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In June 2003, a friend persuaded my twin brother and me to drive six hours from Breckenridge to attend an event we had never heard of. It was the summer after we’d moved to Colorado from Washington, D.C., and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival (TBF) happened to be celebrating its 30th anniversary. We gaped at the fabled box canyon, camped on a softball field, boogied 10 hours a day for four days under the sweltering sun and silver moon, and woke up each morning by splashing snowmelt on our faces to cleanse ourselves of the previous day’s dirt. I was so enamored with the uplifting energy that I swore I would never miss another “Bluegrass,” as the festival is simply known.
Alas, life has a way of making it difficult to keep our promises, and other engagements—namely work and children—meant that my attendance became more sporadic. Yet the magic endures, and this month the mother of all Colorado music festivals turns 50.
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A rite of passage for both artists and fans, the event has grown from a Podunk hippie gathering to one of the most iconic showcases in American music, staged every year around the summer solstice with a roster that includes old-school picking, new-school jamming, jazz, R&B, gospel, and classical. It sells out in minutes—before the lineup is even announced—and features acts ranging from Sam Bush (who will play his 48th consecutive Bluegrass this month) to Brandi Carlile to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Over the years, TBF has also drawn the likes of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, David Byrne, and Janelle Monáe, while highlighting upstarts, too—“the most known and unknown musicians on the planet,” as festival director Craig Ferguson, who has booked each edition since 1990, puts it.
Much has changed since tickets cost $2 per person ($5 per family) in the mid-’70s. Through it all, though, the fest has stayed independent, narrowly surviving a rocky ownership transition 34 years ago. For musicians, Telluride remains “the Valhalla of places to perform,” as 13-time Grammy Award winner Emmylou Harris once said. And for the audience—10,000 sunbaked souls surrounded by waterfalls and towering peaks, listening to legends echo off the canyon walls—TBF is still a place to find, Ferguson says, “far more than you sought.”
The Telluride Bluegrass Festival runs from June 15 to 18.
The festival was founded by Telluride’s Fall Creek Band, one member of which was a long-haired guitar player and ski instructor named Fred Shellman. After spending time with his bandmates at the nascent Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, in the early ’70s, Shellman decided he was going to bring a similar festival to Telluride. He wanted New Grass Revival, one of the acts he saw at Walnut Valley, to be the headliner. Its frontman was Sam Bush, a frizzy-haired mandolin virtuoso from Kentucky.
Marikay Shellman (Fred’s ex-wife): On the way home from Kansas [in 1971], we’re all in the van, and Fred says, “I’m going to have a bluegrass festival like that in the mountains.” We’re all like, “Bullshit, Freddy.” But he had a sixth sense for good music.
Sam Bush: Fred got in touch with our booking agency and said they wanted to make us the headliners. There was an agent in Colorado named Steve Dahl, who was one of my good pals. Steve used to have this great saying about certain jobs that would get me to say “yes” sometimes. And he used that phrase when telling me about Telluride: “They don’t have a lot of money, but they’ll get your head right.” So I said, “OK!”
Dan Sadowsky, aka Pastor Mustard (TBF emcee from 1978 to 2006): Fred was brilliant and sweet. His mind was as quick as any comedian’s. It was conspiratorial. You just knew that this was a guy you could get into and out of any kind of trouble with, and you wouldn’t mind. It would all just go in the diary.
Bush: At first, unbeknownst to the promoters in Telluride, we got in a standoff at home because our banjo player didn’t want to drive that far for one gig. We finally decided to go. When we arrived in June 1975, after driving for hours and wondering where in the heck we were going, it was around 3 a.m. We somehow found our way to the Manitou Lodge. On the desk were four keys and a note that said, “Hey, New Grass guys, welcome to Telluride.”
Tim O’Brien (played in 1975 with Ophelia Swing Band; this year will be his 46th TBF): The fact that New Grass was there, to me, represented a big thing. Like, this is not just a normal event. I remember there was a little shed near the stage, and they went in to rehearse. I put my ear to the wall outside to listen. They were just in there kicking ass and getting warmed up. I knew people who knew them, but then I got to meet them and hang out. It was so exciting.
Mustard: I had played the second festival with Ophelia Swing Band, then I moved to Telluride and became a Sunday morning DJ at KOTO. I made some cassettes that ended up with Fred, who had been emceeing for years, and folks had told him he shouldn’t be. He’d get up onstage and it was like he’d been wearing his Hawaiian shirt for three weeks and had been sideswiped by a delivery vehicle. He was funny…but it was questionable. So he asked me to take over.
