KOTOgrass

In this file photo, KOTO DJ Norman Squier, right, interviews musician Sam Bush during a previous Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Squier will interview Bush Friday morning to kickoff this year’s “KOTOgrass” celebration since this year’s Bluegrass festival was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy photo) 

Each summer solstice weekend, banjoes and mandolins, jams by bluegrass stalwarts, and fresh vibes from emerging musical talent sail from Telluride Town Park’s Fred Shellman Memorial Stage across the patchouli-infused atmosphere. While Telluride Bluegrass Festival (TBF) was canceled this year for the first time in its 47-year history, don’t despair. Local community radio station KOTO will broadcast “A Celebration of Bluegrass through the Decades” — archived and live bluegrass performances — all weekend long.  

“We're calling it ‘KOTOgrass,’ our own unique strain of solstice bluegrass,” KOTO Executive Director Cara Pallone said. “Do not call the radio looking to buy weed, please.”

Over the past several months, KOTO staff have been recreating events over the airwaves, from prom to graduation. 

“When Bluegrass was canceled, we knew we wanted to pay tribute to the weekend in some fashion,” Pallone explained. “We've used WWOZ's hugely successful ‘Jazz Festing in Place’ as a model for taking Bluegrass on the air.”

Drawing from decades of archived audio recordings, Pallone, along with KOTO Operations Assistant Heidi Sarazen, will coproduce the event, leading a team of seven knowledgeable radio DJ’s who have curated favorite musical performances — including the firstperformance by the Fall Creek Band in 1973, Doc Watson and John Hartford’s set in 1985 and Nanci Griffith’s appearance in 1988 — to come up with a “greatest hits mix.” Pairs of DJ’s, live and socially distanced, in KOTO’s studio, will introduce the musical sets they selected. 

“We were able to eliminate some performances, choose some songs to highlight and begin building our schedule,” Sarazen explained. “We've developed themes for each day, like original performers, regulars, ladies and stand-out performances.”

Among archived sets by John Prine, Greensky Bluegrass, Billy Strings, Sam Bush, Lake Street Dive and Brandi Carlile, there will also be a livestream performance by Tim O'Brien on Friday afternoon at 3 p.m., live programming on Saturday night, and local Telluride "troubadours" will perform in studio throughout the weekend.

Planet Bluegrass has supplemented KOTO's archives with some gems, like Johnny Cash’s appearance in 1997, David Byrne’s performance in 2009 and Janelle Monàe’s 2015 set.

“Planet Bluegrass has been supportive from day one, handing us the reins and telling us to let our freak flags fly,” Pallone said. “They've shared our plans with the festivarian nation and are working on lining up some live performances for the weekend.”

Craig Ferguson, who’s produced Bluegrass for the past 30 years, said he’s “pretty depressed” that he had to cancel this year’s event. He believes the KOTOgrass production is appropriate given that the festival and KOTO are both “cut from the same cloth of inspired hippy minds in the seventies.”

The Wilkinson Public Library (WPL) will kick off the bluegrass celebration by hosting a bluegrass-Americana-folk concert by regionally based band Birds of Play tonight (Wednesday) from 6:30-8 p.m., which will also be broadcast live by KOTO.

“Birds of Play has a multi-talented, charismatic presence as a band, and I know they're going to bring fantastic personality and warmth to their performance,” said Joanna Spindler, WPL’s adult programs specialist.

As part of its “Bluegrass Blues Week,” WPL will also host a hula-hooping class Thursday. To register, go to telluridelibrary.org.

Longtime local DJ and bluegrass fan Norman Squier is excited to interview Sam Bush on Friday morning at around 10:30 a.m., as he has done numerous times over the years, for the traditional broadcast kick-off.

“Sam being the showman he is, I think I’m going to be trying to keep up with him,” Squier said. 

There are limited edition “Tarpin’ Station” posters and T-shirts available for purchase on the KOTO website. Posters are $15 and shirts and tanks are $30. 

KOTO will also host a tarp team photo contest for a chance to win a future festival pass. Interested “tarpers” should submit tarp-themed photos to tarpinstation@gmail.com.

“The tarp run photo contest we're doing, closing Friday night with Greensky and the Sunday morning gospel set are just a few nods to the festival experience we'll be incorporating into the weekend,” Sarazen said. “Nothing can replace the real thing, and I think that's why we’re calling it a ‘celebration’ of the festival.”

Ferguson believes that KOTO’s effort to “keep the lights on for Bluegrass” makes sense, and he’d like to express gratitude to all festivarians. 

“Plenty of festivarians chose to rollover their ticket money,” he said. “Because of the faith of our fallowing festivarians, when the bell rings, we’ll be ready.”

A daily KOTOgrass schedule will be posted each morning to KOTO Community Radio’s Facebook page. “Festival” hours will run from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day. As with all KOTO programming, the broadcast is free. Donations are encouraged and appreciated. To listen to the livestream, purchase posters or t-shirts, and donate, visit koto.org.