When you look at it, it’s called a ‘bluegrass festival,’ but it’s a wide-open music festival,” says mandolin great Sam Bush. “I’ve seen everything from Little Feat to Paco de Lucia to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson to Bill Monroe to Ralph Stanley. Just last year they had David Byrne — he had his normal Talking Heads-style band, the Dancers. Elvis Costello played there with somewhat of an acoustic band of musicians who have played the festival many times. I believe the variety has really kept the festival going.”
While he likes to play down his longtime nickname, the “King of Telluride Bluegrass” (“I ain’t the king of anything. But I sure am glad I get to go”), Bush sits at the heart of the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, as he has since 1975, when he first played there with his then-band, New Grass Revival. Bush is celebrating his 36th consecutive year on the stage, this time playing with The Sam Bush Band.
“He’s always been the guy — the sort of spark plug behind the thing,” guitar legend Tim O’Brien says about Bush and why they banteringly call him the king. “All through the history of the festival, he’s been on the stage the most of anybody with different bands. It didn’t matter who it was, he’d be on the stage with them. They’ll have Emmylou Harris or Willie Nelson or James Taylor or whoever, but a lot of the fans are there because of Sam and because of what he represents, which is that fusion of all those elements — the pop stuff, the rock stuff, the bluegrass and the blues.”
Founded in 1971, Bush’s band New Grass Revival became really the first long-standing progressive bluegrass band that played traditional instruments: the banjo, fiddle, guitar, bass and mandolin. However, with what might be considered unorthodox compositions, the band pushed the limits of the genre with extended jamming, which challenged the patience of old timers and bluegrass purists in the regular festival circuit.
“When we first came there in 1975,” says Bush, “Newgrass Revival was the first band ever booked that wasn’t from the state of Colorado. The original festival promoters were in a band called the Fall Creek Band. They had seen our band play in Winfield, Kan., the year before, and they knew they wanted to get us for Telluride.”
Much like pioneers of the jamgrass movement who have been shunned by purists today, New Grass Revival was a hard sell for traditionalists. That is, until they came to Telluride.
“This festival has never been a purist festival,” Bush says. “People were open for any kind of music. You were never judged musically or personally. That’s why New Grass Revival went over so well the very first time they came. When we first played on that stage, we realized that we had met a group of people that understood our music — we’d finally met the right audience, and we just wondered at their willingness to accept any kind of music. And it’s the way it always is, and that’s why I still wanna be there.”
Peter Rowan still wants to be there, too, and in a big way he’s one of the last links to the first generation of bluegrass innovators: Rowan cut his teeth playing guitar for Bill Monroe between 1965 and 1967, later teaming up with Jerry Garcia and Vassar Clements in the early 1970s for a run with Old and In the Way. As such, the 67-year-old Rowan built a solid foundation in the old generation of traditional, structured bluegrass. But it wasn’t long before he found his way in the next generation of 1970s progressives who brought drums and jamming to the genre, and it all started at Telluride. His first performance there was in 1976, and after having been through Old and In the Way, another band called Seatrain, and a stint with his family band, The Rowan Brothers, he was wide open for new musical direction.
“Telluride has always been the one festival that will kind of make it possible both artistically and support-wise to put something together that’s a little more than a standard show — to stretch out a bit,” says Rowan. “For me that’s where it all started. When you walk away from it all, Telluride’s a great place to land. A lot of people reinvent their world view in Telluride.”
Bluegrass itself is a genre of constant reinvention, and Telluride has always been the festival where that experimentation is not only welcome, but expected. And while this year’s lineup features plenty of traditional bluegrass, studded across the roster are jamgrass innovators like Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band, with their jazz improvisational approach — a natural progression of the 1970s generation. As Tim O’Brien says, with bluegrass “the sky’s the limit.”
“There’s a real excitement to it,” says O’Brien, who just came off the Mark Knopfler tour. “There’s a lot of hot lick playing and fast paces and driving grooves. It’s like you’re playing rock ’n’ roll, but you’re just playing it with a mandolin, like Bill Monroe did. Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins were really into Bill Monroe. Elvis Presley was really into him. And musically, if you listen to his mandolin playing and Chuck Berry’s guitar playing, it’s a similar thing — they’re playing the blues, and synthesizing the same stuff, but technology makes it sound different.”
In regards to the next generation of bluegrass, O’Brien continues, “The Colorado thing has taken some surprising turns with the the jam band scene: Leftover Salmon, String Cheese, Yonder Mountain. That’s been really good. The Punch Brothers have taken it in the classical direction; instead of doing 12 songs, they’ll do one 40-minute piece with different suites. It’s possible to do all kinds of things with bluegrass.”
