“They tried to tell me.”
So says Jackson Browne, after surveying what must be one of the most sublime stage perspectives on earth. Performers at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival look out on a breathtaking panorama (quite literally, given the oxygen tanks that stand at-the-ready just offstage), a view for which artists at Telluride often struggle to find suitable superlatives. But what perhaps makes the experience especially unique in the world is the festival’s astounding combination of peerless musicianship and harmonious vibes. It’s a give-and-take that everyone in the canyon feels collectively, and all who come to the TBF (“festivarians,” they call themselves), most of whom return every year, planning their summers around the trip, feel with certainty that they are standing at the planet’s absolute premium spot at that moment in June.
Jackson Browne was making his first appearance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival back in 2000, playing Thursday night’s penultimate set, a spot often reserved for hall-of-famers like Browne, who was playing the festival after being told for years by his musician friends that he just had make it out. He is joined by two of those friends on stage this night—Bruce Hornsby, whose jam-friendly piano virtuosity is right at home here, and surprise guest Bonnie Raitt (who supplies a wry comment of her own: “This next song is a blues…and I smell grass”). Browne’s thoughtful, yearning classics, like “Late for the Sky” and "Your Bright Baby Blues,” sound transcendent echoing off the canyon walls, and when Browne digs deep into his playbook, his old guitarist and sidekick David Lindley (who played his own set earlier—a bit of scheduling genius) reunites with Browne onstage to recreate old memories. When Browne decides to really drive this crowd into whirling bliss, he pulls out “Take It Easy”—he wrote it, remember—and Bela Fleck is on hand to supply a dazzling variation on the song’s signature banjo undercurrent. No wonder they tried to tell him.
These sorts of spontaneous collaborations, matching up roots music’s most celebrated and accomplished players, are an important part of both the festival’s traditions and the audience’s expectations. A pantheon of instrumental masters—Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Bryan Sutton, et al.—all together on a single stage produces countless moments of brilliance, as well as occasional moments of spirited chaos. The soundman, an unsung hero at this festival, must be on his toes, continually identifying which of seven soloists on stage is currently playing the break. But this unstructured recklessness repeatedly leads to only-in-Telluride combinations and classic moments (Lyle Lovett dueting with Shawn Colvin in 1997 on Steve Earle’s “Someday”; Bobby McFerrin joining Alison Krauss in 2005) and some one-time alliances that are inspired but bizarre (John Oates crashing Sam Bush’s set last year with a reggae-grass reading of Hall & Oates’ “Maneater”).
The accumulation of so many first-rate pickers also forces a certain level of pressure among the performers to step it up. David Crosby, who played the festival in 1997, articulated this intimidation: “You know, some of the world’s best musicians are here…and they’re watching!” Still, the congeniality of the proceedings is palpable, and the audience is feeling so groovy, so conscious of their good fortune in listening to such exquisite music in such a gorgeous setting, that they naturally love everything that happens on stage. It may be the most appreciative concert audience you’ll ever see—every act gets a standing ovation, every time.
Even though adulation is a given, no one works harder for the audience’s approval than Sam Bush, who has been playing the festival every year since 1975, and his decades of energetic musical derring-do have earned him two hours of prime stage time every Saturday night of the festival as the undisputed King of Telluride. Sam, of course, was a founding member of New Grass Revival, the Big Bang of newgrass music and a band that still serves as the defining archetype of the festival’s mojo. Given the forceful adroitness of his mandolin and fiddle playing, the unabashed courage of his instrumental improvisations, his shaggy-haired playfulness, and his bobbing rhythmic stage moves, no individual embodies the appeal of the Telluride spirit as much as Sam Bush. It helps that Sam seems to have a sort of Dorian Gray thing going on: despite the fact that he will be 57 at this year’s festival, he still looks and moves much like the sinewy, agile kid who first came on the scene.
I always imagine the weight of expectations that Sam stares down when he puts in an appearance with another band’s set, brought to the stage by, say, Leftover Salmon on the festival’s Friday night. Once Sam walks out, the crowd quivers with excitement; the band launches into a barn-burning bluegrass number, gets through a verse and a chorus, and then 10,000 sets of eyes fixate on Sam’s hands, everyone expecting him, counting on him, to absolutely bring it. And damned if he doesn’t deliver—night after night, year after year—at Telluride. He could walk into a crowded restaurant in most American cities and attract little or no recognition, but in Telluride, Colorado, on the nights around the summer solstice, Slammin’ Sammy is the biggest star in the universe.
I first witnessed all this in 1997, a year that brought a staggering lineup of diverse acts to the Telluride stage, and I watched every single one of them. I identified myself during my first festival as someone with the somewhat-rare capacity to continuously sit and listen to mandolin solos for fifteen hours a day, four days in a row. While my girlfriend or brother or friends opted for occasional hikes, gondola rides, naps, or trips into town for lunch, I remained planted on my tarp—in punishing sun, in driving rain, in forty-degree midnights—staring stageward, afraid to miss a note.
Four years ago, I hit the pause button on my annual trip to Telluride when my son and daughter were born, at which point I settled into the joyful life of fatherhood. As a result, the TBF became unfeasible for the short term. I’ll get back there down the road as I look forward to the years when I can share the tradition of Telluride with my kids as so many others have done with theirs. In the meantime, however, I’ve found a way to get by.
Last year, KOTO, Telluride’s community radio station, partnered with Planet Bluegrass to stream the entire festival live from its website. I hooked up my computer to large speakers here in St. Louis and dragged them out into my back yard, where for the next one hundred hours I stayed, recreating the Telluride experience as closely as I could. I called no one, showered not, and Googled nothing. I cooked every meal I ate over those four days on the grill. I slept in my tent in the back yard, falling asleep to the late-night sets, just as I used to in the Town Park campground next to the festival grounds. My wife, of course, thought I was crazy, but she indulged me in this peculiar mix of sloth and ingenuity and even joined me for various stretches of it, mostly because she knew how much fun I was having, but also because that Sunday was Father’s Day, and my four days soaking in the sun, drinking longnecks, and listening nonstop to blisteringly beautiful live music was her and the kids’ gift to me.
After it was over, I felt the same post-fest blues (which as any festivarian will tell you, actually starts on Sunday while the festival is still in progress) as if I had indeed attended the real thing, shambling back into the real world—wild-eyed, beer-logged, and sun-damaged—looking at my car, my office desk, my mortgage statement, as if they were alien forms, part of an artificial world I could barely recognize. This hedonism hangover wears off, of course; it’s a rise and fall that, for festivarians, is just part of the seasonal cycle, like the migration of juncos or the softening of the earth.
And here’s the good news: Winter’s over. School is almost out. The phlox is in full bloom. I’m testing my favorite shorts from last summer to see if they still fit. From my office window, I can hear someone mowing a lawn. I’m getting whiffs of suntan lotion. And if I close my eyes, I can hear Jerry Douglas’s dobro—a pliant, keening ring and bend, equal parts mournful and peaceable, swirling around the box canyon, galvanizing the mountain night. There’s meaning in these tones, a stored power in the memories of them, an investment in the waves of sound that offers its returns in the ancient stirrings of the spirit.
I’m trying to tell you.