An Oral History of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival

On the 40th anniversary of the much-loved 4-day bluegrass bacchanalia, veteran pickers take a look back on how it all came to be

    Photo: Benko Photographics

I ended up in Colorado somewhat by accident. In the summer of 2011, two close friend left for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival as casual bluegrass fans, seeking a brief respite from the stress from their day jobs, and returned tanned, relaxed, and obsessed. “You’re coming next year,” my friend and roommate Chris insisted. “It will change your life.”

I was skeptical. I grew up listening to James Brown and the Tower of Power and cut my musical teeth on Mission of Burma, Sonic Youth, and the Pixies. But overworked and in need of a real vacation, I bought a plane ticket out West on a whim. My minimal experience with bluegrass came from repeated screenings of ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ and whatever would emanate loudly from Chris’s room after he’d had a few bourbons.

Come that weekend in June, my anxiety had evaporated. I lay soaking in the sun under the crystal clear Colorado sky, the air was with the crisp mountain air and the errant twang of a distant banjos from the Telluride campground, tinged with the faintest hint of New Belgium beer and weed. Unlike the booze-fueled mania of larger festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo, attendees flowed casually between the brightly colored tarps dotted with aging hippies and their families, urban professionals gasping for clean air, and die-hard festivarians who had once again made the pilgrimage to the Colorado mountains for a weekend of musical nirvana. It was the summer solstice, and the valley thrummed with electricity.”I swear,” I’d hear someone people offer to their neighbor every few minutes, “there has never been a better day for bluegrass.”

For worshippers of the church of progressive bluegrass, Telluride is a cathedral. Every June, nearly 10,000 fanatics make their way through the San Juan Mountains of Colorado to spend celebrate the summer solstice by basking in four days of non-stop bluegrass music. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year with a who’s who of bluegrass, rock, and folk acts, from festival fixtures like Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Tim O’Brien, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Leftover Salmon, Chris Thile, Greensky Bluegrass, and Yonder Mountain String Band to the nationally-known acts of Mumford & Sons, Dispatch, and Feist. Four-day passes go for $195 and sold out within hours before this year’s lineup was even announced.

The Festival didn’t start as a gathering of bluegrass’s biggest names. The Telluride experiment began in the spirit of the 1970s as a departure from traditional bluegrass east of the Mississippi. Bands like New Grass Revival and Hot Rize were the hippies of the bluegrass community, and their use of electric instruments and experimentation with styles from rock, jazz, and folk was met with resistance from more traditional bluegrass performers who hewed closely to the style pioneered by Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and their contemporaries. Nestled in the Colorado mountains, musicians like Sam Bush, Del McCoury, John Hartford, and Peter Rowan found a space to expand and refine their craft, to collaborate and jam and push the limits of what constituted ‘bluegrass’ under the auspices of what virtually every bluegrasser had dubbed “the most beautiful place on earth.”

But the 40th anniversary is both a celebration of Telluride’s legacy of experimentation and a recognition of its maturity: the festival’s wild roots were almost its undoing, and it took a change in organizational leadership and ongoing presence of the festival’s earliest participants – Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Tim O’Brien, John Cowan, and others – to extend the festival’s musical vitality. Now, the festival serves as a mecca for aspiring and veteran bluegrass musicians alike, who flock to the Telluride Box Canyon year after year for four decades in search of the spiritual high of a summer solstice spent saturated in music

ORIGINS (1973-1987):
The first iteration of the festival grew out of Telluride’s annual Fourth of July celebration, which traces its origins to Telluride's mining days. The 1973 celebration introduced a bluegrass element to the town tradition with a performance by the local band Fall Creek, consisting of John “Picker” Herndon, J.B. Matiotti, Kooster McAllister and Fred Shellman. The members of Fall Creek were such bluegrass fanatics that they traveled to the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, to seek out other musicians to join them in town each summer. It was in Winfield that they stumbled upon New Grass Revival.

