It’s difficult to translate a festival experience into words. Add in that the festival is Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and well, you’ve got quite the conundrum for several reasons. How do you describe the rugged mountains that enfold the tiny town of Telluride? What words can you speak to translate the musical vibes that enveloped the valleys? Can you paint the pink sunset hues that rest over the ridges of the hills into thoughtful language? Give me a paintbrush and I’ll show you the fairy tale that takes place in the hills of western Colorado.
For 44 years, the bluegrass festival has been the start of summer for both Coloradans and those who flock from out of state. It’s really no surprise why the festival continuously sells out year after year. With names like Sam Bush, Greensky Bluegrass and Yonder Mountain String Band, devotees wait with excitement for the weekend before summer solstice so they can jam out with their friends.
When I read the line-up this year online, I was both excited and confused. Norah Jones? Yes, she’s a wonderful singer, but is she bluegrass? Dispatch? Jason Mraz? But then I realized something: it doesn’t matter because it’s Telluride Bluegrass and after 40 and some odd years, I think the festival is within its rights to welcome whoever they feel like welcoming. And if I’m being quite honest, the Dispatch show on Saturday, June 17 was one of the highlights of the weekend for me. The start of the magic happened on Thursday with country superstar, Dierks Bently who gave a surprising bluegrass set as he brought out guest performers, including mandolin player Chris Thile of the Punch Brothers, Del McCoury and Sam Bush (who made several guest appearances throughout the weekend). Brandi Carlile continued the enchantment with a beautiful set filled with aching tunes and longing choruses. However, the most entertaining moment came when she retold an embarrassing moment with Dolly Parton. Supposedly, when she asked Patron to sing a rendition of “The Story” she mistakenly said she would drop the song a key to accommodate the singer. “You could not hate me more than I hate me,” said Carlile, elaborating that the iconic singer clearly did not need any assistance. After Carlile, The Telluride House Band (a superband of bluegrass legends) wrapped up the first night with a quintessential experience. It quickly reminded everyone, that despite the unique line-up this year, the festival had not forgotten its roots.
Friday was another blur of music but The Jerry Douglas Band stood out, at least in my eyes. They carried bluegrass in its finest form — when it is heard live. The violinist gave it his all and probably left his sweat cemented in the wooden floor. The band danced between delicate throws of light twiddling and heavy blues with a strong bass. The electric guitar acted as if it was only a vehicle to navigate rock’n’roll with blues. After the ended their set, I was left panting from the dances I was throwing around with companions.
The Punch Brothers entered the hallowed stage next and gave us quirky ballads with their instruments. The strings would take over for a somber taste with a plucky attitude. “Goddamn it is so beautiful up here,” stated Thile. I really couldn’t have said it better. The pickling tunes of “Familiarity” came flowing out and the restless crowd quickly softened as the beautiful instruments enveloped the air. I get chills when I listen to the song with headphones — I didn’t realize time would freeze when I heard it live. The harmonizing seemed more put together than on the album, each musician attune to the other. It was an interesting choice to play as it is a slower paced song and longer than a normal tune and I wondered what makes it so appealing. Perhaps it’s the instrumental breakdown that happens between the artists. Maybe it’s the lyrics because you know deep down, words like that have to come from some personal story. Whatever it was, it fed my Friday night fever.
Norah Jones came up next, her ethereal beauty another one of those reasons why you can’t really explain what the festival experience is like to another human. She did a chilling rendition of the song “Ripple” and left the crowd primed for Greensky Bluegrass. And of course, just like last year, Greensky Bluegrass closed out the Friday night set. And honestly, you couldn’t complain, especially when they performed a cover of “Midnight Rider.” They provided the perfect pre-game to drinking beer back at the campsite with your friends and they left you closing your eyes with a smile on your face in the comfort of your tent. An old-fashion set up of just music can still sell out a crowd. No need for heavy stereo systems or fancy light shows at the bluegrass festival when you have the mountains to stare out and pure acoustics to tingle your ears.
