Telluride Bluegrass: Beyond Abbey’s Hatchet Job
Photo by Geoff Mintz
I wake up to commotion and the sound of rushing water. For a moment I don’t know where I am, until I see my friend Sarah laughing in the dawn. I panic: if I was asleep it means I missed my number. Sarah notices I’m awake, takes in my distraught face and laughs, “Don’t worry, it’s on top of your sleeping bag.” I glance down and sure enough there it is, number 67. I fall back asleep knowing that despite the ground, the people around me, the children selling coffee, the early morning joggers and the occasional car, it’ll be the most amount of sleep I’ll get all weekend.
When I awake again it’s eight-thirty and the first thing I do is dip my head in the creek, snow melt from the surrounding mountains. It’s been a year since I was last in Telluride, Colorado and I’m grateful to be back, though a strange jealousy always lingers. I return to Sarah, who’s learning the best way to fold up her tarp, a method called the ‘accordion.’ We’ve slept in line to take part in the tarp run, a Telluride Bluegrass Festival tradition, and ensure that our group of friends has a home base for the full day of music ahead.
It’s day two of the five-day festival, which officially begins at the tarp run on the second day. Friends send representatives with tarps to sleep in line, and come some ungodly early morning hour a Telluride official hands out numbers to those in line. The number determines when you get to run and thus how close to the stage you get to lay your tarp down. Come ten o’clock the mad dash will begin to the sound of bagpipes and raucous applause.
I spent the night before up in Mountain Village, listening to Lake Street Dive and the Steep Canyon Rangers play for free. Both were only names to me and impressive. Lake Street Dive is four peers out of the New England Conservatory of Music, and their lead singer is a bombshell with an incredible voice and the moves and style to match. Their lyrics are smart and their sound undoubtedly fashioned in a conservatory, yet jazz finds a way to meld nicely with doo-wop vibes and, of course, bluegrass.
The Steep Canyon Rangers, who took home the Grammy this year for Bluegrass Album of the Year ( Nobody Knows You), lived up to the hype. They were schedule to play the main stage the second day, once with the core members and then as the night’s main stage closer with Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. That last show was a recent addition due to Mumford & Sons cancelling their summer tour and it had everyone talking (often about how Brickell’s husband, Paul Simon, is around and ripe for a sit-in.)
I spent the night on Telluride’s main drag at the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon, listening to Gypsy Moon play with a handful of friends and Colorado favorites. At some point throughout the night Bridget Law, Bonnie Paine, and Daniel Rodriguez of Elephant Revival, Greensky Bluegrass’ Ander’s Beck, Taarka’s David Tiller, Fruition’s Mimi Naja and Leftover Salmon’s front man (and proud father of two Gypsy Moon members) Vince Herman, were all on stage. By the time Sarah and I stumbled into the tarp line our Telluride was well under way.
When I went to bed it was forty-five degrees and as I’m preparing to run the heat is on the rise and I’m sweating. We sprint when it’s out respective turns and lay down our tarp to the right of the sound booth, close enough to clearly see the musicians watching from the stage.
I comment to Sarah that Bridget Law is wearing the same thing she was in last night. “So are you,” she retorts. With that we head up to Mountain Village to change and eat before Chris Thile gets the show started.
A ticket to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is, for a certain bluegrass fan, akin to a pilgrimage to Mecca. The music isn’t exclusively bluegrass, though there are often a lot of comparisons made to church. This is the festival’s 40th year and it’s come a long way, as has Telluride the town. Edward Abbey—intrepid explorer and writer of the America West—wrote of his discovery of Telluride in 1957 in his impassioned essay Telluride Blues: a Hatchet Job. He was mostly lamenting what he thought Telluride would become, but also celebrating 1970’s Telluride: a frontier town where “to hell you ride” passed for goodbye.
“I recognized [Telluride] at once as something much too good for the general public,” he wrote. “For thirteen years I kept the place a secret from all but my closest picknicking cronies. No use: I should have invested everything I had in Telluride real estate.” Had he invested he would today be sitting on a fortune, for over forty years the price of Telluride real estate has exploded. Edward Abbey was worried about his favorite scenic, small town, where the sheriff was an indiscriminate asshole and everyone liked to get drunk and listen to old-time, American string music. Where Butch Cassidy had robbed the bank in 1889 and stained the town with lawlessness. He liked the idea that there were avalanches or it could hail in June; what he didn’t like was the idea of a new ski resort, 20,000 more people, and a new, wealthier demographic taking root.
