I love good music, but I’ve never considered myself much of a festival person. Big crowds give me the heebie jeebies, loud music makes my head hurt, and the idea of standing around in the baking sun for hours on end just doesn’t appeal.
I found my kind of music gathering at this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which marked its 49th edition in Colorado’s prettiest box canyon.
Instead of the crowds of 75,000 that huddle up in the heat for the Austin City Limits Music Festival, a grand total of 11,500 people convened over four days at Telluride Bluegrass. Most were flopped out on tarps or blankets spread on the ground, and while days were warm, I needed my puffy jacket once the sun set.
I liked the hippie vibe, too – blissed out music fans happily shared tarp space and a troop of revelers donned lampshade-style hats decorated with twinkling lights. I met a guy in a muddy wedding dress at the bank of porta potties. And, since it’s Colorado, more than a few folks got high.
Getting to this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival
I’d initially planned to attend the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2020 with my sister and brother-in-law, who live in Colorado. That event got cancelled due to Covid. Last year, organizers put on a smaller, socially distant version of the festival that I skipped. Finally this June, my husband and I flew to Denver, and the four of us made the seven-hour drive to Telluride, camper in tow.
From the moment a stream of “festivarians” – what festivalgoers here are called – raced through the entry gates to claim their turf with a blanket, Telluride was back.
The event is known for its eclectic, not-strictly-bluegrass lineup, which this year included the comedy-rock duo Tenacious D, comprised of actor and musician Jack Black and his long-time friend Kyle Gass. (No banjos there, that’s for sure.)
“I can’t think of another festival called a country-bluegrass festival that would have such wildcards,” says Grace Barrett, communication and partnership coordinator for Planet Bluegrass. “Of course we have Tim O’Brien, Chris Thile, and Bela Fleck and other iconic bluegrass musicians, but we also have Sihasin (who mashes punk rock with folk and Navajo rhythms) and the Drepung Loseling Monks (who chant and play ancient temple music). That, paired with the fact that Telluride is one of the most beautiful places in the entire world, makes people come back.”
The Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s eclectic lineup
This year’s lineup included well-established bands like Sam Bush, Greensky Bluegrass, and the Punch Brothers, headed by ultra-charismatic Chris Thile. Up-and-comers like Big Richard, a four-woman, bluegrass-slinging slap in the face formed by classically trained musician Eve Panning, also performed.
Just last year, Panning was asked to put together an all-women’s group that would be called the Women of Bluegrass. She rounded up mandolin player Bonnie Sims, who was born in Austin; upright bassist Emma Rose; and cellist Joy Adams. Instead of calling themselves Women of Bluegrass, though, they settled on Big Richard, a jab at bands like Cherry Poppin’ Daddies whose names objectify women.
The name may be tongue in cheek (and it inspires tons of puns, which the band happily embraces), but the band’s sound is no joke. Think of the sound as a combination of pop tunes, old time Appalachian music and jazzy swing.
“We call it bluegrass with a side of lady rage,” Adams says.
The band generated big buzz this year in Telluride, where it performed one day on the free Elks Stage downtown, and the next at festival grounds, where fans bounced a huge inflatable penis in front of the stage before their set began. At one point, Panning slipped on a special pair of shoes and simultaneously clogged while whaling away on her fiddle.
A commitment to sustainability
Another thing that makes this festival different is its commitment to sustainability. Volunteers stood atop huge metal dumpsters, helping festivarians sort their castoffs – compost, recyclables, and landfill trash – into the appropriate metal dumpsters.
And if you go, camping’s the way to do it. Roughly 4,000 festival goers pitch tents or park RVs at one of four designated camping areas, and they’re encouraged to leave no trace. The Hippie Jerry Campsite Challenge rewards those who demonstrate tidiness, sustainability, and creativity. We stayed at the Lawson Hill Campground, set up on a soccer field 4 miles west of town. We spotted one inspiring group of campers with their own recycling and composting stations, plus a free bike repair stand.
Getting around Telluride Bluegrass Festival
Each day, we hopped a free shuttle – or pedaled our bicycles past the Telluride Brewing Company’s tap room and down a paved bike trail – to the festival grounds within sight of Bridal Veil Falls, at 365-feet the tallest free-falling waterfall in Colorado.
And that’s the clincher for me. I’d be happy sitting on a blanket at Town Park, where the annual festival unfolds, any day. But to sit there, surrounded by aspen and pine-studded mountains while the sound of fiddles, mandolins, and banjos drifts overhead, turned me, for the first time ever, into a festival lover.
If You Go
We flew into Denver and made the seven-hour drive with my sister, but flights are available directly into Telluride or Grand Junction, 125 miles away.
Attend Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which takes place each June at Town Park in Telluride. For more information go here.
Eat & Drink:
Try Siam for excellent Thai food, The National for fine dining (the trout and the lamb shank are both incredible), The Butcher & The Baker for breakfast and baked goods, Stronghouse Brew Pub (try the grain bowl!) for pub food and beer, and the Mountain High Ice Cream and Gelato cart for an afternoon treat.