Telluride Bluegrass Festival – oh, to be there again, as a correspondent…
Tell someone you’re going to a festival in the mountains, and that the word bluegrass is in the name. Doubtless they’ll figure you mean Merlefest and you just added that word, bluegrass, because your sensibilities told you it belongs there. Or maybe you’re talking about a smaller fete somewhere in the Appalachians. Then, tell ‘em it’s in the mountains at nearly 9,000 feet. Either they instantly get it, they’re befuddled or assume you are.
Confidently repeat the altitude, and casually add, “oh, that’s how high it is, but around there, it’s down quite low, in the bottom of a box canyon.” Then, tell ‘em the view to the left of the festival stage is the six-hundred-foot waterfall at the head of that box canyon. And mention if you take a short hike up toward the headwall, you can see around the corner to the other six-hundred-foot waterfall that’s way back up there, as well.
It is, of course, Telluride. Few towns anywhere in the world with a population of only 2,000 have the power to assert identity without a need to name their state or country. Few places so tiny could ever think of hosting world-class music festivals every year. But Telluride can, and it does. And this marks the 36th year they’ve done it.
Anyone who has sat in the meadow-like festival grounds at Telluride and thrilled to the precise and happy plucks of the mandolin or the sweet strains of a fiddle beckoning a dance, or who eagerly anticipates the stage time of any of those who, themselves, look forward to performing every bit as much as the audience does to seeing and hearing them, well, we share an understanding of the singular magic of Telluride.
It’s a festival named for one genre of music, but the Telluride Bluegrass Festival delivers maybe a third bluegrass – and the rest? Just great music. That’s part of the magic.
But Telluride is a place with a past so colorful that knowing a bit about it makes the roots of that variety and the entire experience of being there even richer.
Things began way back up there in that typically spectacular 19th century way that so many things did in the Colorado Rocky Mountain High. The fur trappers played their concertinas and sang their songs of the coureur de bois in French, and left faint old trails when the beaver were hunted to near extinction. Those trails became threads for fortune seekers to unravel, scurrying along riverbanks and ascending alpine creeks in their lust for precious metals. Where they found it, miners and camp followers, and then narrow-gauge railroads and townsfolk, all going up, up, up the dizzying heights to places that weren’t even places a short while earlier.
A high, remote camp with its jangling salon piano, fiddle and banjo music, was briefly Columbia, but when the Post Office wouldn’t go along with that – fearing confusion with the old Mother Lode camp of Columbia, California – the place instead became Telluride. If you wonder at such a strange-sounding name, well, that box canyon was full of miners, so it was no stretch for them to vary the name of tellurium, a rare, lustrous, brittle mineral usually associated with gold. Except it must’ve been wishful thinking, because there wasn’t any tellurium in Telluride.
Long before music fans would come to value this magic place, the surrounding San Juan and San Miguel Mountains were plumb-full of ‘purt near everything else valuable. Perhaps it was simply a matter of inspiration, even though we might like to believe that theirs was not the same as ours. Wasn’t long before Telluride’s silver and zinc and lead and copper and iron and yes, gold, too, in yet another mineral form, made the place boom. That attracted Otto Mears, a singular character who pushed rails and slim-gauge steam trains into places the miners’ pack mules wouldn’t go. His highest ventures, long-since devoid of their rails, still reach like wandering Mars rover tracks into the sky far above high-scrub timberline, past ghostly mining structures in lost recesses above Silverton, never quite making it up-and-over, and over-and-down, to Telluride.
That is, until Mears did an end-run on the highest part of the mountains with his Rio Grande Southern Railroad. He got there on three-foot-gauge rails, over rickety timber trestles that seemed hung from skyhooks at places like the wishfully-named Ophir, and by taking-in spectacular vistas from atop windswept passes with names like Lizard Head (for a peak that looks like an upended alligator). When the train’s three-chime steam whistle and clanging brass bell finally heralded your arrival up in that box canyon, you’d have found all the trees had been cut for mine timbers and firewood, and the streets full of mud (it was, after all, the bottom of a box canyon), and the sounds of the ore crushers slammed and pounded day and night. No wonder the conductor called-out the station name as the train reached the end of the branch line in the box canyon, as “To-hell-you-ride!”
Of course, the town’s genteel elements gave us the Opera House we enjoy today as the home of festival workshops and the Telluride Troubadour competition. But you’ve got to wonder what other old buildings in town were establishments where months of mining could be spent in one sitting (or one session behind an upstairs door) or where the wilder elements otherwise aired-out their inhibitions and went on a toot.