SAM BUSH (New Grass Revival, Strength in Numbers): I first came to Telluride with New Grass Revival in 1975. The original promoters were a band called the Fall Creek Band, back in 1974. All of the original bands were local to Colorado, and most of them lived in Telluride. They’d seen us play at the Walnut Valley picking contest in Winfield, Kansas and by the time the festival rolled around in June 1975, we were hired to come out. I’m not sure if we were the first national act, but we were the first band not from Colorado.

TIM O’BRIEN (Hot Rize): I think I’d been in college for a year when I started meeting all these people at bluegrass festivals like Berryville Bluegrass in Virginia and considered doing it as a pro. One of the guys I met at Berryville, Fred Shellman, had been to Winfield and was inspired to start their own festival, so he invited us out in 1975. I was in a band called Ophelia Swing Band, and Dan Sadowsky, who went by the moniker “Pastor Mustard” at the festival, was our bandleader. We played there two summers. I first came to play with Hot Rize in 1978.

JOHN COWAN (New Grass Revival, The Doobie Brothers): I was playing with Sam [Bush] as part of New Grass Revival. We got this phone call from our agent to come out there. Hell, we couldn’t even pronounce the name of the town

BUSH: The streets weren’t paved. There was the one old hotel, but they put us up in one newish condo called the Manitou Inn. We got there in the middle of the night after a day and a half of driving from Kentucky and stumbled our way into this place, since there’s no neon allowed in mountain communities in Colorado. When we got up the next morning and couldn’t believe the beauty. It was like being in a different country.

O’BRIEN: Except for that hotel, there was really no place to stay. People would put you up in your houses. The first year they stuck four of us in two bunk beds and one single bed, which two of us had to share. The mines were still going, so the town’s population was split, equal parts hippie and miner. Bands were camping out in the campgrounds.

BUSH: I got a knock came at 9 a.m. the morning we got in and it was a guy named Kooster [McAllister] from the Fall Creek Band. They were using the same PA speakers that we were carrying with us. They realized right off the bat that they needed more sound reinforcement. “Did you bring a snake?” he asked me (a snake connects all the electronics from the stage to the soundboard). They’d discovered, the hard way, that you need to bury the snake in the ground, because they didn’t bury it and the dancing festival goers basically stomped it in half.

Right off the bat, it was clear they needed some sound and technical reinforcement. They hadn’t thought much about a security fence around the back of the stage, so people would just show up without ticket. I remember distinctly in 1975 that three or four guys came out of the woods at the back of the stage who very obviously didn’t live indoors. It was like seeing guys with their bedrolls roll up on their horses. They were mountain men. The people who live around there were either outlaws and trust funders.

O’BRIEN: The festival was kind of Fred’s yearly party, a chemical experiment. There was a little acid involved in there at times. There were campfires backstage all night. Fred would have fireworks every year, which they don’t do anymore because it’s obviously a fire hazard. I remember skydivers coming down into the festival audience area one year. It was a Colorado kind of spectacle.

COWAN: There was an abandoned hunting lodge outside out down headed towards Durango at the Dunton Hot Springs, and for the first few years, on the Sunday the festival closed, Fred and the guys would take us all up to these natural hot springs and broke-down cabins. It was just abject craziness. We’d all take acid and people would walk around naked and people would just do the craziest shit imaginable. It wasn’t decadent. It was just young guys and girls feeling their oats.

BELA FLECK: (New Grass Revival, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones): The trip to the Dunton hot springs after the festival closed on Sunday was always special. That first year I was at the festival with New Grass, back in 1982, Steve Goodman and I sat up all night and played with a bunch of people sitting around and listening in some small cabin. We had some spare parts from a barbecue that Sam Bush and Fred [Shellman] dumped into the hot springs to terrify the other people at the campsite. Nobody was star-tripping, it was just a bunch of people have a great-ass time.

COWAN: At that time, there was a huge chasm in bluegrass. It was tied up in the culture of the late ‘60s early ‘70s: the parents versus the hippie protesters and all that, that bled into bluegrass culture, with the old guys versus the young guys. They thought we were destroying the music, and that we were all drug dealers. But when we came to Telluride, we found 1,500 of us in the audience. The reason Sam [Bush] and Tim [O’Brien] and I have a career is because of Telluride. It grew with us and we grew with it.

