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The first time I recall hearing a fiddle, I was eight or nine years old. The overalls-clad musician with a scraggly gray beard was straddling a stool and chopping away with his bow. He and his bandmates—one of whom was playing the spoons, the other working a washboard—were part of the Vandalia Gathering, a celebration of folklife in Charleston, West Virginia, that’s been around since 1977. It’s probably been 35 years since that day, but I can still hear the old-timey squawking of that fiddle.
Three years before the birth of the Vandalia Gathering, a group of long-haired Colorado hippies with a penchant for pickin’ staged the first iteration of what would become one of the most legendary annual musical events in history: the Telluride Bluegrass Festival (TBF). When writer Devon O’Neil reached out to me with the idea to write an oral history of TBF to coincide with its 50th anniversary this month, I thought of something else I remember from attending the Vandalia Gathering: Musicians are the best storytellers.
If you take the time to read The Telluride Bluegrass Festival at 50: An Oral History—and I highly recommend you do—I think you’ll agree. With anecdotes from longtimers such as Sam Bush and Mary Chapin Carpenter as well as yarns from relative newcomers like Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile and Yonder Mountain String Band’s Adam Aijala, O’Neil’s piece is a rollicking account that spans five decades and includes juicy, Behind the Music–style revelations that even the melodically disinclined will appreciate.
Much like the Vandalia Gathering—but, you know, much cooler—TBF is a quintessential part of Centennial State lore and, for many, a musical rite of passage. I, for one, am ashamed to say that I have not yet attended Telluride’s pre-eminent party for fiddlers, mandolinists, bassists, and steel guitarists. One day soon, however, I hope to add TBF to my musical memory bank.