Bluegrass

Camp Run-A-Muck stalwarts pose with a portrait of “Hippie” Jerry Lunsford outside the entrance to the camp. From left to right: Laurie Gross, AJ Gross, Brett “Hooch” Hensley, Michael Hornick, James “EJ” Buchanan, Rich Ganson, Emmy Creigh and Tom Poley. (Photo by Suzanne Cheavens/Telluride Daily Planet)

He died on his way to paradise. That’s how one of “Hippie” Jerry Lunsford’s friends noted the accident that took Lunsford’s life last week on Highway 145 just north of Dolores, while on his way from his home in Flagstaff to rejoin his large circle of friends in Telluride for the 46th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He was 63.

Long a central figure in the Town Park campground — Telluride’s town within a town during the festival — Lunsford’s standard greeting to anyone who wandered by Camp Run-A-Muck for a jam session, an oyster, a Crunchy Frog or a hug, was “Welcome home.”

Hippie Jerry was as crucial to Run-A-Muck’s earthy, gleefully spirited camp vibe as the fluttering tie-dye banners and the top flight musicians that came by to jam. Lunsford’s encompassing, warm bear hug might be stilled, but camp visitors today can gaze upon his countenance at a memorial set up at the entrance to camp. His influence will resonate far beyond the absence of his physical presence.

This from a 2017 Daily Planet story: “Hippie Jerry’s sourdough pizza is part of the Bluegrass Eucharist, paired with Ye Olde Crunchy Frog (a concoction that strongly tastes like chilled lemonade and vodka) to form a Bluegrass Festival Feast  … ‘It’s kind of become a hot spot,’ Hippie Jerry said of the camp’s popularity. ‘You become a lifer in this,’ he said. ‘… I mean, where else would you rather be?’”

Where, indeed? Run-A-Muck’s first tent stakes were driven almost 20 years ago, but Lunsford was making the pilgrimage long before then. His easy-going hospitality, fabulous spreads and deep love for the music made Run-A-Muck a must-visit spot in the campground. It doesn’t seem as if that will change, not so soon after his passing. A stream of people wander by, visit with the photos of Lunsford arrayed by camp organizers and listen while musicians trade riffs in the cozy tent. A bar stands at the ready. You better believe Crunchy Frogs are on the menu.

Lunsford lived in Flagstaff, where he worked as a sound engineer and music producer. At Run-A-Muck, he was more than a host. He was the beating heart of the campground scene. A friend named Pirate wrote a heartfelt paean to his departed compadre.

“His spirit, enthusiasm and the love he had for all of his festy family was the driving force that made the Town Park community what we all knew it to be, a family … it falls on the shoulders of all Town Park campers to carry on the flame in Hippie’s name.  … Anyone who enjoys the Town Park experience owes a debt of thanks to the great Jerry ‘Hippie’ Lunsford. Love each other as much as Jerry loved us all!”

Tuesday morning, Run-A-Muck was filled with regulars dropping by for a sourdough pancake — the sourdough starts were Hippie Jerry’s and will be divided and passed along. An easy familiarity infused the tent. There were no strangers, whether it was your first time in the tent or you walked in knowing everybody’s name. Hot Sugar hails from Missoula, Montana, and has been a Run-A-Muck regular since 2011. He said he was “adopted” as much as anything into the camp. In Lunsford’s absence, he and others have shouldered Hippie Jerry tasks like cooking, sound mixing, camp energy supply (all solar) and bringing musicians into the tent for the nightly jam sessions.

“It’s taken four of us to do what he did himself,” Sugar said. “But he took a bunch of us under his wing for when he could no longer do it.”

Lunsford was a gourmet cook and Sugar said that will be a hard role to fill. Still, items like homemade bacon, brisket, pizza and other comestibles are on the menu. “We’ll make whatever we can manage,” he said. With a laugh he added, “We have no idea how he did it all.”

The camp, Sugar said, is always evolving. “He would want us to lean on our own skills.”

In Sugar’s mind, Lunsford’s legacy is alive and well in the convivial hum within the tent walls. “The idea is to make sure that everyone is having as good an experience as they can have. We like to facilitate the party.”

Despite the obvious emotion — even a little disbelief — of the morning’s pancake crowd, they use words like “community” and “family” to describe the gathering that now numbers in decades.

Though lively debate springs up among campers as to exactly when Run-A-Muck first came into being in Telluride Town Park, there is agreement that the group camp identity sprung from similar gatherings at Hardly Strictly in San Francisco. And there is no argument that it was Hippie Jerry who hatched the name.

Maple Al is a longtime Run-A-Mucker who remembers camping next to Lunsford pre-camp era. “He had plans for a big community campground with live music, food … crazy idea, huh?”

Maple Al has made the trek to Telluride from Wisconsin for the past 32 years and calls his friend “the ultimate host. He made sure everyone was treated the way you’d want to be treated.”

Like others tucking into pancakes Tuesday morning, Maple Al (yes, he makes maple syrup) was wrestling with missing the camp’s spiritual center and loving the comfort of being with his bluegrass family.

“He brought so much joy and love into our lives,” Maple Al said. “It’s up to us to pass on the love.

“I don’t think you meet people by accident. We come from all over,” he said gesturing around the tent. “We’re attracted for the same reasons. He was the person you most looked forward to seeing. There’s a big hole in my heart.”

Among Lunsford’s other passions was the one he held for community radio. “The Hippie from Olema,” had a regular Monday night slot on KWMR in Point Reyes, California. On Monday, the station played a 2003 edition of his show. Listen via this link: kwmr.org/broadcasts/20405. Lunsford’s friends said a good way to honor him would be to donate to your favorite community radio station.

Lunsford’s love of music has made the camp a nexus for notorious jam sessions that have featured everyone from main stage acts like Yonder Mountain String Band and Tim O’Brien, to neighboring campers. Maple Al said the very first act at Camp Run-A-Muck was Horseshoes and Hand Grenades in 2012. That kicked off a tradition that lives on today. Monday night featured a singer-songwriter showcase, and Tuesday night, Woodbelly was set to perform.

Now, about those Crunchy Frogs. There is a time-honored ritual surrounding the imbibing of the secret concoction for first-timers, Hot Sugar explained.

“It’s the Run-A-Muck elixir, and is a secret recipe,” he said. “The disclaimer that has to be read before drinking it must be read aloud with gusto, and if there is more than one person, in unison.”

Camp members with knowledge of the recipe make 15 gallons of the stuff for the run of the festival and Saturday, he said, “there will be a special reserve, with one different ingredient.”

Welcome home, Hippie Jerry.