John Cohn (TBF security director for 48 years): I came to Telluride in September 1972 and tried to start a commune, but it didn’t work. At the time, a takeover of the town was in full swing. The old miners had seen what was going on and a lot of them left, and the young people took over the government, and we tried to turn Telluride into a different place. I remember going to the first festival. I don’t think there were more than a couple hundred people there. It was like a big picnic.
Bush: All of a sudden, these two guys came out of the woods on horses. They were rough and woolly, with ammunition strapped around their chests, bandolero style. And nobody was going to tell them they couldn’t come in. So Fall Creek realized, OK, we gotta put a fence around the back.
Cohn: The next year, I went to Fred Shellman and said, “You need some security,” and he hired me. I think we were working for tickets and sweatshirts. As it got bigger, I hired some cowboys from Norwood on horses, and they’d run circles around the people who were sneaking in. I could see that was a recipe for bad things to happen, so I ended it. Like, we’re not here to round up people, OK?
Bush: We started telling our friends about this festival: what fun we had, and how you can’t believe what it looks like from the stage while you play. We told Peter Rowan, Bryan Bowers, and, of course, John Hartford. Then, later, Doc and Merle Watson.
Peter Rowan (first played in 1977): It was a very small town, so quiet. We stayed at the New Sheridan Hotel in these dingy, old, mining-era rooms with spring beds. I remember going in there and saying, “Where are we getting together?” Up in [composer and musician John] Hartford’s room. So I went up to John’s room, and everybody was catching a buzz and laughing away. He was such a free spirit and leader. I remember him bouncing on the bed like a little kid, playing his banjo. I was shy, but he was like, “No, join in.” Hartford was a great welcoming spirit of Telluride. At those gatherings, we didn’t drink anything. Maybe we had a smoke, but it was all about the music. We’d catch a buzz and play for hours and hours and hours. There was no other event quite like Telluride to bring that together.
Marikay Shellman: I can only recall one female singer in the early years, and I used to do all the food. So I looked at Fred and said, “If you don’t get some women up on this stage, you all aren’t getting fed next year.” We’ve had women ever since.
Rowan: Telluride became this amphitheater of experience in that valley. Even though we weren’t playing stadium rock, suddenly Telluride was our stadium. And it invited experimentation. The sound was huge. You always feel a little overwhelmed and try to get enough air in your lungs to survive.
Mustard: There’s an energy to bluegrass that the Colorado crowd picked up on big-time. You just cannot deny the enthusiasm of a good audience. When you connect, they throw it back to you and dance like maniacs and cheer you on. You know, fuck purism. Who cares if you’re playing it exactly like Bill [Monroe] did? It was a meaningful moment. And it all was really organic.
Dennis Green (longtime TBF parking director): The first Bluegrass I attended was 1979. I came down from Steamboat with a group of friends, and we rolled into Town Park. The field was nothing but dirt and rocks. At the campground, we’d hear a new band crank up and send somebody out to see how high the dust was rising over the festival grounds. The higher the dust was rising, the quicker we knew we needed to get down there. I had so much fun that I moved to Telluride that fall and lived in a tipi. When the ski area closed the second week of April, the whole town shut down until early June. Everyone’s first big paycheck was Bluegrass.
Bush: One of the funniest things I ever saw was on a Saturday night at the festival in the late ’70s, probably about 2 a.m., [when] Steve Goodman and Fred Shellman decided to have a lip race across Main Street, which was not paved at the time. A lip race is when you’re on your belly and you can’t go any faster than your lips can move on the ground. I actually had a stopwatch, and the town marshal pulled up and shined his light in my face. He said, “Sam?” I said, “Yes, sir” [laughing hysterically]. Then he put the light down and went, “Fred?” I said, “Yes, sir.” And then, incredulously, “Steve Goodman?” I said, “Yes, sir.” And he just went, “Oh, man, don’t get hurt” and drove off.
Green: I can remember in the early ’80s, I was flipping burgers at the Flora Dora with [future String Cheese Incident guitar player] Billy Nershi. Our shift ended, we walked out on Main Street, and here came this tour bus—first one that I can remember. It was Willie Nelson. We were all standing out there, cheering Willie. I was like, Whoa, we’ve gotten pretty big. We have Willie Nelson and a tour bus in town.