BUSH: We had finally found the perfect audience to play to. Maybe it went with the wide open spaces, but the audience was wide open and ready for any kind of music. When it was first started it was called the “Telluride Bluegrass and Country Festival.” To a strict bluegrass fan, this is not what people call “bluegrass.” It’s totally wide open, and damn near every major bluegrass act has been there, from Bill Monroe to Ralph Stanley. Doc and Merle Watson used to come. Willie Nelson came in 1982. Everyone’s style worked. The audience is ready for any kind of band, electric or acoustic. Where have you seen 10,000 people so glued in?

O’BRIEN: In the early years, the core was Steve Goodman, John Hartford, and New Grass Revival, and Hot Rize. Norman Blake started in 1980. The organizers always booked a smattering of the real traditional acts, like Bill Monroe. Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Peter Rowan would put out all kinds of funky stuff, and people just ate it up. New Grass would always play at least two sets each weekend, and the second one would end up as a massive jam with pretty much everyone who played during the weekend.

BUSH: John Hartford was a large name act when he started coming in 1976. We [New Grass Revival] were his backup band, we had the bluegrass instrumentation backing him. That must’ve been 1980. We were a plugged in, electrified bluegrass, kind like being in a ‘50s rock band.

PETER ROWAN (Earth Opera, Old and in the Way):  In those early years it was goofy—and I mean really goofy. You’d stay in some funky hotel from the 1890s, and Fred [Shellman] would just grin and say “it’s good, isn’t it? isn’t it good?”  You’d drive all night from Albuquerque or Denver, and you’d always come in looking for the jam. I remember coming up in 1977 and finding John Hartford in the hotel room with the New Grass Revival guys. I walked in and there’s John bouncing up and down on the bed in his pajamas, just rocking on a banjo, grinning from ear to ear.  I was just so glad to be included and to know, in that moment, there was a home for us wayward bluegrassers. The amount of enthusiasm was really best personified by John. He was the merry pied piper of that generation in time.

FLECK: I was so excited to come out to Telluride after I joined New Grass. Everyone at that point knew that Telluride was a totally happening scene, and John Hartford, Bryan Bowers, and New Grass were central to this insane, forward-thinking festival. There was pressure, honestly: joining New Grass meant I was joining a band one of the festival’s favorite groups and I was taking over for someone. Courtney Johnson would be missed, and I trying to be myself but trying to be respectful of his departure. It took a number of years to feel like it was my scene. But Fred Shellman was very open and excited about the music, and the more he saw what I had to bring, the more opportunities he gave me to do things and experiment on stage.

It was such an exciting experience. The altitude makes you feel very up, and you’re stunned by the physical beauty of the place, every which way you turned. You’re totally altered by the experience. I’ve been to dozens of sunny mountain ranges, but there’s that aspect of how you’re physically inspired that puts you in a very receptive, open position. You’re excited about the world in Telluride: the music is so expansive and inclusive it make inspired to be honest with your music.

COWAN: Emmylou Harris has been there in so many good and crazy combinations. The first time Fred got her to come out there and play in 1985, we were on the side of the stage just freaking out. I’ve seen her do somewhere between 15 and 20 shows there and not one of them was the same set. She’s been as big a part of a festival as Sam has.

BUSH: There was always time for people to gather round the campfire and pick all night, but the after-hours jams really kind of started in the mid-1980s. One of the original bands that first came was Magic Music, and Chris Daniels, their banjo player, had a band called Chris Daniels and the Kings which first started playing after hours at the Sheridan Opera House or Nugget Theater. Even though his band was basically an R&B band, full of horns, he’d have all kind of people come and jam with him. One year you’d look up and there’s Edgar Meyer jamming on the organ.

COWAN: It wasn’t called Nightgrass, but everyone knew that on Saturday or Sunday, after the festival closed, you’d traipse over to the Opera House and jam all night. In 1986, there were just nitrous tanks all over the back to just get high. It was the mid-80s, there was cocaine everywhere and alcohol coming out the rafters. It was like a Grateful Dead event.

