firstname.lastname@example.orgThat mountain music
The Telluride Bluegrass Festival celebrates 35 years of pickin’ and swingin’
by Andy Stonehouse
By all accounts, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival had what could have been a recipe for failure: a hard-to-get-to location; a focus on music that, back at the time of its birth, was still seen as anachronistic hillbilly fare; and a propensity to mix wildly disparate performers into one wild conglomeration.
As we all know, however, the granddaddy of summertime festivals has continued to be one of the most remarkable celebrations of uniquely American music. There are few places where pop stars such as Barenaked Ladies share the same bill as Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas; this year, those who make the seven-hour trek to the 35th anniversary of the bluegrass show will be able to see both the usual suspects of the bluegrass world and major rock acts, including Ani DiFranco, Ryan Adams, Paolo Nutini, the Swell Season and the Frames.
2008 is also a bit of a milestone for Lyons-based Planet Bluegrass, which took over the festival management 20 years ago and has gone on to craft its own terrifically popular local offerings. We decided to explore the myths and the realities of Telluride with not only one of its biggest boosters, Planet Bluegrass VP Steve Szymanski, but with three very different musicians appearing this year — all veterans of the uniquely Colorado experience. The Old Master
If anyone can appreciate the ebb and flow resurgence of bluegrass over the last four decades, it’s Peter Rowan, who had the great fortune to play for many years with Bill Monroe, generally credited as the inventor of the entire genre. Rowan’s crossed paths with everyone from Jerry Garcia to Tony Rice, but says he credits his friend (and Telluride fixture) Sam Bush with getting him to Telluride in the first place.
“Sam got me booked about three years into the festival and… well, those were exciting times,” Rowan says. “ We were all in our late 20s, and they were really reaching out to us and the music. We were offered an absolutely open platform, and I was absolutely surprised and delighted by the response.”
Rowan’s made many trips back since, and will be appearing on Friday, June 20, with the Free Mexican Air Force (featuring pedal steel player David Phillips). He says the vibe has remained much the same, and adds that he’s particularly enjoyed interacting with the pop and rock stars mixed in with the bluegrass greats: “They’re always, like, ‘We’ve never played anything or anywhere like this.’ It’s totally got a life of its own.”
Rowan promises a show this year with “a bunch of new material in various incarnations — dharma blues, river of time stuff — showing off a pretty metaphysical side of music. My various projects are always more about spiritual kinship, so I have come to rely on events like Telluride to get a chance to express that.”Bluegrass royalty
One of this year’s most unlikely pairings sees multiple Grammy winning bluegrass-turned-country-turned-bluegrass figurehead Ricky Skaggs teaming up with the always-eclectic Bruce Hornsby.
Skaggs has a bluegrass résumé as detailed as Rowan’s, but also got to enjoy many years of mainstream country success. Nowadays, he’s gone back to his bluegrass roots and, along with his talented ensemble, Kentucky Thunder, remains one of contemporary bluegrass’ biggest artists.
Just how, then, did he cross paths with consummate piano genius and pop-rock star Hornsby, and exactly why did they do a bluegrass cover of Rick James’ “Super Freak” on their recent collaborative CD? Skaggs says it’s all very Telluride-esque.
“We were both playing another outdoor fest — this one featured more artists on stage than there were in the audience — and we stayed there long enough to do a song together, a Grateful Dead song that I didn’t know, but I liked the experience,” Skaggs says. “I invited him onto the TV show that I hosted in Nashville for CMT, after he released his CD with Béla Fleck and Pat Metheny, and it was great again. It seems like every time we get together, we have a good time.”
Skaggs has played Telluride twice in the past and says he expects this year’s show to be one of his favorites, not just because of his co-conspirator, but also because he’s done a bit of planning before making the trek.
“We usually get there so late that we don’t have much of a chance to check things out, so we’re coming in a day early after doing the Craig Ferguson show and trying to get a good night’s sleep. Events like this are great, and it’s wonderful to work with someone like Bruce, who’s not afraid of anything, musically. It’s kind of like if Bill Monroe had had a really hot piano player in the band.”
And, uh, “Super Freak”? “Yeah, totally Bruce’s idea,” Skaggs laughs. “When we were working on our CD, he’d always go into this falsetto Prince voice when he was trying to sing bluegrass, and I totally thought he was kidding. Turns out he was serious.”The newcomers
Some of the highest praise for Telluride’s inventively creative and rewarding musical atmosphere comes from its most distant fans. Leonard Podolak, one of the founders of popular Winnipeg, Manitoba-based genre-jumpers the Duhks (whose name is pronounced like Donald and Daffy, not Steve Earle’s old band), says he dreamed of playing Telluride for many years before his current band was able to hit the stage. Admittedly, his father did run the equally influential Winnipeg Folk Festival for many years, so he had a good idea of what to expect, but Podolak says the wait was worth it.
“We first played there in 2005, and we were totally blown away by the way the festival was run, who they hired and what it was — 10,000 people flanked by the mountains,” Podolak says. “They really care about the musicians, and there’s a really open attitude to music moving and changing. And that’s a really simpatico vibe to what we do, especially the festival’s green initiatives.”
Podolak’s band has been championing its own earth-friendly measures, but he says that a major event such as Telluride is quite impressive for its low-impact, trash-reduction strategies and recycling efforts.
“It certainly isn’t a typical bluegrass festival, and I think we’re very fortunate to be involved in the event. Quite obviously, bluegrass, funk and the blues didn’t normally come from Winnipeg, so it was a great place, like Telluride, where artists come and kick ass.”The man behind the curtain
Bringing all of these wildly eclectic forces together — and making sure that Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise don’t get the whole thing run out of town — Planet Bluegrass VP Szymanski says the positive attitudes of artists such as Rowan, Skaggs and the Duhks helps keep the Telluride spirit alive.
“Our main objective is still to provide the absolute best acoustic music on the planet, and a lot of that has to do with the community that’s being created,” he says. “You have to remember that Telluride’s bluegrass is a whole separate genre than traditional bluegrass. What we do and what you see on our stage speaks to virtuosic playing and a constant blending of other musical forms.”
Thus, Szymanski explains, the past success of unlikely inclusions such as the Barenaked Ladies, who turned out to be a pleasant surprise. “They’d actually been coming to us for years, and they showed so much respect when they did play. It’s great that we get to be picking acts that really want to be here.”
Planet Bluegrass’ involvement with Telluride came in 1988, a time when financial issues threatened the festival’s existence; a year or so later, when they booked James Taylor to play and more than 13,000 people showed up, they realized that tiny Telluride couldn’t support Woodstock-sized crowds, so the festival’s attendance has subsequently been limited to 10,000.
“Our contract specifies that they can get rid of us if they want, so we work to have a great relationship with the Forest Service, the local government and all the townies. We work very hard to keep it a ‘leave no trace’ kind of event.”
On the Bill:
The Telluride Bluegrass Festival will take place from June 19-22. For information about tickets and camping reservations, go to www.bluegrass.com or call 800-624-2422.
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