Saturday morning opened with margaritas for breakfast (I swear I’m not the only one) and the final four bands of the Telluride Band Contest shared their music. Sugar in the Mint, Meadow Mountain, The Wooks and Lonesome Days made the cut, with Sugar in the Mint ultimately winning. But it was clear to see why each band was cherished by the crowd and judges. Meadow Mountain, who hail from Denver, have lyrics dripping with Colorado geography and their harmonizing was up to match with any of the headliners. The Kentucky-based Wooks fed the crowd country vibes and Lonesome Days, who are also from Denver, provided anecdotes that connected with the crowd. To those of you living in Colorado, I’d keep your bluegrass eye on those two Denver bands because they aren’t leaving the scene anytime soon.
With no airs, no facades and no egotistical musicians to this festival, all the bands went on right on time. And I almost missed the jamming set of Sarah Jarosz due to the local ice cream delicacies. She played songs such as “Build Me Up From Bones,” “Comin’ Undone,” “Jacqueline” and a Bob Dylan cover of “Ring Them Bells.” Her set was also one of the musical memories of this festival I won’t forget. Now, I’m not trying to sound critical, but the bluegrass genre is steeped with male musicians and that’s all fine and dandy. But I have respect for women who can stand on the stage with the same strength and talent. And it’s not surprising given that you have to be a badass to be a bluegrass player. I’d count Jarosz as one of those musical badasses — especially since she was only 16 when she first took to the Telluride stage 10 years ago. Yonder Mountain String Band came up next and, yes, the marshmallows were thrown (for some reason, fans really love throwing mallows at the instrumentalists). They did a funky cover of “Dancing in the Moonlight” and brought out legend Sam Bush for a jam.
Country singer Margo Price then took the stage and it sparked a discussion between me and my friends. What makes the difference between bluegrass and country music? Because Price predominantly sits in the country genre, but to the crowd, she stated, “To me, there are only two types of music — good and bad.” I’m sure there is a textbook answer to this, but sitting next to a picturesque lake right outside the festival boundaries, I stated bluegrass focuses on the instruments — and not necessarily the musicians bringing them to life. When the foundational string instruments come together, it’s as if magic is somehow given to those listening. You don’t care how you dance, what you say or how you react to the music — you just move to it. Kind of how the bluegrass players move to it, too.
There was a quick break for concert-goers to drown some beer and eat some delicious local food before Sam Bush and his band took center stage. It’s as if the looming mountains and dipping sun wanted us to feel the beauty down to our bones because the sky suddenly became swathed in purple light and mirrored the purple lights coming from the stage. It was hard to find an open space to dance in the crowd and this was no surprise to anyone. Bush has played the festival for 43 years and his talents bring out everyone who was lucky enough to snag a ticket to the festival. A lot of the crowd left after his set, either to go to NightGrass because Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers, Elephant Revival and Rayland Baxter all had their own sets, or to get funky at their campgrounds. But after seeing Dispatch, I can tell you now that if you left, you missed out. The crowd was in a groovier mood in the night and with the stars shining above and danceable songs pouring out below, a giant party was had.
Sunday featured names like Elephant Revival and Jason Mraz, but at this point in time, I wondered if music was even the main draw to the four-day getaway. I think the location and time spent with friends plays an equal part as to why people come all the way out into the boonies of the mountains. Of course, the festival would not happen if it weren’t for the quality music. But with one stage that features both up-and-comers and famed legends, it’s easy to see why this festival is one of the pinnacles of Colorado culture. It’s authentic. So many festivals in modern culture are bought out by huge corporations and feature names that are curated by pop culture. And that’s cool if you’re into that. But everyone at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival? I think they value the authenticity that is breed through music and music alone. That’s why I can only speak so much to this festival experience. If I share with you every little musical detail, tell you where the hidden meadows in the mountains are, speak to the secret sunsets and sunrises that fade in and out of the starry night, this festival will lose the spark of magic it holds. All I’m really saying is that it’s time to paint your memories with some bluegrass vibes.
All photography by Matt Mooney and Brittany Werges. Go here to see more photos.