What people did to each other aside, it’s hard to imagine that the alpine paradise of today had such rough treatment. Thanks to the earth’s redemptive patience, we have a green paradise, while modern local prosperity around the hill, if that’s what ski resort-culture can be called, is thanks to Colorado’s white gold – snow. The native Utes spent summers in the box canyon, and wisely journeyed lower each year before winter arrived. The whites stayed summer and winter in the mines and in the town and struggled to keep the railroad open with steam-powered rotary snow plows. Today’s road is perched in the same place the trains ran on those same mountainsides, and the route continues to be plowed. And nowadays everyone celebrates – like never before – the reason for the need to do it. And that’s just part of the improbable magic of this place.
Want more? The Rio Grande Southern, that little railroad on the edge of the world, would last until 1952, delivering people to Telluride aboard railborne 1920’s Pierce Arrow buses mated to freight boxes in a pre-Beverly Hillbillies sight that kept daily schedules. And it somehow makes sense thatyou can still ride those steam trains and that crazy bus hybrid today at Knott’s Berry Farm in California. And when you go to Telluride, you drive there over the old rail bed, on asphalt that replaced crossties and spikes. You can even drink beer in the old “To-hell-you-ride” train station, unlike the railroaders of old.
Whether Telluride has magic beyond a very magical four days near the solstice each June, I can’t say. For those four days, it’s a musical mecca, and like the Telluride of old, it’s once again plumb-full of ‘purt near everything precious.
The Telluride Bluegrass Festival isn’t just one of the best music festivals in America. It may be the best of all. A statement like that requires support, so here goes.
One year, when the late John Hartford was still with us and performing, there was gentle but steady rain during his set. (Hey, it’s the Rocky Mountains, where if you don’t like the weather, you just wait a few minutes.) Hartford, veteran of piloting steamboats through plenty of serious squalls on the Mississippi River, wasn’t going to play for a crowd of faceless, mounded shapes beneath plastic tarps. So, he climbed down off the stage and strolled all through the crowd playing his fiddle with its remote pickup. The rain got heavier and poured off his bowler hat, and he shook the water out of his fiddle a couple of times. But he never stopped looking into the faces of his audience members – who were mostly peering from beneath cover at his knees – and he never stopped playing or smiling. He strolled around the whole audience for at least 20 minutes, until the rain stopped and he could return to the stage and again see people, uncovered and looking up at him. That is my fondest memory of the great John Hartford playing, anywhere, ever. It was magic.
And I was there when Bill Monroe played, his entire band clad in their matching “Monroe Doctrine” suits and string ties, amidst a bunch of transplanted-to-the-mountain bohemians who were enjoying the June afternoon sunshine by hardly wearing anything at all.
Dozens of artists from afar, some whose names were known and revered, others whose names soon would be, and most whose music had only been enjoyed as recordings, back to the days of cassette tapes: That has long been the annual promise of Telluride. There were those we had seen before, like Emmylou, and James Taylor and Mary Chapin Carpenter, there were those we saw there once or twice and hoped to see every year, like Shawn Colvin, Peter Rowan, Tish Hinojosa, Tim O’Brien and the O’Boys, String Cheese Incident, Catie Curtis, Blue Highway, J.D. Crowe, Tony Rice and David Grisman. And there were those that each of us felt we discovered there, like Harvey Reid, The Good Ol Persons, and The Waifs.
Even the vendors at Telluride are not exactly like other festivals. I still recall becoming a customer and fan of Pueblo-to-People, a nonprofit that imports native artisan products bought directly from the makers, with no WalMart-like middleman sucking-up all the money.
I remember that bicycles in Telluride aren’t simply an alternative to the festival’s shuttle buses to all the campgrounds. They’re a cultural assertion, and they allow you the mobility to forego festival food and order a custom-made sandwich in the town deli, one that will inevitably bring offers for half in return for something in another festivarian’s pack.
And we can’t forget that those who go to Telluride have their own identity, every bit as much as those who go to Burning Man, though I’ll stop that comparison right there. Go to Telluride, gush about it (as you of course will) and profess your desire to return. You’re now a Festivarian.
But what I remember as the most uniquely characteristic thing about Telluride was a reliably recurring event like nothing anywhere else. It happened at every festival, on Friday and Saturday nights. That was when old friends and consummate genius musicians Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, and whomever was there and tight with any of them at the time, were simply given the stage. Sure, these guys have know each other for decades, but the New Grass Revival was a long time ago, and it isn’t like they get together much, with everyone touring in different directions. So, they just gave them time together, and when that time came, they just walked out and took the stage. For awhile, they billed them as the “Telluride All-Stars,” but I don’t think that ever stuck, with 363 days between gigs. So, they give them stage time, and what do they do? That was always the most loaded question of all. The simple answer was, of course, anything they wanted.
