For nearly 50 years bluegrass music has called the masses to the mountains in the form of the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The 46th installment of the area’s largest musical gathering kicked off Thursday in Town Park under clear blue skies and sunshine — a welcome sight after the sporadic, if not frustrating, wet weather earlier in the week.
Chris Thile opened the festival after a minor sound snafu. Rolling with the punches, he took the opportunity to interact with the crowd, asking how everyone’s year was going during the delay, before breaking into an hour-long acoustic set that set the tone for the weekend. Other Thursday performers included Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley, Peter Rowan’s Free Mexican Airforce with Los Texmaniacs, Leftover Salmon, Gregory Alan Isakov, the Telluride House Band (Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Bryan Sutton), and Jim James.
But while the music has always been the epicenter of the unique universe that both festivarians and Planet Bluegrass brass have created for themselves over the years, it’s the sense of camaraderie and community that makes the event truly special. One can feel the love as soon as they enter the festival grounds. It’s almost tangible, like potent pollen lingering in the air, affecting everyone in similar ways.
One example of this Bluegrass bond is how the community reacted and came together after the sudden passing of festival lifer and unofficial ambassador “Hippie” Jerry Lunsford of Camp Run-A-Muck, who died in a wreck on Highway 145 last week on his way to Telluride from his Flagstaff home. He was 63.
It only felt right to pay respects to the late Camp Run-A-Muck founder, since it was he who welcomed a Bluegrass rookie and young Daily Planet journalist into the festival family in 2017, when he offered up a Crunchy Frog, the camp’s mysterious alcohol concoction, and agreed to be interviewed.
Roman, an elderly man wearing a red Ohio State hat and sunglasses, welcomed my arrival Thursday morning, before pouring a shot of Buffalo Trace whiskey as “an appetizer” to the Crunchy Frog. Since only “certified” bartenders can serve Crunchy Frog, Hooch (real name Brett Hensley) needed to be awoken from his barracks nearby. The clean-shaven middle-aged man in a tie-dye shirt introduced himself then set up a dozen shot glasses for the small crowd in the main tent. We toasted to Hippie Jerry, whose picture sat to the right of the bar, an eternal smile stretched across his furry face.
“Everyone wants to come by and do a cheers. It’s been great. But it’s been hard to realize that we’re doing this without him,” said Hooch, who has been coming to Bluegrass for the past 23 years.
He explained how Hippie Jerry was preparing the younger generation to eventually take over, but then his voice suddenly trailed off and he swallowed hard. He gazed upwards and I saw his eyes were moist.
Then he continued, “We feel a certain responsibility to keep this spot open for people. I didn’t want to make the transition this year. I wish he could see it.”
Gabriel, a sound engineer from Boulder, interjected, “He’s here, brother.”
It’s an interaction that left a lump in everyone’s throat, but that’s Bluegrass.
Strangers mingle and become instant friends. While waiting in line for the ATM, Aiden, a wiry young man with facial scruff and a strong chin, told me about an unfortunate interaction he had with the law early Thursday morning as he made the journey from his Denver home. Faint scratches from the handcuffs were still fresh on his frail-looking wrists and his eyes were tired after, as he explained, he spent several hours in Rifle proving to police he had a legitimate prescription to the Adderall they found in his vehicle.
“If you would have asked me three hours ago how I was doing, I’d still be bitter, but you can’t stay mad after driving through this,” he said, taking in the surroundings during his first festival.
Telluride Tom, a venerable gentleman with a long grey beard and Abraham Lincoln-looking top hat, rode around the grounds on his electric scooter, which bore the bumper sticker “Built for fun.”
“How ya doing, Telluride Tom?” a fellow festivarian asked. “It’s a beautiful day isn’t it?” Tom waved and returned pleasantries.
Families set up tarps and tents on the lawn, as children played nearby. While walking hand-in-hand by the post office, a young boy asked his father, “Dad, have you ever stood out there and asked for tickets?”
