The official name of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, now in its 42nd year, is actually the Telluride Bluegrass and Country Music Festival. The event attracts roughly 12,000 folks to picturesque Telluride, Colorado, every summer solstice for a four-day gathering of world-class music. Although the country part of the name has been dropped colloquially, the festival’s lineup tells a different story. This year’s featured Ry Cooder, Sharon White, Ricky Skaggs, Kacey Musgraves, Robert Ellis, Robert Earl Keen and the Telluride House Band, among a slew of artists who were neither bluegrass nor country (Janelle Monáe, Lake Street Dive, John Butler Trio, just to name a few).
The Telluride Bluegrass Festival has its King (legendary multi-instrumentalist Sam Bush, who’s been playing Bluegrass for 41 consecutive years), its reoccurring characters (banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, dobro player Jerry Douglas, mandolinist Tim O’Brien, bassist Edgar Meyer; the list is endless), and a pickin’ culture that’s been cultivated for decades. Attendees consider themselves “Festivarians,” and the main draws for them are the Sam Bush Band and the Telluride House Band. The latter consists of Bush, Fleck, Douglas, Meyer, Bryan Sutton on guitar, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and is billed as the “Pinnacle of Pick.” The band’s annual, only-at-Telluride-Bluegrass set traverses genres while honoring string music and a long history of American tunes.
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The House Band’s set fell on the first night of the festival this year, setting a high bar for the rest of the weekend. Playing a mix of chestnuts, instrumentals, and inventive covers (think the theme from the Pink Panther), the band doesn’t prescribe to any one genre, instead creating a sound exclusive to Telluride Bluegrass. That’s why a soul artist can perform alongside a jam band at a country festival: Festivarians like their twang to transcend. That means the audience appreciates country all-stars like Musgraves, but they also crave innovative “newgrass” tunes, like those Greensky Bluegrass is known for. Over the weekend, Greensky proved classic string instruments have few limits, mixing Americana with rock and extended improvisation, and busting out covers like Paul Simon’s “Gumboots,” Billy Joel’s “Big Shot,” and the Grateful Dead’s “Black Muddy River.”
Another band that’s teetering on the country fringe is Fruition, a rock quintet that looks all Southern grit but hails from Portland, Oregon. Fruition, who played three sets throughout the weekend, melds covers like Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Cotton Fields by Home” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta,” with raucous originals filled with heartfelt lyrics and stadium-worthy energy. “Mountain Annie,” the band’s most famous tune, is infectious.
True country moments, however, came courtesy of folks like Robert Earl Keen and Robert Ellis, both of whom are Texans dressed to impress the Nashville elite (they both also chose to cover Richard Thompson’s “Vincent Black Lightening”). The former is a Lone Star legend, known for clever storytelling through his unique brand of country music. The singer-songwriter just recently dipped his toes in the bluegrass pool with Happy Prisoner, an LP of bluegrass covers. Ellis, who plays more electrified country-folk, received widespread critical acclaim for his 2014 album, The Lights From the Chemical Plant.
Musgraves, who releases her sophomore album this week, played the majority of her award-winning debut LP, Same Trailer, Different Park, during her Sunday set, alongside a country swing tune (“Don’t Fence Me In”) and covers such as Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” For the most of the show, the Texas native performed barefoot, the exception being the Sinatra tune, where she emerged from her elaborate stage setup in a flush of smoke, having changed into light-up cowboy shoes. Part parody ala her new “Biscuits” video, the band’s outfits fused backcountry charm with Las Vegas extravagance, while the set was a fun hodgepodge of mountain backdrops, southwestern patterns, and neon cacti. A truly engaging performer, Musgraves at one point admitted that it’s been a dream of the entire band’s to play the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. She declared Colorado the most beautiful state she’d ever seen and the festival itself “so chill.”
The chill factor likely has something to do with Telluride’s location, in a box canyon 8,750 feet above sea level. Beautiful and pristine, the wide-open space in Telluride parallels the openness Festivarians have for all styles of music. Bands like Leftover Salmon, a polyethnic Cajun slamgrass sextet, and Punch Brothers, an all-star roots act, are quintessential Telluride: both are well versed in more classic string styles, but choose instead to play an amalgamation of what they like, be it bluegrass, country, jazz, rock, reggae, or zydeco. Couple bands like those with classic bluegrass act Hot Rize (plus its alter-ego, the country band Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers) and supergroup Cooder, White, and Skaggs —whose standout set channeled Hank Williams (“A Mansion on the Hill”) and Bill Monroe (“Pandhandle Boogie”) — and you have a four-day celebration of old and new.
The Telluride Bluegrass and Country Music Festival is really just a celebration of quality musicianship, though folks wouldn’t be wrong to expect enough strings to satisfy even the most diehard bluegrass fan. There are no rules at Telluride though — only guidelines and the artistic freedom to flout them. Walk the town or the campgrounds at night and you’ll see Festivarians constantly pickin’ around bonfires and in bars, inspiring sing-alongs and awe. The lines between Americana, newgrass, folk, blues, old-time, western, string-music, bluegrass, and country are thin and constantly blurring, and that’s something the Telluride Bluegrass Festival gets behind.