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
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.