led to lengthy delays in issuing permits.

GARY MCCRUMB: It’s the middle of the summer. And here in Colorado, there’s only so many weeks that we can build because of the harsh weather that comes in October. And I hope to have a house that’s enclosed like this by that time. And it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.

DANNY SHAFER: The river’s right here. It’s a lot of mixed emotions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Musician Danny Shafer lived with his family in a mobile home in this field that had been a trailer park.

DANNY SHAFER: With the festival happening this weekend, it almost appears like Lyons is back to normal, and it’s not at all. There’s a lot of people misplaced, a lot of people that are in debt, don’t know whether they are going to come back.

JEFFREY BROWN: The flood wiped out all 30 trailers in the park. Today, it was being used a as lot for the music festival. Its future is unclear, but sitting on a floodplain, one thing it likely won’t be is a trailer park.

Shafer wants to stay in Lyons, but now must pay double his old rent.

DANNY SHAFER: Lyons is a town made of lots of different kinds of people, people of all kinds of economic situations. And that’s wonderful. And it stands a chance to be changed severely.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s a fear we heard from everyone here, including mandolin player K.C. Groves, who’d organized a fund to help musicians after the flood.

K.C. GROVES: I think that’s the biggest concern, more than where the roads are going to go or who’s going to get the new sidewalk, which houses stay, which houses go. I think the biggest concern really is that it’s going to lose its charm, its small-town feel. I think a lot of the artists and musician community feel like they might be priced out of living here.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a lot of people came here for that in the first place, huh?

K.C. GROVES: A lot of people came here for that in the first place. And now those rentals are harder to find. And to buy a place, it’s — that is a struggle.

JEFFREY BROWN: For this weekend, though, the focus was on the strength and vibrancy of that community, especially through its music. RockyGrass, the festival, lives on. And, so too, sang the Watergirls, does Lyons.

WOMEN (singing): And you can watch us stand our ground, but you can’t take our town.