According to O’Brien, “between 1975 and now, I’ve only missed two years.” And as usual, he’s wearing two hats at this year’s event, jamming both with his current incarnation as the Tim O’Brien Band as well as in a reunion performance with nationally renowned 1980s bluegrass greats Hot Rize, who will be playing the venue immediately after performing at Bonnaroo.
“It’s a great thing to get together again with these guys,” he says. “We kinda went to school together and, you know, if you travel in a car or a bus with a group of guys for enough time, you become a little family, and you have your own little language, too. Kinda like The Beatles. They were always The Beatles against the world. You’re like your own little army platoon. It was an awful lot of fun. And we did it fulltime for 12 years, and we can’t really avoid the reunions because it’s a part of who all of us are.”
And along with experimental progress, reunions have always been a major part of the Telluride experience. For Bush, besides playing with his own band, he will also be playing in the Telluride House Band, but not before jumping into his former shoes for an on-stage reunion with Jerry Douglas and Peter Rowan in the latter’s important group, Crucial Country.
“We jam here and there over the years,” Rowan says, “but everybody’s been locked in on their careers. Jerry’s been [playing] with Alison Krauss, and Sam’s been doing his thing. We all have our own things and that’s always been the case. So having these guys behind me on the stage is very special.”
Rowan, Bush and O’Brien have played the festival thirty-something times (decades are milestones for performers, and for Rowan, it’s his 30th), and the event obviously has unique significance for the artists. Meanwhile, a lot has changed with both the town and the event, which have grown up handin-hand. Long past are the days when this once-tiny mining community consisted of one hotel, a gravel Main Street and, as Bush says, “just outlaws and trust-funders.”
“The audience and the musicians were all staying in the campground,” O’Brien says of his first performance, also in 1975. “Telluride was just kinda coming alive. It was a hippie thing, and it was quite a spectacle, even though there was only maybe a thousand people there. There was so much good will, it was contagious. But I’ve always thought that there’s a certain process that Telluride has: you drive a ways to a beautiful place to have a good time. Maybe it’s your first time or maybe you’re returning. By the time you get there, you’re kind of affected by all of that — by the journey, by the scenery — and everybody’s pointed in the same direction. It’s like a power place or something.”
Adds Bush: “Now it’s a huge, great big show.
You wouldn’t believe how many people work on this festival and what they do. Thank Planet Bluegrass for keeping this festival going. It’s an impossible task, and a very thankless one at that. I’m thrilled to be back. It’s its own reward, getting to be there. Every time we get there, when we’re first driving into town, it’s a feeling that I can’t describe — I wish everyone in America could go into that little box canyon and see what it looks like. You get the beauty of the mountains, and you get the beauty of an audience that appreciates everything. It’s just wonderful to get to play music there.”
Telluride 2010 Lineup
Thursday, June 17: 10:30 a.m. — gates open 11:30-12:30 p.m. — Sarah Jarosz 1-2:15 p.m. — Keller & the Keels 2:45-4 p.m. — Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band 4:30-5:45 p.m. — Dave Rawlings Machine 6:15-7:30 p.m. — Del McCoury Band 8-10 p.m. — Alison Krauss & Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas 10:30-midnight—Tim O’Brien Band
Friday, June 18: 9 a.m. — gates open 10-11a.m. — Ben Sollee 11:15 a.m.-12:30 p.m. — 18 South 12:45-2 p.m. — Cadillac Sky 2:30-3:45 p.m. — Peter Rowan & Crucial Country with Sam Bush & Jerry Douglas 4:15-5:45p.m. — Hot Rize 6:15-7:30 p.m.— Court Yard Hounds 8-9:30 p.m. — Lyle Lovett 10-11:30 p.m. — Leftover Salmon
Saturday, June 19: 9 a.m. — gates open 10-11 a.m. — Band Contest finals 11:15-12:15 p.m. — The Hillbenders 12:45-2 p.m. — Jerry Douglas with Omar Hakim & Viktor Krauss 2:30-3:45 p.m. — Imelda May 4:15-5:30 p.m. — Yonder Mountain String Band 5:45-6 p.m. — Telluride Troubadour 6:15-7:30 p.m. — Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain & Edgar Meyer 8-10p.m. — Sam Bush Band 10:30-midnight — Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros
Sunday, June 20: 10 a.m. — gates open 11 a.m.-noon — The Drepung Monks 12:15-1:30 p.m. — VĂ¤sen 2-3:15 p.m. — Carolina Chocolate Drops 3:45-5 p.m. — Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile 5:30-6:45 p.m. — Brandi Carlile 7:15-8:30 p.m. — Mumford & Sons 9-11p.m. — Telluride House Band featuring Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Bryan Sutton & Stuart Duncan