Book Review: Telluride Bluegrass Festival: Forty Years of Festivation

It's been 40 years, with the 41st on the immediate horizon, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival just keeps on rolling. Most years, Sam Bush asks the crowd, "How many people have been here all four days?" in remembrance of the years when it was a three-day festival, when the same question was asked by then-emcee and festival co-founder Fred Shellman. Pastor Mustard (more on him later) has said that Fred's next question was, "How many people like cats?" 

It's a four-day festival now -- no cats allowed -- beginning on Thursday and ending on Sunday.

I've walked Telluride's Town Park on Wednesday as things are coming together. It's a little like a carnival come to town, with workers bolting some things together and moving other things here and there. I've seen it on Monday after Sunday night's last note was played, as things are broken down and hauled away, sadly, for another 51 weeks, until it's time to do it all again. In the middle of all this setting up and taking down, there's an organic festival -- in every sense of the word -- that is hard to explain to a non-Festivarian. It's an 88-hour-long oasis at the summer solstice that feels like it is beyond rules, yet operates by a pretty cool set of rules known and understood by the diverse group of Festivarians. Each year, three quarters of them are generally veterans, while one quarter are newbies.  The population of TBF is about a dozen thousand if you count everyone. It's tarps and blankets and tents and low-slung chairs and sun dresses and shorts and fleeces and hats and sun and heat and moon and cold, all in a box canyon at 8750 feet on the east side of an old mining town.

New performers almost always exclaim about the beauty of this place as they look out over the crowd from the stage. Glen Hansard once told the audience that the view was so beautiful from the Town Park Stage he felt the need to sing a Van Morrison tune, then did just that. Considering that beauty is like considering the number of grains of sand on the beach or stars in the sky: it just boggles the mind. Veterans know you have to live in the beauty because, if you get too caught up in it, you'll get high or confused. Or maybe that's the sweet-smelling smoke in the air at work. Regardless, a real Festivarian knows that you don't get hung up on anything at Telluride, even its beauty, if that hinders your festivation. You have to simply be there and exist in tune with the whole thing, as a part of the lifeform that, for four days each June, is the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. 

If you have been a part of more than one TBF, your memories become a kaleidoscope of images: late nights in a campground or in the tarp line, your turn at the tarp run, the bright sunshine of a Saturday afternoon with Yonder Mountain on stage, the Killer Flank Steak sign, the sun setting over town as John Prine sings Bear Creek, dancing hippies on either side of the stage, Sam Bush on stage with that look of absolute joy, and a thousand other scenes. Up until now, we Festivarians were dependent on our memories, or our photo albums, to keep all this in focus, but come June 19, that will change.

Our friends at Planet Bluegrass -- the producer of the festival -- have put together a book celebrating TBF's 40 years that, itself, is a thing of beauty. Bound in rich, Corinthian leather, with an animated image of Sam Bush doing his thing on the cover, I found 40 Years of Festivation to be 216 pages of pure bliss. Bush writes the forward, and Chris Thile writes the afterword. "Pastor Mustard" -- Dan Sadowsky, who emceed the festival for 31 years after Fred Shellman gave up the duties to him -- writes most of the book in an off-beat way that only he can do. The writing is well-done, sometimes hilarious, and the photographs are good, so good that those of us who have been there are thrown back in time to those moments on the tarp as we wondered whether life could get any better than this. As I perused the pages, it was hard for me to keep from heading out to find a New Belgium beer and a hula hoop. 

Sprinkled throughout the book are Pastor Mustard's observations from different years, like this, from his notes on the 30th version of TBF (2003):

The portent of this milestone made me want to shake Martin Sexton by his shoulders and tell him, "It was good, man. Your set was good. That thing you do is good." Same for the Waifs, but they're a group so it was impractical.

Or this, from the 1995 festival: 

So how was the weather at the '95 festival? Extreme, man. It's one thing to huddle under a tarp and something else when Old Man Winter is in plain view just a few hundred feet overhead. After a few days of hey-let's-get-naked sunshine, every class of precipitation dumped into the ball field. As Saturday turned to dusk, ominous wet clouds encircled the spires above Bear Creek like in a 1930s Frankenstein movie.

Though I didn't make it to the '95 festival, I can tell you that the good pastor is not exaggerating much. I've seen the weather go from scalding to freezing in minutes, and that's just when the sun went down on a normal day.

There are artists' photos throughout the book, particularly good ones of Bill Monroe, Natalie MacMaster, John Hartford, David Byrne, Chris Thile, Emmylou Harris, and so many more. But, as good as these artist photos are, the photos of the crowd -- the Festivarians -- affected me the most. Festivarians frozen in time, their faces showing the joy they are sharing in this place, tell the story of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival better than anything else. I am so happy to be a part of that crowd.

Those fortunate enough to be in Telluride for this year's iteration of Bluegrass, as the locals call it, will be able to get their hands on this book, which will be released on the first day of the festival. I'm told that Pastor Mustard will be around to sign copies. This fabulous book will no doubt have a cherished place on every Festivarian's coffee table. Kudos to all involved in putting it together. 

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Tags: bluegrass, chris thile, pastor mustard, sam bush, telluride

Comment by Chris Wadsworth on June 9, 2014 at 8:51pm

Thanks for the great review. I am looking forward to getting my hands on a copy!

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.