Summer Solstice Sorta: Telluride Bluegrass
I read somewhere that Wednesday was actually a second longer than Thursday, meaning that June 21 was not the solstice. I can’t say for sure one way or the other, particularly since a day at Telluride Bluegrass often starts before the sun and ends well after it. And in between sunrise and sunset on this Thursday there was hardly a cloud in the sky meaning that the sun took full advantage of being 8700 feet closer to you than if you were at the beach, baking everything and everyone. Lots of sunscreen and water said the lady at the gate. Good advice on this, the second longest day of the year (I suppose it tied with Tuesday for that honor).
My day began about 4:00 a.m., rising to get in the tarp line. The thermometer said 50 degrees but it seemed much colder in that chair, sitting next to a guy in a full sleeping bag. The line is like a snake made of polyester worms at 4:30 a.m., with most of the people in it having spent the night out there. Near the head of the line the hard core line people probably partied well into the wee hours but at 4:30 the party fire had died down and in its place was just the embers in the twisted shapes sleeping people.
Baked In Telluride (the bakery, not the state of being) is the only answer to an early wake up call in Telluride. With my line partner holding down our spot in line I walked in as they opened at 5:30. Coffee and an apple fritter. Their apple fritters are worth the trip to Telluride, by the way. Back to that line and before you know it the Planet Bluegrass guy is coming around with the numbers. 97. Very respectable number (they give them out to about 500). The Telluride world is divided into tarps that go down first thing each morning and stay down until the end of the day, demarcating the festivarians’ personal festival turf. Since we just have one stage here, that means that once you’ve done your line time and run your tarp you don’t have to worry about where you’ll be for the rest of the day.
After the tarp run at 10, it was finally time for some music. Chris Thile and Bela Fleck opened the festival at 11:00 with an improvisational set they called Thelma and Louise. They didn’t really drive over the cliff, but they skirted very close, just making it up as they went along until transitioning into an actual song or two along the way with Bela even singing a little harmony vocals. The night ended with Alison Krauss and Union Station doing a workmanlike set under the stars, with a fingernail moon in the western sky. In between were Della Mae, Dan Mangan, Greensky Bluegrass, Laura Marling and John Prine.
I’ll get back to John Prine in a moment, but before I do, I was struck by a comment made by Jerry Douglas during his KOTO interview Thursday afternoon. I had left Town Park to go hear Drew Kennedy perform in the Telluride Troubadour contest, and on the way back I stopped at our condo. I turned KOTO on just to hear Douglas talk about being a Telluride regular (28 years worth) and heard him joke that he and the other older regulars like Sam Bush would eventually be performing in their wheelchairs. This made me think of the song Atlantic City, which was covered by Greensky Bluegrass:
Well now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City
Maybe a better song reference would be from Just Us Kids, the James McMurtry song. McMurtry isn’t at Telluride but he would be perfect. With apologies to him, here’s a rework of the chorus just for us Festivarians:
Just us kids in the Town Park lot
Out here giving it all we’ve got
We don’t want to grow old and die
There’s no music we wouldn’t try
On that note, back to John Prine. He must be 100? Actually, he turns 66 later this year, so he’s not that old at all. And he’s pretty spry and really quite presentable in his suit, with that big ol’ guitar strapped on. By the time he took the stage at 7:00, it had begun to cool off a bit – remember the Telluride cycle: freeze, burn, freeze, burn, freeze. The sun was huge in the western sky, framed by the open end of the box canyon that holds Telluride. Town Park was filled with about 9,000 festivarians. As the sun began to sink near the end of his set, he sang “yeah up on Bear Creek, watching the sun go down. It makes me feel like I’m on my last go ’round.” When he sang these words on this same stage in 2006, he seemed frail and I thought that it might be his last go ’round. But it wasn’t, and he still has plenty of gas in the tank. He showed it as he moved to an amazing performance of Lake Marie, then brought Sam Bush up to help out on Paradise.
The sun went down Thursday night and it came back up this morning as it has every day since before these mountains were here. For most of the 39 years of Telluride Bluegrass, the solstice has marked our time together. Some performers have 30+ years at the festival, some have 20+ and some have “only” 10+, some are performing for their first time in 2012. Same for the Festivarians. It ranges from those attending since the beginning to this little guy in the hat watching John Prine during his first Telluride Bluegrass. The festival is so much larger than any one performer or group but it gets its energy from the continuity that comes from the connection to years past as well as the music of the future. It’s the Telluride Bluegrass circle of life.
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines. He’s tweeting from the festival.