The summer solstice is Tuesday, but in Telluride the celebration started a little earlier this year with the 49th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The first festival of this sunny time of year always welcomes the beginning of the season, but after two years of shifting to the unknowns of a global pandemic, including canceling the festival for the first time ever in 2020, Bluegrass returned with a renewed vigor over the weekend.
With the greenlight to go big without any restrictions, festivarians again flocked to the San Juans to celebrate a genre born in similar high country. The carefree spirit of the revelers was palpable and permeated throughout town, as many of the sights and sounds of Bluegrass also returned this year. While no one said it too loudly, you could hear the collective whispers that the festival felt “normal,” as if the past two years were just a bad dream we all finally woke up from and shook from our memories.
Scott Spencer, the longtime local and Bluegrass fanatic who was taken from us far too soon in 2019, was once again first in line, a camping chair with loving notes in his memory holding it down before the opening day tarp run.
There were buskers sprinkled throughout town providing pockets of free entertainment. An acoustic guitarist and fiddler serenaded no one in particular Thursday evening near Elks Park. While there was a bigger crowd in Town Park enjoying Bela Fleck’s set, which featured a guest appearance by fellow Bluegrass mainstay Sam Bush, the sunburnt duo with dirt covered clothes didn’t care. They played with their eyes closed. A couple people stopped to briefly appreciate the performance. For all I know the two street performers are still playing.
Walking down the trail along the babbling San Miguel River, it wasn’t uncommon to see people resting and wallowing in the waters, whether they needed a quick rinse or not, the tunes from nearby Town Park providing a soothing soundtrack.
By the ticket tent, just outside of the post office, a group of young boys set up a picnic table with an umbrella to protect them and their product from the heat. They couldn’t have been no older than 10, but the friends excitedly taped a handwritten sign to the front of their makeshift stand proclaiming the price of lemonade: $2.
Walking by them sparked déjà vu. I’ve seen this scene before, years ago now, during a previous Bluegrass weekend. In my mind, the boys were the same ones from back then, complete with their jack-o’-lantern grins, mops of sandy blonde hair and cooler covered in Grateful Dead stickers. Their honest hustle adding to the communal spirit of the festival.
Peter Rowan’s Bluegrass Band played inside the park. Even at 3 p.m. Thursday, the crowd was already healthy and continued to grow. The patchwork of tarps covering the lawn creating a quilt of good times, the park becoming Planet Bluegrass.
The night culminated with a high-energy set from rockers Tenacious D. The duo of actor-comedian Jack Black and fellow axeman Kyle Gass played to a packed park and shared some laughs and gaffs, and a few expletives, throughout.
The sun seemed to wink goodbye as it dipped out of sight Down Valley on that first night.
At the fishing pond Friday morning, lines were cast and quickly reeled in by impatient anglers, the conversation more important than the catch.
A little girl with her fishing pole resting over her shoulder asked a boy nearby, “Are you going to be here next year, Owen?”
Owen, who appeared to be around the same age, yelled, “Hey, Mom! Are we coming back next year?”
A row of parents resting in the shade of the trees not far from the pond’s edge all shared a little laugh.
“Yeah, we’ll be here next year,” Mom replied.
“Cool, I’ll be here next year, or tomorrow,” Owen told his new fishing friend.
On Main Street, Elks Park was packed during the preliminary round of the band contest, which featured local darlings Birds of Play. The finals were held Saturday, after the paper’s Friday afternoon press time, but the Bluegrass competition has helped launch the careers of many a band, including festival favorite Greensky Bluegrass after the band won it in 2006.
Players held their instruments of choice and patiently waited their turns on the sidewalk near the stage, phantom picking notes and preparing for what may be their big break to make the main stage next year.
Town Park acts Friday included Rising Appalachia, Tyler Childers and Greensky Bluegrass. Again, most played after press time, but the town wore its crown of music well this weekend, as it always does, like catching up with an old friend after a long spell of not seeing one another.
As much as the world has changed since 2020, this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival offered everyone a much-needed helping of normalcy and comfort, even if it was just for one music-filled weekend.
As “Tuesday Letter,” a Greensky Bluegrass tune, so perfectly puts it, “Hold forever in the palm of your hand and eternity inside of an hour.”