O’BRIEN: Honestly, nothing beats seeing my one-year-old son in the arms of Bill Monroe when he’s singing ‘I Saw The Light’ with a bunch of hippies dancing around him. That must have been in 1983. We were backstage, and my son, this little newborn baby, was just kinda passed around to people. At one point someone’s holding him, and Bill says “bring that baby out onstage” and all of a sudden, there’s my son.

TRANSITION (1987-1994):
The festival’s popularity grew each year through the ‘70s and ‘80s, with thousand festivarians of pouring into Telluride each summer. After several years of financial turmoil, ownership of the festival transferred to Fred Shellman to the Telluride Festival Company in 1989. Craig Ferguson produced the 1990 festival, and the Telluride Festival Company eventually evolved into Planet Bluegrass. The festival, which had been suffering from organizational challenges during the close of the 1980s, was a precarious state.

CRAIG FERGUSON
(Festival owner and director, Planet Bluegrass): The festival had a complete financial meltdown in 1987 and 1988. Those years were both probably money-losing years, and there was a real concern that we didn’t know if the festival was going to continue.

My first festival was in about 1985, and I came like everyone else: I heard it was fun. But you come one time and it gets in your blood. I got drawn further in as the guy booking the shows for the past 25 years. My interest at that point was to get a group together that could put on the event financially and administratively.

COWAN: Fred [Shellman] had the festival taken away from him in 1989, which was a terrible thing. Fred has some serious substance abuse problems: he’d sell out the festival and then walk around with cash in his pocket paying off coke dealers. He was an artist, not a businessman. Between 1988 and 1990, it became apparent the wheels were coming off from Fred’s psyche. Before the 1989 festival, the artists who were there from the beginning considered boycotting. They took it away from Fred, why should we go? Ultimately, we decided that we needed to keep this festival going and to give Craig [Ferguson] a chance.

Fred died within a year. He was found three stories below his condominium, less than a year after a the festival was taken away. We think it was an accident but, y’know, to quote Jackson Browne, “nobody knows if he jumped or fell.” I was sober at this point, and we’d taken Fred to meetings to help him get his feet on the ground. We were all shocked and heartbroken, but I don’t think any of us didn’t see it coming. He had come so far off the tracks that they had to take this iconic festival away from him. It’s like DHS coming in and taking your kids away. Telluride was his baby.

O’BRIEN: Craig Ferguson and Steve Szymanski could have changed the festival, but they didn’t. They kept it in the same frame of mind. That’s to their credit: they could’ve gone far more corporate. God forbid, there was talk about moving it out of town a couple of times because the town gave promoters such strict parameters as it got more and more expensive. But [Craig and Steve] said no, it has to be in this park. They hardly make any money for themselves unless they sell out, but they treat the audience and performance like kings.

FERGUSON: To say that it would’ve failed without us would be inaccurate, but it was really kind of a mess. It was a beautiful musical mess that wasn’t ran with much business responsibility or focus. The artists loved it and got treated well, but there were some bad business practices: bills didn’t get paid, so it really took three or four years for us to get things together. Most of the people involved now got involved in the past 20 years, and they don’t even remember the times that you weren’t sure you could trust the Telluride Bluegrass Festival

The 1990 show was the first year that I hired the bands and the first year that we ever made a profit through any documented history. And the music was incredible. It was the first year that James Taylor played, and the second that [bluegrass supergroup] Strength in Numbers -- Bela Fleck, Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and Edgar Meyer -- played. Bill Monroe played that year. It was Mary Chapin Carpenter’s first show west of the Mississippi and she went on to win all those awards [Carpenter’s 1992 album “ Come On Come On” went quadruple platinum]. For me, the 1990 festival put our feet under us and gave us confidence to book new music.

O’BRIEN: It was a big coup to have James Taylor come.

