Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2023 | Josh Elioseff

50 Years of Telluride Bluegrass Festival: A Festivarian’s View

Jul 11, 2023

50 Years of Telluride Bluegrass Festival: A Festivarian’s View

 

The 50th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Music Festival took place June 15-18, 2023 in Telluride, Colorado.

By Colleen Murphy (of Denver band Bottlerocket Hurricane)

Images by Josh Elioseff – Dancer Productions Photography

 

Late.
 
I was later than I’d hoped & had already missed 3 days.
 
That’s all I could think about. Not long ago I’d decided that Telluride, more specifically the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, was a place and privilege that I couldn’t and wouldn’t pass up.
 
I was blessed enough to be there at the inception. I was just a baby when my folks took a pilgrimage to Colorado, to the mountains of Telluride Colorado, to that festival.
 
As luck would have it, from then on, Telluride Bluegrass Festival was a part of my growing up.
 
Telluride Bluegrass turned 50 this June. What a milestone. As one of the oldest and certainly most well-respected festivals in the country, Telluride has always been one of the most magical places I’ve ever been. An energetic vortex where 3 waterfalls surround you and faces in the rock stare you down while echoes of music embedded in stone linger, whispering the memories of years gone by.
 
This year was no exception.
 
A veritable who’s who of bluegrass, country, folk, and rock music.
 
With incredible artists including the likes of Del McCourey, Emmylou Harris, Bela Fleck, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sam Bush, Tim O’Brien, & Peter Rowan, String Cheese, Leftover Salmon, Greensky Bluegrass, Yonder Mountain Stringband, Robert Plant & Allison Kraus and so, so many others.
 
It is almost impossible to describe the amount of wonder the festival holds, from its breathtaking landscape to the Town Park summer camp escapades and the music itself.
 
I spent a few glorious days listening to music in the campground from area musicians like Pick n Howl, Chain Station, Liver Down the River, Slay, Timber, Half Pelican, Turkeyfoot, B.Forrest, Friends and Neighbors, Bottlerocket Hurricane, Buffalo Commons, Breadbox, Jay Roemer Band, Shakey Hand String band, Pluck Norris and more.
 
I’d willingly missed the First Grass on the mountain Wed evening and was up at a lazy 10 am Thursday, ready to ease into music with a dose of Chris Thile for breakfast doing his usual perfectly noted dance between genres. I watched my friend twirl through a hippie ballet 2-step to each phrase. I also enjoyed (new to me) Bella White and her more traditional folk-country-sounding stylings reminiscent of old Nashville & Appalachia.
 
Any day that finishes out with Del McCoury, Bella Fleck, and String Cheese Incident would be pretty hard to top, but the SCI set feat. Del McCoury and ending with Colorado Bluebird Sky (a song written by Bill Nershi for his wife, Jillian about Telluride) was about as perfect as it gets.
 
That was just day one.
Group hoots and howling rang thru the canyon…
Rinse, repeat. Pick a little, talk a little, and holy cow- it’s dawn again. Sleep for 2 hours and report to duty- yes duty.
 
Did I mention I work backstage?
So there’s even another facet to the fun where I get to hang with all the friends who make this festival happen, some of whom I only see once or twice each year in festiland.
 
I want to give a special shout to all the people who make this festival happen, from the sound guys, to hospitality, “foof” aka the art team, transportation, security and the vendors. A lot of people don’t realize how much work goes into making something like this happen.
 
There’s also the added bonus of special guests just hanging around like Phil Lesh, & Rainn Wilson, and getting to eat dinner with Anders, Sam, Bela, Abby, and the kids with Burle tending bar.
 
My favorite performances Friday were: 
 
Watching for the first time Bassekou Kouyate and hearing the Ngoni a string instrument and a traditional West African guitar, a skin head stretched over the body giving it a unique echoing sound that vibrated and resounded thru the air unlike anything I’d heard before.
 
I was delighted also discover Two Runner, a female duo from Northern Cali playing old Appalachia-style clawhammer and fiddle. And Natalie Macmaster & Donnell Leahy with their modern Celtic vibe complete with clogging a quadruple fiddle solo & their children dancing away. Keeping it in the family was awesome to watch.
 
It was also the night of the hail storm/double evacuation that occurred. A sight I’ve never seen before, bags and chairs abandoned like an alien abduction. It delayed the fun and shortened the sets, but the show did go on regardless of the hail storm. And then Greensky Bluegrass came back strong ending the night with a poignant Dawes cover of  All Your Favorite Bands. 
 
