Telluride Bluegrass Festival 101: Getting Hooked
I’m typing this as I sit in DFW waiting to leave for Denver on the second leg of our trip. Once we get to Denver, it’s another hop to Montrose. Then a drive to Telluride. Matt (my third son) and my wife Malinda are here with me. All of us are doing this trip for the 5th time. Two of Matt’s brothers and one of his friends will meet us in Montrose by separate routes. Our good friends from Natchez are on their way and will meet us in Telluride this evening. It’s a long trip from Mississippi. As they say, you have to be going to Telluride to get there. And we can’t wait.
We had no idea what we were getting into in 2006, when we made our first to Telluride Bluegrass. Matt, who had just turned 12, was the only one of the kids who wanted to go with us. His older siblings had punted on the idea of a “bluegrass” festival. Bonnie Raitt (“We’ve got the blues if you’ve got the grass,” she said) was there that year. She went on at 9:00 Thursday night. I remember standing in what is now our usual spot (just to the right of the sound booth) when Matt said, “Dad, I want to go down front.” Telluride is a safe, friendly place, but when it gets dark, you really can’t see anything except the stage. Against my better instincts, I decided to let him go. Before I could say, “We meet right back here after she finishes!” he was gone. And hooked on Telluride.
Planning the trip to our first TBF, Malinda and I had figured that 4 solid days of music would be too much. We’ll go hiking, do some sightseeing, hang out, we said. We were curious, though, so we were in Town Park at 11:15 on Thursday morning as Tim O’Brien and his sister Mollie opened the festival. They sang slow and mostly older sounding stuff, playing right into our preconceived notions. (Tim and Mollie are favorites now, it was just a slow set – he did a much more upbeat set on Sunday with his band.) A little later that day, all that would change. A group we had never heard of, Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Band, took the stage. They were the antithesis of what we expected – young and upbeat, much more like a rock band. Moreover, we didn’t know anything about them, so how could they be good? Well, everything about that set rocked. Shupe & Co. even covered The Rainbow Connection and made that work. Malinda was hooked on Telluride.
As it turned out, we dug the whole experience. Other than a Sunday morning hike, we were in Town Park four days straight. We also saw (among others) the 2006 version of the House Band (Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Tim O’Brien and Bryan Sutton) Thursday night; The Greencards, Decemberists and Bela Fleck on Friday; and Yonder Mountain, Tony Rice and Sam Bush on Saturday. We enjoyed all of it. I was pretty much in my element the whole festival (in addition to serving up acoustic music, they sell New Belgium beer and Killer Flank Steak Sandwiches). Even so, I still wasn’t hooked until Sunday night. John Prine and a pop band that I only knew from the radio put the icing on the cake, laying the groundwork for my Telluride recidivism. Prine took the stage on Sunday just as the day was ending. Town Park is at the east end of town, with the stage on the south side of the park, near Bear Creek. Prine sang A.P. Carter’s song, Bear Creek, “up on Bear Creek, watching the sun go down . . .” as the sun went down over the Town of Telluride to my right. As I have said before, the chill bumps were not just because of the 15-20 degree drop in temperature. Prine was a bit frail-looking that evening and I wondered if I would ever get to hear him again. (Turns out that was silly – I’ve seen him twice since then, all seems well.) Then The Barenaked Ladies took the stage with acoustic instruments, fun songs and tons of wit. “It feels weird playing this banjo knowing that Bela Fleck is sitting backstage.” Then turning backstage, “Bela, I’ll show you how to play this later.” It was a great show – I still go back and watch a video now and then and smile about that night, the night Jim was hooked on Telluride.
