Telluride Bluegrass: Beyond Abbey’s Hatchet Job
Photo by Geoff Mintz
Sam Bush sits in with just about everyone at Telluride. He made his first appearance on Thursday during Greensky Bluegrass’ set, joining them on fiddle for “All Four” after they had just covered New Grass Revival’s “Can’t Stop Now.”
The Steep Canyon Ranger’s fiddle player, Nicki Sanders, is an elegant musician with certain energy and zest that at times sets him apart rest of his band. At some point the banjo player, Graham Sharp, remarked that he never would have gotten into bluegrass were it not for Telluride’s annual festival.
A festival highlight was Emmylou Harris, who took to the stage to showcase her most recent collaboration with Rodney Crowell. Their band’s instrumentation is unique, consisting of three guitars, a pedal steel, a keyboardist who primarily played the accordion, a bass and drums. As the sun set and the hills turned silver with the site of hundreds of aspens in the wind, Harris hypnotized the crowd with Townes Van Zandt’s “Poncho and Lefty,” and her originals “If I Needed You” and “Luxury Liner.”
Steve Martin—who began his comedic career picking songs on the banjo—and Edie Brickell were part of another amazing Steep Canyon Rangers set. It was part comedic relief but truly felt like a whole other band showcasing equally incredible musicianship. Still, hours later as I was falling asleep, it was Harris who haunted my dreams.
Telluride Bluegrass takes over the town of Telluride for this one weekend every year, with a workshop stage along Colorado St., the main drag, and with late night shows in all the town’s possible venues, including the public high school. The town is a bourgeois haven for wealth and privilege, but once a year the Bluegrass festival serves as an equalizing force, with some people saving all year to make the trek into Telluride via the one paved road.
Brian, for the most part, acknowledges Telluride’s exclusivity: “It does self-select, especially because of the remoteness.” When it comes to the festival, he was especially adamant that money and egalitarianism was something that got discussed a lot. “We don’t sell any kind of VIP tickets, there’s nothing inside the festival to really make anyone different from anybody else. Money gets you nothing,” he continued, “Craig Ferguson, [the festival’s director], really cares a lot about that.”
When Edward Abbey was writing his rant on a changing Telluride, he reserved particular venom for the new hippie demographic just come to town. Telluride at the time was defined by “its rundown, raunchy, redneck, backwoods backwardness,” filled with cowboys and fueled by alcohol. Then came the hippies, “the trust funders, the freaks, the rootless ones, the middle-class proletariat with their bears and unisex ponytails, all of them, male and female, wearing the same bib overalls, Goodwill workshirts and waffle-stomper boots, all trying to look different in the same way.” These hippies, with their cannabis and “hard-core imitation-Negro music” had some money and new ideas, and they wanted to invest. Some of them went as far as to start a festival.
Day two featured Peter Rowan’s Twang and Groove, which as the name suggests, is a chilled out take on his fast-paced classics. Songs that long ago made the bluegrass canon like “In the Pines,” “Land of the Navajo” and “Midnight Moonlight,” took on an eerier, new lease on life. The chemistry between Rowan and Sam Bush, who of course sat in, was amazing to see on these fresh takes.
Crowd favorites the Punch Brothers played a set that momentarily made everyone forget that the String Cheese Incident was slated to play after. They rework classics, play originals, and let front man Chris Thile go crazy with his nerdy stage presence. They are undoubtedly one of the best bands around; if only they managed to get their tours to reach a little father.
On paper the Cheese set looks slightly mediocre, a mix of newer songs (including the set opener “Can’t Wait Another Day,” which Kyle Hollingsworth’s wrote leading up to his daughter’s birth) and less obvious old ones. Still, they played like early String Cheese, a jovial harkening back to before they were the psychedelic late night go to and were known to pick around the ski resorts of Colorado and make even a day time crowd go nuts. It was the best Cheese set I’ve seen in years, with a style that echoed Peter Rowan’s earlier set. “Mouna Bowa” was the climax and the entire show was a highlight. The newer “Struggling Angel” was an abrupt transition, though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t completely won over in the end. They closed appropriately with a song Billy Nershi penned with his wife Jillian, “Colorado Bluebird Sky.”
The Masters of Bluegrass followed, and having seen them twice the weeks before, I can safely say this was the set to see. Sam Bush said it best as he took the stage with them, “If it wasn’t for these guys, there wouldn’t be any bluegrass music.” The Masters formed picking on Del McCoury’s porch, and they carried that intimacy along with their technical prowess onto the stage. The set included Bobby Osborne telling the story of how he came to stay in the hotel room “Rocky Top” was written in, before launching into the most incredible version of the Tennessee state song he’s famous for. That, along with “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin,” “Send Me Your Address from Heaven,” and Bobby Hicks’ heart-melting “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go),” will stay with me as musical reference points forever.
The Infamous Stringdusters were played the late night at the Palms and as incredible as that band is, I found myself forgetting my ticket and staying through Dispatch’s set. Who would have thought that the radio friendly “biggest band nobody’s ever heard of” would pull through with a guest banjo maestro (the musical treasure that is Boo Reiners) and memorable sit-ins featuring Bridget Law and Bonnie Pain. They covered parts of “Friend of the Devil” and “Mrs. Robinson” (the closest we got to Paul Simon all weekend) in between their originals for a setlist that really embodied the Telluride sound. It was a surprising check off the bucket list.