FERGUSON: 1991 was even bigger than 1990. There were 16,000 people, and after ‘91, the town decided (and we didn’t disagree) that the community was really only built to handle 11,000 to 12,000 people, including working staff. A new ordinance the following year capped sales at no more than 10,000 tickets, and in order to even have that, we had to sign new agreements for parking and camping. I look back at it as the year people worked together to get organized, so people weren’t using the river to wash themselves or pooping in the forest so the festival wouldn’t become an environmental hazard.

FLECK: Look, Fred was crazy wonderful and powerful guy, but when things changed over, they became a lot more consistent. Things got done in a more businesslike manner. The festival got a solidity that maybe it didn’t have before. Maybe in the earlier days that was kinda the fun of it: the craziness of it, the sense that anything could happen. But this was a good thing for the festival. I won’t say it had to happen but I could definitely see why it happened

But I have to say, I don’t think the festival has fundamentally changed at all. There was always a big-name headliner that closed in previous years: Merle Haggard, Leon Russell, Little Feat, even Emmylou Harris, who wasn’t really part of the scene at that point (although I think Telluride helped bring her in). To me, that’s part of the tradition. It’s really not a bluegrass festival: it has roots in bluegrass, but  but its such an expansive festival that it brings in so many people from so many different styles. And the it remained that way, even in those first few years.

O’BRIEN: The Sunday morning gospel has always been of a different mood than the rest of the festival. In 1992, a bunch of Tibetan monks from the Drepung Monastery in Dharamsala, India, to bless festival site from the hill behind the stage. They’ve come a few times I think, but that year Peter Rowan was supposed to go up on the main stage after those guys and the organizers had trouble finding him. It turned out he was already out there on stage getting one with the spirit on the stage with those monks. You wouldn’t have monks chanting for an hour and a half at any other bluegrass festival.

BUSH: In 1994, I was playing and the lights went out for the entire town. We were on stage and all the concession stands were dark. The only thing that was up was the recording truck, the spotlight, and the PA system on this one generator. Craig [Ferguson] came up and said “you gotta keep playing, because we can’t let people leave in the dark, a lot of ‘em might fall in the creek.” we did a 3.5 hour show. We got off stage and it was 28 degrees and spitting snow in the third weekend in June. Just amazing.

COWAN: New Grass Revival’s last show was in June 1989. It was kind of a farewell show. From that point on, it was the Sam Bush Band and the John Cowan Band and Peter Rowan with his brothers. It all splintered, and we all had these new musical identities. But the festival didn’t change one bit. Craig took something that was in a very fragile state and made it even better. The cultural footprint of that the festival has made is immeasurable. It’s not just a bluegrass festival in southwest Colorado: it deservedly now has a place with me along with Newport Folk, Newport Jazz, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festivals.

MATURITY (1994-2013):
Under Planet Bluegrass’s stewardship, the festival fostered a new family of regulars, including Leftover Salmon, The String Cheese Incident. Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, and the Punch Brothers. While Planet Bluegrass began to bring in nationally-recognized acts like Elvis Costello,  Mumford & Sons, and Wilco to headline, Ferguson and the festival’s oldest performers continued to maintain Telluride’s original spirit of collaboration and experimentation.

O’BRIEN
: The festival was quite different after Planet Bluegrass took over. Going back there post-New Grass has always been a bit bittersweet for me. Craig is a brilliant businessman, and he’s honored the guys like myself and Sam who helped get it off the ground. They’re really good about keeping their eyes and ears open to trying new people (Mumford & Sons is a great example). You don’t want to just have all the old farts. It’s so important to have other people carry on the tradition of progression, of experimentation that goes on at Telluride.

COWAN: I was no longer in the most important band at Telluride. That was really hard for me. But I was a part of something that’s going to go on and on. It’s bigger than any artist who ever played there. When I first heard Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Nickel Creek when they were first around before Sara [Watkins] and Chris [Thile] went off on their own, it was a little hard to witness. I was like “wait, that’s supposed to be me!” But I realized,  “OK, I understand now, this is the next version. It was really a good thing.”

