Every year since 1973, during the Summer Solstice weekend, audacious budding and old-timer bluegrass musicians journey into the San Juan Mountains, aspiring to push the limits of traditional bluegrass music. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival has been curated as an eclectic event that allows musicians to collaborate with one another and openly meld facets of various musical genres together.
“(The leaders of Telluride Bluegrass Festival are) just trying to be stewards of that original musical culture. I never have the intention of changing anything because so many of the musicians come back every year,” Planet Bluegrass Vice President Steve Szymanski said. “New people come in but there's this strong, strong feeling of progressive, open, communal sound that happens here. There's really no boundaries, and we really love it that way.”
Emerging bluegrass artist Daphne Gale, who played the festival for the first time over the weekend, explained that after a childhood of being “sandwiched between the classical and contemporary world,” she started to explore bluegrass musicians, who she described as not isolating the two genres, but rather synthesizing them. She looked up to the sounds of of the Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek, and started to “lean” into the folk world, gifting her a “beautiful avenue for storytelling with musical integrity.”
Gale was introduced to Szymanski as a talented, young musician during week one of the festival and ended up playing a short set in between main stage sets. This is a coincident model of the collaborative ambience continuing to define the festival, Szymanski added.
Morning musical workshops at the Transfer Warehouse also showcased the collaborative nature between the musicians and audience members. Throughout the weekend, Telluride Bluegrass legends, including Edgar Meyer, Washboard Chaz, Chris Daniels and Christian Sedelmyer, offered teachings and musical performances to a smaller audience. During the second-to-last workshop on Sunday, Daniels led the audience and others on stage with him for a “Tall Tales from the Festival’s Early Years” workshop into a historical Telluride Bluegrass Festival song — “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” — after an audience member asked for a song from the crew.
After Sedelmyer –– a Grammy-nominated violin experimenter who seamlessly blends old-school classical and traditional bluegrass with newgrass –– performed at the warehouse, Szymanski explained that while Sedelmyer could have been “more technical” and “show-offy” due simply to his advanced musical ability, he was pleased with how “welcoming” and beautiful the set was.
“That's kind of the theme (at Telluride Bluegrass Festival), there's a little more of that and a little less of vitality for its own sake, which we've had before. Where we have the most amazing players, but it doesn't really connect in the same way. It's fun to see everybody finding their way through this new world we’re all in,” Szymanski said. “Sedelmyer offers a very inviting, cinematic type of music that's really been prevalent at this festival this year that I’m excited about seeing that really keeps going and developing.”
Audience members were overheard gushing over lively second weekend performances from Jerry Douglas Band, Watchhouse, Yonder Mountain String Band, Sam Bush Band, The Del Mccoury Band, Leftover Salmon, Mavis Staples, Emmylou Harris and, of course, the Telluride House Band, featuring Sam Bush on the mandolin, Béla Fleck on the banjo, Stuart Duncan on the fiddle, Jerry Douglas on the dobro, Edgar Meyer on the upright bass, and Bryan Sutton on the guitar.
A festival attendee since the early 2000s and frequently sighted wearing a bright-colored watermelon hat, Travis Lawson noted that half the festival is about “late night jams” and camping to him and his core group of Telluride Bluegrass Festival goers.
“The people, the kids are not just friends, they're family and this is our family reunion every year. I refer to this specifically as the ‘Deluride’ bluegrass festival because Del McCoury is a legend. He's basically the current father of bluegrass,” he said. “I play in a couple bluegrass projects and to be able to come here and play music with your friends is half of that experience. Having the Leftover Salmon frontman coming to your campsite and playing tunes with you is always a special experience as well.”
Lawson added that despite limited capacity and COVID-19-induced changes to the festival layout, many longtime festivarians are still “having a great time” and cultivating their lifelong friendships.
“It's really about the community so much, bluegrass music is about intergenerational people getting together, a very welcoming group of people that encourage anyone, any level, really, which is really different from many other genres,” Szymanski said. “I think bluegrass really kind of alludes to you’re all welcome, if you know a couple chords, come in on the mandolin or guitar and you're invited, you're in.”
Ridgway Mayor John Clark, a festival attendee since 1978, also noted he “loved every minute of it” of this year’s festival, even with the changes due to the pandemic.
He added that by leaving behind the daily tarp run this year, everything has been more relaxed.
“(In terms of) music, it’s been really obvious to me that everybody out here and everybody up there on stage is so unbelievably glad to be back and able to do this kind of thing again. Musicians have been bringing their A game,” Clark said. “The best example for me is, I'm not even a big fan of either Yonder or Leftover Salmon, the headliners of the last two nights, but they both knocked it out of the park. They were incredible.”