Whatever variant of breathtakingly good acoustic roots music you can imagine, I’m sure they delivered it, one year or another.
But one Friday night back in the ‘90s, under a starry Colorado sky, they all walked on stage, the cheers rose then subsided for them to begin, and they just looked at each other. Each of them asked, “What do you want to do?” almost in unison. As everyone laughed on and off stage, one of them did what every kid does when he walks into Guitar Center, and he picked-out the opening notes to “Stairway to Heaven.” Huge laughter, of course, but – it seemed that Sam Bush had picked it up on his mandolin. Then Bela on the banjo. Not only did they all get aboard, build it to (at least) its traditional crescendo, then finish it, but for the next two hours, Telluride got an acoustic tour of the Led Zeppelin catalogue.
The next morning, and wherever you went for lunch, whether you were at the festival or in town, everyone was abuzz, “Did you hear THAT!? Wonder what they’ll do tonight?” “Whatever it is, no way they’ll top THAT!” “Oh, I’m sure they’ll go back to bluegrass, maybe some raucous bluegrass, but still…” “I dunno, I heard somebody said something to Sam, and all he would say is, ‘Expect surprises.’”
The day’s lineup, and all through the evening, all was splendidly amazing, as Telluride just is. Then, the moment all had awaited. “Telluride All Stars” Sam, Bela, Jerry, Edgar, and I just don’t remember who-all-else, were on stage, and the crowd roared and roared and seemed unable to stop. Finally, Sam Bush approached a mic, and said, “Well -“ and the roars and hoots resumed. On stage, you could see the “aw, shucksing” happening, and they fumbled into a couple of brilliant tunes that I doubt anybody remembers, because of what happened next.
Through the cheers, someone, it might have been Sam Bush, it might have been Bela Fleck, shouted to the crowd, “Does everybody feel alright?” then, again, a louder call and response, until someone on stage said, yeah, we’re together, and I feel alright.” And that was all it took. They froze and stared at each other with the instant of shared thought. Then they proceeded, for two hours, to bring Bob Marley back from the dead. It was reggae on acoustic instruments from altogether different traditions, and it was a page in the permanent life-memories books of everyone there.
That is the essence of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Something magic. Something unexpected. Something that couldn’t or just wouldn’t happen anyplace else, and by happening, becomes a single, unique moment of utterly unreproducible magic, indelible and enduring in the mind and consciousness and soul of all who were there.
I remember that the Telluride Bluegrass Festival always produces another shared moment. On the morning of the fourth day, realization seems suddenly to dawn, and everywhere people are overheard saying, “Wait a minute,” and observed working their fingers like an abacus, trying to make any kind of sense of how it could possibly be the last day, since there is no way that many days could have happened there yet.
I remember it all. The profound, the cute, the quaint, the absurd, the beautiful, the magic, the joy, the rain, the sun, the campground jams, the long waits for the quick showers, the sense of community, the known and the new artists that mostly thrilled. And I want very much to go back and see if it’s all still there, with some aspects of the younger and fresher, others of the worn and polished and comfortable. It’s been too long. I thought I would be there every year, and it’s been way too many years since I’ve been there at all.
Perhaps I’ll be the No Depression correspondent, and share the experience with all of you from the festival. I could share the full spectrum of experiences, musical and otherwise, from way up in profoundly magical Telluride. I hope so. I yearn to go back.
Larry Wines, programmer-producer-host, “Tied to the Tracks” acoustic Americana radio, syndicated from Los Angeles, with live in-studio performance-interviews, included in “The Best of L.A. 2006” radio lineup by Los Angeles Magazine; editor, “Acoustic Americana Music Guide & News” at http://acousticamericana.blogspot.com and http://community.nodepression.com/profile/TiedtotheTracks and additional “TttT” news is on the No Depression page and at www.myspace.com/laacoustic; Larry is a consultant to artists, musicians, songwriters, festivals, and the music biz, and a feature writer and columnist for FolkWorks (www.folkworks.org).
Check-out Larry’s latest column for FolkWorks at www.folkworks.org/content/view/35858/3176 and the extensive “BEST OF 2008 / TOP TEN” feature for FolkWorks, available at www.folkworks.org/content/view/35788/166
PS – No trees were killed in the sending of this message, but a substantial number of electrons were terribly inconvenienced.