The Telluride Bluegrass and Country Festival is defined by its Colorado location, nestled in a box canyon in the San Juan Mountains with only one road in. People have been traveling to the four-day festival for 43 years, drawn by campground picks, a family reunion vibe and a lineup that is never exclusively country or bluegrass. String music dominates, but genre outliers ensure creativity runs high throughout the weekend. This year Ryan Adams and indie band Houndmouth shared the lineup with bluegrass legend Del McCoury and country star Emmylou Harris. From one-off collaborations to artists who spin tradition, here's the seven best things we saw at Telluride.
This first-time collaboration might seem strange: An indie rock star with a volatile reputation and the darlings of modern bluegrass? But it was a match made in heaven, with the Infamous Strindgusters' precise instrumentation and traditional flair (as well as the soulful voice of Nicki Bluhm) the perfect accompaniment to Ryan Adams' gritty genius and punk-rock vibe. Occasionally alt-country gave way to true country, making Adams classics like "Come Pick Me Up," "Oh My Sweet Carolina" and "Let It Ride" all the more robust. Improvised songs, rare bust-outs and a left-field cover of Dio's "Holy Diver" rounded out the set. Another joint performance is slated for the Newport Folk Festival in July, complete with Adams' hilarious, sometimes strange, stage banter.
LaFarge is of a different era, with a sound that's tangentially country and incorporates elements of Western swing, ragtime and honky-tonk. It's jazzy and bluesy too, part Vaudeville dive and part variety show — dancing music that demands dapper clothes. Timeless and transporting, LaFarge performs with a six-piece band that manages to shine while serving his unique sound. His Rounder debut, Something in the Water, captures the harmonies, cowboy-folk and overall swing of his live show — which was on grand display at Telluride.
We've lost a lot of icons this year, making a performance by singer-songwriter John Prine something to be appreciated. Prine, a two-time cancer survivor, turns 70 this year, but he refuses to slow his gait. Among the most prolific writers ever, Prine's witty lyrics manage to be emotionally complex and fundamentally relatable — his songs are mind-trips that tug at the heart and taunt the soul. Like "In Spite of Ourselves," a highlight of Telluride Bluegrass that guest Sara Watkins helped Prine transform into a stunning duet. He described his songs as "good for what ails you" when he last played the festival in 2013, and that still holds true.
Following a four-year hiatus, the groundbreaking foursome is back, hopefully to stay. Led by genius banjo player and Telluride regular Béla Fleck, the primarily instrumental group melds bluegrass with jazz, funk and world music and, onstage at Telluride, appeared invigorated by its break. The set was innovative and complex as only the Flecktones can be, at once a workout for the mind and a release for the body.
Greensky Bluegrass won the competitive Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition a decade ago, sparking a career that's converted thousands who "don't usually like bluegrass." The group's sound is pure jamgrass, the amalgamation of wide-reaching experimentation and traditional instrumentation. That in the span of 10 years the quintet has gone from on-the-verge to headlining act is a testament to its songwriting ability and loyal fanbase (last year's winners, the Lil' Smokies, seem to be carrying the same amount of heat). Although Greensky's late-night show was the hottest ticket of the festival, it was their mainstage set that raised the bar: Dobro master Jerry Douglas and the King of Telluride himself, Sam Bush, joined the band for several numbers. The standout was a 20-minute rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "The Ballad of Curtis Loew," which segued into the Greensky original "Don't Lie," with Douglas jamming alongside Greensky's Dobro player Anders Beck. For Beck, who has memories of Telluride Bluegrass that even predate Greensky, the set was nothing short of epic.
Last year, the Dave Rawlings Machine featured Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones. This year's incarnation was more stripped-down, with Old Crow Medicine Show's Willie Watson (guitar, banjo), the Punch Brothers' Paul Cowert (bass) and Crooked Still's Brittany Haas (fiddle) joining Rawlings and his musical partner Gillian Welch. The set defined Americana — there was even an Old Crow-Woody Guthrie mashup of "I Hear Them All/This Land Is Your Land" thrown in for good measure. The band's four-part harmonies, road-worn tunes and easy chemistry cultivated an old-time vibe that lingered well into the next day.
There are two can't-miss acts at Telluride: the Sam Bush Band and the one-of-a-kind Telluride House Band, which Bush leads on mandolin alongside Béla Fleck (banjo), Bryan Sutton (guitar), Jerry Douglas (Dobro), Edgar Meyer (bass) and Stuart Duncan (fiddle). This year, vocalist John Cowan was the musical cherry on top. Both bands serve as the main draw for thousands of festivalgoers, consistently providing the most memorable sets and feeding the cult of Sam Bush.
Bush has been coming to Telluride Bluegrass since 1975, when he was playing with Newgrass Revival, and today, he's considered the festival's benevolent king. This Friday (June 24th), Bush will release his new album Storyman nationwide, although the album was available for early purchase to attendees. During his mainstage set, which at one point featured 17 people onstage (including Emmylou Harris), Bush debuted new tracks alongside classics, like Telluride's de facto anthem "Circles Around Me." As the sun set and the crowd sang along, the Telluride scene Bush helped cultivate — built on string music, propelled by innovation, and sustained by community — came to fruition.