The Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition

Headline Bluegrass Band, from the Phoenix, Arizona area made their Telluride debut last Tuesday, playing at Steamboat Camp’s “Tropical Tuesday” bash in Town Park’s preserve area. No microphone, no amplifiers. A predominately young crowd pressed forward, as only about the first six or so layers of folks could hear, and enjoyed a tight, well-delivered set from the four members.

In Town Park a good band often draws a jam, so by the time the final “White Freightliner Blues” was played the band had swelled to eight, joined by Oakhurst fiddler Chuck Hugenberg, camp regular Barefoot Kenny on mandolin plus another guitar and banjo player.

I first encountered Headline Bluegrass Band in the wilds of western New Mexico in May of this year when we had the good fortune to camp next to them at a private party. They picked and sang next to us during breakfast, at times during the day and also at dinner time, what a treat. I found out then that they planned to attend the 36th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival and enter the band competition.

Following Tropical Tuesday’s performance, Headline Bluegrass played at camp WanderIn on Wednesday, joined by The Hillbenders, a group from Springfield, Missouri, that had also traveled to Telluride to enter the band competition. Both bands sounded excellent and provided a very entertaining afternoon of music in camp.

I had the opportunity to speak with members of Headline Bluegrass Band and to get their take on the festival and the band competition.

Nathan Furiga, the bass player for Headline, provided some insight, “We’ve been together for about a year. We’ve been lucky to be able to take advantage of the doors that have opened for us- whether that’s luck or fortune- I don’t know. I don’t really like the whole “judging music” thing; however, for a shot at the main stage…we basically just have to do our thing and do it well. The future is bright, we’ve got six festivals lined up in the first eight weeks of 2010.”

Headline Bluegrass Band plays Town Park's Camp WanderIn


That Wednesday’s camp performance introduced me to The Hillbenders, and I was impressed. In fact, I bought their five-song CD on the spot. They are a nicely polished, five-piece outfit consisting of bass, guitar, mandolin, banjo and dobro. They certainly have the musical talent to ply their trade, but they also possess an easy rapport and stage presence that is rare for a group that’s been together just a year and a half. The dimension that their very adept dobro player adds cannot be underestimated.

The Hillbenders in Town Park with young fans looking on


For both bands, actually performing prior to the competition is a smart move. Acclimating to altitude, weather and experiencing the effect that these have on both people and instruments is wise.

Past winners of the Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition include The Dixie Chicks, Nickel Creek and Greensky Bluegrass. The rules can be found here.

The preliminary band competition was held yesterday on the Elks’ Park stage in Telluride. Ten bands entered (nine performed), four of which would advance to today’s final competition on the main stage. Headline Bluegrass Band members were pleased with the effort they turned in, but noted that the level of competition was high. Billy Lee Cox also commented on the strong performance by The Hillbenders. At about 1:30pm yesterday, this list was posted:




So for Headline Bluegrass Band, the competition ended here this time. For The Hillbenders, the main stage awaits along with three other bands in the finals.

The finals were held earlier today and I got a chance to listen as each group played three songs on the main stage at the festival grounds. Once again, The Hillbenders turned in a top-notch performance. As the 4th and 3rd place band names were announced, no Hillbenders. Before the 2nd place finisher was announced, I placed my bet with my camera:

The Hillbenders learn they have won the 2009 Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition

I got a chance to talk to the elated band members later in the press tent. Even after winning, they echoed Nathan’s (from Headline Bluegrass) earlier comment at the odd nature of a band “competition.” However, we discussed the definite value of promoting new and promising bluegrass acts. They, like their earlier competitors, confessed that the allure of performing on the main stage is irresistible.

The Hillbenders made the main stage this year and did their thing well. Next year, they get an entire set of their own.

Views: 188

Comment by pablo escobar on June 21, 2009 at 4:14pm
So I guess no mention of the other bands that competed?
Comment by Bootey Smith on June 21, 2009 at 7:01pm
Yeah, what about Giddyup Kitty....all woman band that tore it up. but women don't go far in bluegrass do they......
Comment by Tom T. on June 23, 2009 at 8:50am
Great bands in the comp this year, though, as usual, I disagreed with the judges. The Hillbenders were a good, polished act. The Blackberries were fun, pretty light-weight stuff though. I probably would have given my nod to the Kitties, but I'm not sure that judges like all women bands, unless they're old-timey. Even the Dixie Chicks had to get out of the bluegrass racket. Congrats to all the brave competitors.
Comment by James Reich on June 23, 2009 at 9:08pm
The omission of any other band(s) was not intended as a slight. The bands were all worthy and each brought something to the competition. Perhaps I should have considered other titles- this was never meant as a comprehensive, in-depth blog in which I covered each and every entrant. I adhered to a basic tenent- write about things you know.

I had good access to two of the bands, one that made the finals and one that did not. I looked to cover the contrasts and the common themes between the two.
Each of the finalists were very good and brought unique talents into the competition. I am not a judge, nor do I want to be, they have a thank-less job. If I were, I would have ranked numbers 2-4 somewhat differently. I was very impressed with Giddyup Kitty, but I thought the instrumentation of The Blackberry Bushes was particularly strong. However, this is a perfect example of how strange a band competition really is, which is a common thread, as I was trying to point out.
I would look forward to reading your post on Giddyup Kitty, or anyone's post on any of the other contestants with which they are familiar.

I admit to being in the dark as to the feelings concerning the female thing. I don't perceive a bias, based on the ratio of males/females in the bluegrass world. For example, that poor Krauss kid has just had one hell of a tough time being accepted, huh? <==sarcasm

Regards, and thanks for all comments- I like a good discussion (argument!- lol.)

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