For the past several years I’ve worked backstage for Telluride Blues & Brews helping shuttle artists and merchandise between the merch tent, the main stage and the Blues Stage (Hanley Pavilion) in a golf cart. It’s a fun gig to say the least. You catch music in between shuttles. You have a radio on you so you can be ready for the next run, and you get to meet some pretty incredible people.
Last year I had the honor of driving four sisters from eastern North Carolina to the Blues Stage. In the 15 minutes it took to get everyone loaded and get them down to their shuttle van waiting by the pavilion, I felt as if I had known them my whole life. They were the kindest, most gracious artists I have met in my seven-plus years of being involved in the music industry in Telluride.
They were the Glorifying Vine Sisters, and they were last year’s gospel artists who opened Sunday of the festival.
Blues & Brews president Steve Gumble met them when they sang gospel for him in their rundown hometown church that was being renovated at the time of his visit. They, too, made him feel like he was part of the family. He was so moved by their heart and their performance, he offered to buy their church brand new carpeting once the rotting floors were replaced.
He was visiting eastern North Carolina with the Music Maker Relief Foundation (MMRF), a nonprofit name that fans of the festival may recognize from the past few years.
The MMRF has spent the last 25 years helping preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices aren’t silenced by poverty. They work to help these musicians live a good life. They also support those who are healthy enough to tour and perform so they can generate income performing through festivals like Blues & Brews.
After the private intimate performance, Gumble met the Vines’ brother, Freemont Vine, a luthier who lived next to a soybean field.
“That was the most amazing experience,” Gumble recalls. “He’s got this shop that could be in a museum and we were talking about the various guitars that have crossed his path that he’s fixed for some famous musicians.”
Gumble first heard of the foundation years ago when program manager Aaron Greenhood reached out with artists to book. He didn’t think much of it, and assumed it was just another booking agent. But then Greenwood connected Gumble with founder Tim Duffy during one magical, musical weekend at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
“It was just such a no-brainer for me to get behind them,” Gumble said.
Since then, Blues & Brews has booked artists directly benefitting from MMRF’s work, primarily at the Blues Stage. And, the festival has been dedicated to raising money for the foundation. The two organizations are collaborating to help further the true origins of blues music.
Previous artists have included Robert Finley, Alabama Slim, the Glorifying Vine Sisters, Pee Wee Hayes, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and more.
Duffy has come to the festival the last three years, and this year 12 people — either artists or MMRF employees — are making the pilgrimage to Blues & Brews. This year’s artists are the Como Mamas (playing the traditional Sunday gospel set), Jake Xerxes, Alabama Slim, Willi Farmer and Sandra Hall.
“I’m really looking forward to everything we’re going to do,” Duffy said.
There will be a space dedicated to MMRF in the lobby of the Blues Stage complete with photo booths, meet and greets with the artists, a book signing with Duffy and Alabama Slim , and a high-dollar fundraising dinner at the Studio in the Clouds where festival patrons get to be in the studio with MMRF artists as they record and enjoy a catered dinner.
“It sells out instantly and raises $15,000 for the MMF,” Gumble said. “It’s an absolutely magical experience being in a recording studio with an old blues musician.”
All festival-goers can support the organization simply by buying a drink. One dollar of each Sierra Nevada Brewing or Tito’s vodka drink sold during the festival goes to the organization.
Last year Blues & Brews raised about $37,000 for MMRF, and this year, Duffy’s goal is $50,000. Before they even flew to Telluride, a Telluride couple had already committed $10,000 to that goal.
“For me to write a check to them and knowing it’s going a very long way to keeping people healthy and happy and that these people can still create music for others to enjoy, it wells up inside of you. I can’t do enough for them,” Gumble said.
Be sure to swing by the festival’s Drink House, in the Blues Stage lobby to meet the good folks at MMRF, make a donation, and learn more. To see the full festival schedule of MMRF artists and learn more, visit tellurideblues.com or musicmaker.org.