DREW EMMITT (Leftover Salmon): Leftover Salmon actually met in the campground of Telluride Bluegrass. I first came to Telluride as a spectator in 1984, just for a day, but I came back in 1986 and entered the band contest with The Tractors, which became Left Hand String Band. I knew Vince [Herman] a bit, and he’d come down with Salmon Heads to play some gigs in town in 1989. We came for the music and to see the festival, but our main focus was to be in the campground and pick all night around a campfire with our friends

That one year, we’d sneak up on a campfire where a bunch of people are picking, and we’d run up with all our instruments and play ‘Anahuac’ by the Austin Lounge Lizards (which, I believe, is named after Anahuac, Texas) loudly and out of key before we’d turn and run away. Eventually we were cruising through the campground with around 100 people. That was the first year that Salmon got together as the ‘Left-Handed Salmon Spankers’ around that tradition of Anahuacing. That’s where I met Mark Vann, our banjo player, and he, Vince and I became the trio that became Leftover Salmon. We didn’t start playing as a band until winter of 1989, and after a lot of convincing, Salmon got the nod to be in the festival in 1995. We played Friday night, after dinner. It rained, and I remember standing on stage ahead of a sea of brightly colored ponchos.

ADAM AIJALA (Yonder Mountain String  Band): The first time I went to Telluride was in 1998. I remember that watching Leo Kottke play and I was blown away, watching in the rain. 1999 was the year that Yonder went down just for fun. That January, we’d played a surprise birthday party at Oskar Blue’s in Lyon, Colorado and Craig [Ferguson] showed up. He said to us: “I didn’t know what to think of your music but I really like the energy.” Through that connection, we were able to get a gig at RockyGrass that year, and the following year was the first year we played Telluride. Planet Bluegrass are the kindest and most generous promoters to Yonder that I could think of. I always tell Craig “give us a heads up because we’re coming otherwise,” and they’ve never turned us away.

ANDERS BECK (Greensky Bluegrass): I’d first gone as a fan of bluegrass and Telluride as a place (Durango, CO is pretty close as the crow flies). I wasn’t even a dobro player then, but I found the instrument in Telluride. I was a mediocre acoustic guitar  player trying to get into bluegrass, and I was walking from my campsite to the festival and stumbled upon a doboro workshop in Elk’s Park. I didn’t know it, but it was a who’s who: Jerry Douglas, Rob Ickes, Sally van Meter. It hit me like a ton of bricks: this is what I can do. I went back to Durango immediately and bought a dobro and started learning how to play it. I played with Wayword Sons on the main stage in 2006, and I sat in with Greensky the next year before we came back to play the festival in 2008. A lot of our history, mine with the band, comes entwined with the festival.  Planet Bluegrass believes in us and continues to invite us back. That’s not something you don’t see too often, where the festival grabs on to younger bands in a genre and says “you’re badass. You’re coming with us.” There’s a level of trust between the organizers and fans to book killer music.

BUSH: David Byrne from the Talking Heads was there two or three years ago. He had this incredible band where everyone was dressed up white. I like to go around and introduce myself to people I haven’t met, and I’ll jokingly say ‘I’m the King of Telluride.’ David Byrne isn’t a very talkative guy, and I said to him “don’t let the word ‘bluegrass’ mess you up, OK?” People who don’t play any music often get a little concerned that they’re not fitting in.

EMMITT: Seeing Robert Plant and Band of Joy a few years back might have been the most surreal set, if only because I was such a Zepplin fan for so many years. I remember Craig Ferguson was just hanging out with his mouth wide open, saying “can you believe this is happening?” That and Peter Rowan’s ‘Awake Me In The World,’ which was just unbelievable.

ROWAN: “Awake Me In The World’ came from my interest regional music. I’d played with Flaco Jimenez in Mexico and gone to England, but you don’t want to be a tourist in someone else’s world. Odd combinations don’t always work, but ‘Awake Me In The World’ was the ultimate “bring everyone” set.  When I get these guests out there, you have no control over what they’re going to do. I’m going to sing my songs, and Robert Mirabell came out to play flute and dance until I’m like ‘dude, it’s time to start this new one.”