We skipped 2007 but haven’t missed a festival since. Matt’s older brothers and sister have made the trip a time or two, along with some of their friends. We’ve been blown away by David Byrne, Glen Hansard (The Frames and The Swell Season), Mumford & Sons, Paolo Nutini, and host of other acts you wouldn’t associate with bluegrass. Planet Bluegrass has this way of mixing in the new and different with the old and familiar to give you just the right experience. The virtuosity and affability of the regular artists are a big part of making this mix work. The House Band, Tim O’Brien (O’Brien played with the House Band in ’06 but Stuart Duncan has been there since then), Yonder Mountain, Peter Rowan, Chris Thile and Drew Emmitt (in whatever projects Thile and Emmitt show up with) are other regulars who rarely miss a festival. Even after one festival you feel like you know these guys pretty well. After several festivals, you feel like a part of their family. And when one of the “visitors” show up on and ask them on stage, which happens often, it’s great.
So, what about 2011, which starts tomorrow (Thursday)? The full lineup is here. A few highlights from my perspective:
- Steve Earle returns to Telluride. This is the Hardcore Troubadour’s first Telluride since he came in 2004 with The Bluegrass Dukes. He’s here this year with The Dukes (& Duchesses) Featuring Allison Moorer (wife and mother of brand new son John Henry). Earle is touring in support of his new album I’ll Never Get Out Of Here Alive. (He has a new novel by the same title.) I’ve seen Mr. Earle several times and have never been disappointed. This should be quite good.
- Earlier on Thursday, we’ll see The Head and The Heart. There’s a lot of buzz about this band. I like everything I’ve heard from them, though the pic of the guy in the sheep mask creeps me out. One of my dark horse picks for festival favorites, though they’re a bit handicapped by being second up on Thursday.
- On Friday, we have Chris Thile & Michael Daves up at 11:15 a.m. Their new album rocks out on bluegrass standards. A little Village punk in your morning bluegrass? Sure, can I get that with a breakfast taco?
- Friday will also give us a stretch run from late afternoon to 10:00 p.m. that includes Trampled By Turtles, Emmylou Harris and Bela Fleck and the (Original) Flecktones. Trampled By Turtles, from the bluegrass capitol of the world (Duluth) released Palomino early last year and it is still way up there on the Bluegrass charts. I’ve had the CD in my car for a while and have to say that they’re a great fit for Telluride. I can see folks dancing in my mind’s eye. Emmylou is Emmylou. She’ll have The Red Dirt Boys with her at Telluride, touring in support of Hard Bargain, her new album. This record is filled with emotional songs – there are tributes to Gram Parsons (The Road) and Kate McGarrigle (Darlin’ Kate). I’m looking forward to hearing her new stuff, but I hope she rocks some, two. As in Two More Bottles Of Wine. Bela Fleck has the old Flecktones together and early returns are very positive. Their new album, Rocket Science, is excellent. Last time I saw them was at the ’06 TBF – it will be good to see Future Man and his drumitar again. So Friday is a full day (and I left out a lot of good stuff).
- Saturday’s last three sets read like this: The Decemberists, Sam Bush Band and Old Crow Medicine Show. If you can’t figure out some crossover on those sets, you probably wouldn’t enjoy Telluride. Earlier in the day has my attention, however. The morning starts with the Band Contest finals. Last year, I watched Nora Jane Struthers and the Bootleggers win this (they’ll play this year right after the finals). Always a treat to watch someone playing for a lineup spot next year. Then we get Drew Emmitt and Bill Nershi’s collaboration followed by Tim O’Brien and Yonder Mountain. I’ll have to pace myself a bit to get through Saturday.
- On Sunday we finish with Robert Plant and The Band Of Joy. What do you say about that? The day starts with Darrell Scott and includes Abigail Washburn, Punch Brothers and Mumford & Sons. I’m hoping I’ll have enough energy for all that, though there’s something about Sunday at Telluride. You get your second wind. And get hooked, if you aren’t already.
Enough preview, it’s time to get it started. Before we do, though, here’s a video interview of Sam Bush, the King of Telluride. He talks about the history of Telluride, his own history, and the excellent way Planet Bluegrass puts together the lineups.
You can follow Mando Lines on Twitter @mando_lines. Planet Bluegrass is @planetbluegrass. Also, the Telluride Bluegrass hashtag is #tridebg. If you know what that means, check it out.