“Oh, yeah, we used to do that all the time.” Then they were lost to the crowd near the box office.
These interactions and observations, however short or incomplete they seemed, make for a weird and wonderful weekend year after year, when seemingly everyone is beautiful and unburdened.
STILL NO. 1
Traditions don’t become traditions overnight. But sometimes, traditions become traditions because of all the time spent hanging out in a blocks-long queue overnight.
Longtime Tellurider, Scott Spencer, who died in an avalanche this winter, spent countless hours through the years in the tarp line in order to claim the best real estate in the park for the festival. Being in a line for any length of time drives a lot of folks batty, but not Spencer and his fellow tarp runners. To him, it was well worth it to be No. 1 in line, or pretty dang close to it. Because with a No. 1 queue card in hand, your tarp tucked under one arm (perfectly folded for rapid deployment) and a pair of fleet feet, your favorite spot in front of the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage is secure.
From somewhere in the cosmos, he is likely shining his wide, bright smile at still holding the No. 1 spot. A camp chair bearing this year’s Bluegrass program open to a story honoring him, laminated photos and an armload of flowers holds his spot in the tarp line. People come by, pause, reflect and maybe snap a photo.
Father’s Day often falls on Sunday of Bluegrass, but not this year. Still, the epic Father’s Day brunch Spencer and his friends concocted to mark the occasion will take place Sunday. The feast, wrote Spencer’s front-of-the-line and tarp cohort, Chris Aaland, came to be in the mid-2000s.
“We shared a passion for food — Scott, this wiry, 100-pounds-when-soaking-wet ski bum and me, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound Wookie. Cajun, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, wild game, seafood — we could and did — do it all. One year, Scott had 100 pounds of raw oysters flown in from New Orleans, while I made a smoked pheasant and Andouille gumbo. We battered the oysters and fried them up on-site while heating my vat of gumbo inside Town Park at the Oskar Blues stand. Nearly 100 people feasted with us.”
Stop by and raise a glass to Scott Spencer on Sunday. There might be a crowd and a tear or two.
Tradition and ritual are a large part of this festival for not only diehard tarp runners, campers, music lovers and families, but for many of the vendors, too. Monique Toulouse has been selling her fashionable, funky and utterly unique line of clothing in her July 5 booth for half her life. This July 5 is her 50th birthday and she’s proud to have been asked back to the Bluegrass Festival for as many years as she has.
“It’s a milestone of commitment,” Toulouse said. “It’s an institution. I get to see friends doing what I do. It’s epic.”
On Thursday morning, the park had only been open for an hour, but Toulouse and her crew were already busy making sales, suggesting the perfect bell bottoms and were, of course, attired in July 5 finery.
“I like the rootsy, down-home vibe of this festival,” she said. “To have a booth here is competitive. It’s a gracious honor to be here.”
Telluride’s youth contingent also set up shop and the proliferation of that most charming of summer traditions, the lemonade stand, pop up near the box office, or really, any busy sidewalk. Whether exercising an entrepreneurial bent or working to achieve a lofty goal, Telluride kids know whipping up a batch of brownies and filling a huge cooler with cold drinks is a smart and easy way to make a few bucks. One such group — high schoolers and recent grads — hit the jackpot with an adult-oriented offering of coffee and doughnuts near the box office. Their eyes are on the prize of a trip to the National Thespian Festival in Nebraska next week. Sam Young, Koko Waller and Sophia Bridger — all local actors — said they ran out of coffee in short order, but vowed to return throughout the festival to keep festival-goers sugared up and caffeinated.
“C’mon,” Young said. “You know you want a doughnut.”
Even performers like mandolinist and composer Chris Thile, have come to look forward to making the annual solstice trek to the mountains, and can’t imagine being anywhere else right now. From the stage, where he was the kickoff act for the four days of revelry, reunion, ritual and music, he spoke for us all.
“I love this thing that we have so much.”