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Backstory: Bluegrass camp

Budding musicians gather on a ranch in Colorado for four days to learn the fiddle, banjo, and bass from icons of the genre.

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Caleb Olin stands barefoot, curling his toes into the lush grass along the banks of the tranquil St. Vrain River. He smiles and lifts his fiddle to play a bluegrass classic with a small group of students in this alfresco classroom. There are no notebooks. No laptops. The learning process here distills down to playing music – sometimes while standing shin-deep in the river – with others who share a passion for this American roots music.

Each year, Mr. Olin joins 200 fellow musicians on a pilgrimage to this small Colorado quarry town just north of Boulder, which for a week in late July becomes a coveted destination for bluegrass fans worldwide. The RockyGrass Bluegrass Academy, a four-day immersion in bluegrass music, features instruction with top-tier musicians, performances, friendly competition, and impromptu jam sessions from sunrise to late into the night.

"It's kind of like homecoming," says Olin, a Louisville, Ky., Web designer, as strains of "On and On" float on the breeze. "The best thing is that you sit around in a circle and play with all these people that you've only heard of before."

The longing for connection with others who love bluegrass, coupled with an abiding drive to improve as musicians, draws them here from locales as distant and diverse as Australia, England, Norway, Alaska, and Hawaii. "It's a form of portable community," says Robert Gardner, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore.

Like many at the Planet Bluegrass Ranch, Olin was hooked after his first academy experience five years ago, and it's now an annual trek. An accomplished banjo player, he's studying fiddle this year. For Olin, it's a family affair: joining him are his father, wife, and 15-month-old daughter.

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