“Awake Me In The New World” was about the Spanish arriving in the new world. I had a Trinidadian drummer, John Collins from the Jerry Garcia band was playing bass. We had this mad eclecticism on stage: Carlos Lomas from San Francisco had played flamenco guitar on the record, so I had him and his wife there. My brothers, the Rowan Brothers would play, I’d give the nod to Carlos, and he’d play his flamenco music and his wife would come bounding out from the stage, clicking and dancing. It was a Telluride Energy Vortex. We ended up with about 30 people on stage.

FERGUSON: We’ve had everyone from the Counting Crows to the Barenaked Ladies to Sarah McLachlan to Wilco come to this place, and you might say “they aren’t a bluegrass band,” but it gives you the sense that its a festival for music lovers, not just for a certain style of music. But the best part of Telluride is watching these musical geniuses like Sam and Edgar always hanging out and jumping up to play a song or two, like when Bela walks out to play the encore with Mumford & Sons. The sets that blow me away are the ones that play every year. Sam and the House Band [Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Bryan Sutton & Stuart Duncan], they’re the greatest instrumentalists on the planet and they set the tone for excellence.

BUSH: If people associate Telluride with me and the guys in the House Band, it’s because we’ve been coming for a long time. It’s only in the last few years that the house band has started closing the festival on Sunday night. Craig Ferguson just said a few years ago ‘I’d rather you guys close it rather than getting a rock star kind of thing.’ Obviously, showbusiness is part of any festival and presentation and production, but this show and that weekend in June is all about music.

EMMITT: The core lineup will always be the best bluegrass players in the world: Jerry, Sam, Bela, John Cowan, Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer. Once you go backstage, it becomes really overwhelming. It’s a reunion and we all look forward to it. It is a family. It’s the Telluride bluegrass family. And if you’re in that family, you’re very lucky, because once you’re in it, you’re in it forever.

FLECK: Backstage at the festival now is all of those survivors who have been there for so long. I go back and see people who I’ve been seeing for 30 years, every year. And that’s one reason why I try to come back with something musically different. I’ve been pretty good at it for the last 10 years or so, with something new for me and new for the festival, and it’s a source of a lot of my best memories. Playing with Chick Corea, Marcus Robert … coming in with an open mind and creating something new.

Leftover Salmon, Greensky Bluegrass, Yonder Mountain... all of these guys come from newgrass, and they all bring their own thing to it. They have such youthful energy, I can say to myself “great, it’s not going to end with these old farts.” The festival has changed the way it’s supposed to changed, and that’s always been something the festival’s embraced. Everyone who’s there is there for a reason. Mumford & Sons came and they weren’t so big, but they keep coming back because they love it, and because they get what the space is all about.

ROWAN: Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, Trampled by Turtles, and Mumford & Sons are now basically the home team act at Telluride now. Mumford’s eclipsed everybody in terms of reach: they have elements of bluegrass but they’re so eager, so young, and so humble that they love it here. There’s a lot about Mumford that touches the root of what people love about being in Telluride, being able to invite the audience into your musical world.

BUSH: The first time I came back to Telluride after having cancer was in 1982. The second time was in 2007, and I felt like I was the king of the world. There are lots of great people who played with us who aren’t with us anymore, I think about.

O’BRIEN: This is ritual, really. It’s a family reunion, the gathering of the clans in ancient time, a celebration of the summer solstice: we’re celebrating the longest day of the year, we’re going to take advantage of the bounty of the earth. We’re going to dance and sing and maybe mix up some alcohol on it. Humans have done this forever, and this festival thing is the ritual that’s replaced other rituals. The people who come for the first time are almost in a state of shock with the air and the sun and the mountains.

ROWAN: It’s the intensity of that valley. If there’s feng shui, it all ends up right there in that valley in the Telluride mountains. It’s hard to catch your breath from the altitude and the excitement, the spiritual high. They say that that valley was originally for the American Indians, were everyone was free to come despite rivalries between tribes, to trap and fish and trade. Then they discovered silver up there, people would joke that Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid came through there one time looking for a festival.

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