I feel like the Telluride weather was trying to scare off the meek newcomers who maybe weren’t quite sure what they were getting into! Only the strong survive this fest! Leftover Salmon was canceled after just a few songs never to return, saddening quite a few members of my camp with longtime love for them.
 
Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2023 | Josh Elioseff
 
 
Saturday was the day I had been waiting for.
 
I spoke with Dan Andree, fiddle player for The Fretliners, winners of the 50th TBF Band Competition about his experience:
 
“I had been to the TBF 12 years prior, and ever since the first one, I had dreamt of playing on the main stage. Even had we not won, the goodwill & camaraderie between all the bands was apparent even in Elks Park. We were already hugging new friends (2nd place winners) The Floodgate Operators when they announced the winners!”
 
It was a win for everyone.
 
Last year’s contest winner Full Cord’s Banjoneer Ricky Meir shared about his experience, “I woke up the morning of our set with snow in the forecast, and after the violent hail and thunderstorm canceling the Leftover Salmon set, I thought that our set would be canceled, but the show went on, and in the middle of our set the sun came out and stayed for the rest of the weekend. that was really pretty!”
 
Telluride was lucky to keep the beautiful weather for the rest of the weekend,  making it even more special and appreciated.
 
My new crush, Ms. Sierra Ferrell was the artist I had been most excited about this year. She did not disappoint. Opening her set with Silver Dollar, a tear came to my eye the second she opened her mouth. With special guests Jerry Douglas and Peter Rowan, and a fur hat & velvet dress to die for. It was really the highlight of the fest for me. As was her Nightgrass set at the Sheridan Opera House with special guests Two Runner and Jake Simpson from Lil Smokies.
 
Austin Cruz, 1st time TBF attendee says of the evening set with the Infamous Stringdusters,  “(I was)attending my first night grass set seeing the dusters. I had never been to any show that had as much energy as they produced. (Their) energy fed the crowd and our energy fed them.”
 
With so many amazing acts I almost feel rude brushing by, so I’ll just boast poetic about our Elders & give a nod to Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas melting clouds, Yonder Mountain String Band and their disdain for the marshmallow- (some things may be sweeter left to memory) and of course Mr. Telluride – the incomparable Sam Bush. My heart bursts with gratitude as a person and a parent that my 16-year-old son has grown up with this wealth of talent as his everyday normal. We here on Planet Bluegrass are truly lucky and blessed.
 
That was the “theme” of the art this year. What planet do we want to live on? What’s the best planet? PLANET BLUEGRASS!
The museum held a special feature with art and photos and posters of the years gone by.
 
 
 
Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2023 | Josh Elioseff
 
 
Sunday came and truly in need of a day of rest I sent my son and 7-year-old friend Henzie off to the stage to watch the tarp run – a time-honored tradition in which people race toward the lawn to the music of bagpipes to grab their seating spot for the show.
 
I began the day with a lazy gospel morning with the Infamous Stringdusters and the ethereal music of Yasmin Williams’ guitar as I walked through the lazy campground.  I stopped by to pay the waterfall homage and gave a nod to all the camps past and present (Dearest Saloon, and Geodesic Dome how I miss thee) that have made this experience what it is for me – the best summer camp I have ever known. The place that taught me community, bravery, and clown skills. Where I found the people I call my family. My festi-family. The best damn one could ask for.
 
Now, I thought I’d seen something special last summer when Robert Earl Keen played a Townes song on Jerry Jeff Walker’s guitar – but when the queen, Ms. Emmylou Harris was joined by Andrew and Emily (AKA Watchhouse) and started playing Townes “If I needed You”  I realized yet again I was experiencing a once in a lifetime moment.
 
The pinnacle of the festival was hearing Robert Plant spin tails like Tolkien with the Lady (from Rivendell he said ) and Miss Allison Kraus ringing “Rock n Roll” & “When the Levy Breaks” echoing off the mountain face.
 
And if that weren’t enough, to end the night, Sierra Ferrell showed up in our camp late-night to lullaby (& or pick w) everyone til dawn.
 
There were just too many wonderful things, as per usual in Telluride Bluegrass to even begin to describe them all.  All I can do is touch upon them, share this glimpse with you, and be glad for what brings us all together in this magical Brigadoon that suspends time and refills our cups so that we can take more.  As Jerry Douglas once said, “Do you feel that?  Now take it out in the world and spread that around.”
 
When a Jedi gives me a suggestion I take it.
 
Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2023 | Josh Elioseff
Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2023 | Josh Elioseff

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