It’s hard to imagine Telluride at a point in history when there was no airport and it was even more isolated than it is today. A little over six hours from Denver, Colorado by car, in the southwest portion of the state, the San Miguel River runs though a box canyon far below the San Juan Mountains. The canyon is surrounded by steep crags and dense forests, which despite their beauty run the risk of burning in the summer’s heat. Bridal Veil Falls lies at the head of the canyon, and even on summer nights has been known to freeze.
Telluride, Colorado is located amidst all this, and is extraordinarily beautiful, with a free gondola that connects it to Mountain Village, Colorado, and affords an aerial view for miles.
The Telluride Bluegrass Festival is capped at 10,000 tickets, and recently sold-out in four hours in December. For the most part, Telluride’s permanent population is only about 1500 more than when Abbey was writing—far from the permanent 20,000-person influx he was expecting—though it does swell considerably come the festival or ski season. Roughly two-thirds of the festivalgoers are veterans, mostly Colorado natives, and some, like mandolin virtuoso Sam Bush, have been coming for near all 40 years. Telluride the town boasts of the exclusivity that famous Colorado ski towns, like Vale and Aspen, are known for: a relatively white demographic, the outdoors, fresh powder, incredible views, small town quaintness and five star amenities. Telluride Bluegrass the festival is known for its music.
The first Telluride Bluegrass Festival was held on July 4, 1973 and the only band was Fall Creek. They never quite made it into the annals of great Americana music, but they had started the festival hoping to attract New Grass Revival, the band that made Sam Bush famous. In time they have absolutely become part of the string music canon, and a handful of artists performing this year (Leftover Salmon, and The String Cheese Incident to name two) have been known to cover their songs. In 1974 New Grass Revival was Sam Bush (mandolin), Curtis Burch (guitar), John Cowan (bass), and Courtney Johnson (banjo)—Béla Fleck would join in 1981. New Grass Revival’s manager happened to meet a member of Fall Creek, who was working at a pizza shop in Telluride, and the result was a forty-year tradition.
The New Grass Revival sound is a bluegrass that swings with jazz, rock covers, and even reggae grooves. Traditional bluegrass audiences in the 70’s didn’t get what these hippies were doing, but Telluride, CO did, and Telluride Bluegrass became a second home for the band and the broadening of roots music form the start. New Grass Revival would tell their famous friends and likeminded musicians on the road about the festival, and so it grew, eventually finding a permanent home on the weekend of the summer solstice each year. 2013’s lineup features Feist and Dispatch, whose radio-friendly tunes suit the ‘Telluride bluegrass’ genre, despite where you think they fall on the authenticity scale.
According to Brian Esyter—marketing director for Planet Bluegrass, the small operation that puts on the festival and several others in Colorado—there’s a general misconstruction about the festival steadily getting more and more popular. Attendance has always come in waves throughout its tenure, as the status of bluegrass has traditionally fluctuated in popular culture. Esyter reflected, “We definitely get something like that every ten years or so. It goes in those phases in terms of real, wide stream appeal of these bands on the radio, and mainstream media talking about it.”
Brian and the team at Planet Bluegrass take great care curating the thirty-artist lineup—pacing the order each day, trying to go with the ebbs and flows, figuring out who plays at sunset, “when the light is at a certain place because that really colors the stage.” People will watch every band on the one main stage simply because they trust that they’re all worth seeing, leaving their tarp only to eat, use the bathroom, or maybe cool off in the river.
Bluegrass is a front porch kind of music, and references to a family environment or a small-town community are easily made. The Telluride Bluegrass family, attendees new and old, are known as Festivarians. Even the food vendors return year after year, with some a generation or two deep. For my friend Rhiannon Kauffmann, twenty-one, this was her twenty-first year attending the festival alongside her parents and, for the past seventeen years, her younger siblings.
Béla Fleck—who has fourteen Grammys under his belt and is the world’s most prolific banjo player—has said “I feel like I grew up with the festival. It’s like a big family that welcomed me in.” And he’s not alone among musicians: it was Sam Bush’s 39th Telluride, Tim O’Brien’s 37th and Peter Rowan’s 33rd, to name a few.