Forty years of festivation

New Planet Bluegrass book documents the evolution of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and so much more

Telluride Bluegrass Festival, 1975
Photo courtesy of Sam and Arthur Siegel

As I journeyed through the 216 pages of photos, poster art, past musical lineups and essays that make up Telluride Bluegrass Festival; Forty Years of Festivation, it struck me that the Galapagos Islands and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival have a lot in common. Both are perfect incubators for illustrating Darwin’s theory. Hold that thought.

The book, which was just released on June 18, is a collector’s edition with only a 5,000-copy press run. It’s also the first foray into the book-publishing world by Planet Bluegrass, but you’d never know it.

The book is a beautiful thing to behold. It’s hardbound in Spanish leather (nod to Bob D.) with an “animated lenticular image” of Sam Bush right in the center of the cover. That’s the technical way of saying if you stare at the book’s cover photo of Sam and you move your head around, he appears to come to life and starts doing his signature Mandolin chop which is, of course, the universal bluegrass signal for “buckle up, we’re about to have some serious fun.”

The book is clearly intended to be a celebration of the ongoing success of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, one of America’s greatest annual musical events. But as I explored the rich historical photos, read the essays and revisited the musical lineups from every year since the festival kicked off in 1974, I realized the book is much more than that. It is a lens focused on the evolutionary trail of not only the festival, but the people who attend, the musicians who perform and the mountain town that has played host for four decades.

For example, as I turned the pages I watched mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile grow up before my eyes. The photos of Thile start when he was just a boy dressed in costume playing music in the festival’s children’s tent. Later we see his appearance on the main stage as a part of Nickel Creek and eventually he’s transformed into a solo festival headliner.

It dawned on me as I read along that the TBF and this book document Thile’s evolution in much the same way as the marks on a doorframe in an old house show a child’s progression of height over the years.

The book contains 350 photos in all and they take the viewer from the festival’s earliest days when naked people carrying tarps and wearing headbands couldn’t garner a second look from anybody in the crowd, the very small crowds back in those days.

“Telluride was the goldilocks zone for championship craziness. We were not too old, not too stupid, not too jaded, not too judgmental, not too ugly, not too overcommitted, not too tired — just right,” writes Pastor Mustard in his description of those early years.

And he would know. Festivalgoers, at least those who attended prior to 2006, will remember Pastor Mustard as the always unpredictable, sometimes offensive (political correctness eludes him) and most times hysterical emcee of the fest. Mustard’s real name is Dan Sadowsky and he was the man on stage cracking jokes and introducing acts from 1978 until 2006.

Because of his sense of humor and historical perspective on the festival — he played the fest as a musician from 1975 through 1978 — it was only fitting that Sadowsky was tapped to write the individual essays for each of the festival’s 40 years.

He does a great job of sharing the insider’s tales of each year’s backstage antics, creative collaborations and the festival’s joys and struggles.

That’s right, struggles. The TBF wasn’t always the sold-out-months-inadvance juggernaut that we know today. It was a pretty iffy proposition to pull off for the first 15 years or so.

I found the book to be very candid about the business end of the festival. The TBF was started in 1974 by a band of musicians that called themselves Fall Creek. And even though the whole group was involved in pulling off that first year’s fest, it was Fall Creek member Fred Shellman who emerged as the festival’s godfather. For the next 14 years Shellman managed to grow the festival over the outcry of the town’s bureaucrats and what seemed to be a neverending shortage of funds.

Shellman did it not by being wealthy or a good businessman, but by creating something special. He built an amazing community around the TBF, a community of musicians, bluegrass festival fans and volunteers as committed to keeping the festival alive as he was.

He used local volunteers to do as much of the work as possible, from making sandwiches for the musicians backstage to providing security at night to taking tickets and marketing the event.

But more than anything, that early success relied on the musicians who played the TBF to tell their friends in the industry what a great time was to be had at this little festival in the Colorado mountains. It worked. Once a picker hit the stage in Telluride they were sure to return for years to come.

Yet despite all this, Shellman was struggling with the financial aspects of the business. I won’t play spoiler, but just as things were looking like they might come to an end for the storied festival in 1988, Craig Ferguson, then a board member and legal council for the festival and today the head of Planet Bluegrass, stepped in and kept it going. As the book says, it wasn’t pretty, but it was necessary. Obviously, it worked out well because Planet Bluegrass has taken the TBF to new heights that no one could have imagined in 1974 or 1988.

It was evolution in action and you can see it in the crowds of festivarians who attend TBF as well. There are a surprising number of people who have driven, flown, hitchhiked, walked or crawled to nearly all of the 40 festivals to date or who have made it to at least a couple of dozen. Many have raised their families around the festival and made the annual event an important part of their lives and even their values.

For the musicians, Telluride is equally influential. It is an incubator. If you read through the lineups over the years, a funny pattern emerges. You start to see musicians who met or maybe played a song or two together at the festival who then wound up making records together or even forming new bands together, bands that, of course, show up in the TBF lineups a couple of years later.

eTown’s Nick Forster, who played the TBF for years as a member of Hot Rize, writes one of the essays by musicians that are featured in the book. Forster describes the festival as “complicated.”

“It’s a tribal reunion, musical Thanksgiving, wedding, funeral, bachelor party and music school all wrapped up in a festival and deposited in one of the most beautiful valleys in the world,” he writes. “It’s a tangled revisiting of the past — ex girlfriends or spouses or bandmates or roommates. It’s a rapid-fire glimpse of the future — new bands and musicians, new collaborations that turn into bands or records, new girlfriends or spouses.”

Forster should know. He met his wife and fellow eTown host, Helen, backstage at Telluride.

The backstage stories and each year’s lineup that are in the book also serve as a reminder of why seeing a great live performance in a special place like Telluride is so important. A quick scan of lineups and photos from years past turns up names like Doc Watson, Johnny Cash, Levon Helm, Vasar Clements, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Michael Hedges, Kate Wolf, Jesse Winchester, Steve Goodman, John Hartford and others that will no doubt spark bittersweet memories for those fortunate enough to have seen their sets at Telluride while they were still with us.

Another nice feature of the book is its collection of the festival posters from every year. They are truly works of art and the artist behind the Telluride posters since 1984, watercolorist William Matthews, also pens one of the essays.

The guest essays in the book provide a clear window into the festival. They help to explain the special bond that the musicians feel for the Telluride audience and vice versa. While many are written by musicians who consider the festival a home away from home like Sam Bush, Emmylou Harris, Chris Thile, Bela Fleck and many others, the book also has essays by locals who have watched the festival grow from its humble beginnings, festival volunteers and family members of those who helped launch TBF 40 years ago on nothing but a desire for fun and prayer.

Yes, the festival has evolved, the fans have evolved, the town has evolved and the musicians have evolved. And if you read the essays and look at the photographs contained in Telluride Bluegrass Festival; Forty Years of Festivation carefully, you will surely see that it is a book that is only going to get thicker with time because this evolutionary process is still going strong as the TBF gene is passed from generation to generation.

Perhaps Bela Fleck said it best when he wrote, “TBF is the only festival I’ve been to every year for more than 30 years. I measure my progress by it. I revisit my tribe at it. And I hope to grow old at it.”

Not many music festivals can boast such loyalty, and not many books can capture such devotion so well.