The festival continued to grow, as did its reputation, but by the late ’80s, it was in trouble financially. Craig Ferguson, a lawyer from Denver who specialized in bankruptcy reorganizations, eventually took over for Shellman, which upset the hippie hive. Shellman died in 1990, the same year TBF headliner James Taylor played to 16,000 fans, still the largest crowd in history and one that forced the festival to subsequently restrict capacity to 10,000.
Ferguson: I had started a music store in Boulder, and we were a ticket outlet for the festival. One day [the owners] came in and said they’d never filed a tax return. And I said, “Well, I’m not going to fix that, but if you guys want to get organized for the future, I’ll do that.” So eventually I made them a corporation, but in that reorganization, we basically had to blow off all the previous business and bring in new shareholders, of which I was one. It wasn’t easy to get people to chip in when they looked at this and all it did was lose money. When I started, the festival owed, like, 150 grand to creditors, and not one town council member believed a word the festival said. It was mayhem. I just intended to fix it up and have Fred do his job. Some people would say I got rid of Fred, but I would say that I was the one actually trying to keep him, until it just couldn’t happen.
Mustard: Craig was a young guy, but don’t forget, he was a lawyer. Somewhere in the late ’80s, he figured out that Fred had never registered the name Telluride Bluegrass Festival with the Colorado secretary of state. So he registered the Telluride Bluegrass Festival as his company. Which effectively hamstrung Fred from doing business as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. And it blew Fred’s fucking mind. I know he wanted to start a rival festival in Olathe.
Ferguson (who disputes Mustard’s characterization of the transition): The people involved at the festival at the time didn’t really get along with Fred, and they weren’t able to work together mutually. There also was debt in the company that we were trying to avoid. To do that, we had to create a new legal entity.
Bush: Fred was one of my best friends, but when he contacted me about putting on another festival that same weekend, I told him that was a terrible idea. I said, “This might sound harsh, Freddie, but people just want to come to the show and enjoy it. They’re not concerned with who’s promoting it. And I have to tell you, if you do a festival against Telluride, I can’t go with you. I’ll be in Telluride.” I loved Fred, but it was obvious there needed to be a change or the festival would not have survived.
Mustard: There were reasons why Fred should not have been running it, but he was the festival’s spirit animal. He absolutely created the concept, and the concept has not changed. So the folks who were close to Fred and devoted to Fred and helped him build the festival were bitter. I’ve had this discussion with plenty of the artists who were in the core. You have to decide to take the good with the bad, and we rolled with it.
Bush: Craig and I had to start a new relationship. It took us a few years to get to know each other. But we’re friends now, and I love the guy. No one has any idea how much the festival means to him.
Ferguson: 1989 was the first year we almost broke even. After that, I kind of accidentally started booking it, and when James Taylor became available, we hired him to play in ’90. I remember watching that show, with twice as many people as had ever been to the festival. After two or three years of financial chaos, there was that moment where the music was impeccable and it felt for the first time like we could continue. That was really life-changing. From that day forward, we’ve essentially been able to book whoever we want.
Many of the festival’s mainstays started humbly before graduating to main-stage renown. Nickel Creek first played as tweens. Greensky Bluegrass won the Telluride Band Contest in 2006. And Yonder Mountain String Band went from a Nederland upstart to a national act after catching the right ears on the street in Telluride.
Mary Chapin Carpenter (two-time CMA Awards Female Vocalist of the Year, first played TBF in 1990): I was a baby act with Columbia Records and had finally quit my day job—I worked as an administrative assistant in Washington, D.C., dug ditches, and hauled pipes during the day and played music at night. I remember when I found out I’d received an invitation to play Telluride. I think my head exploded from happiness and excitement. Because, to me, the festival was always in the territory of Holy Grail.
Chris Thile (TBF opening act, first played in 1992): I was 11 when our band Nickel Creek got booked to play the kids’ tent. We did pretty well and got offered a 15-minute slot on the main stage. After our set, [bluegrass legend] Bill Monroe was tooling around backstage, and someone suggested I play for him. My mandolin was back at our condo, but Sam Bush was getting ready to sit in with John Hartford and let me play his backup. That was my first Telluride experience! But every freaking year something magical happens to everyone who goes. Like, no one leaves Telluride saying, “Eh, it was OK.”
Adam Aijala (Yonder Mountain String Band guitar player): We had just started touring outside of Colorado in March of ’99, after playing our first show as a band the previous September. [Leftover] Salmon and String Cheese [Incident] had paved a path for us, but at that time, there really were no other bands playing loud and plugged in without a drummer. We had a week off around the solstice, so we decided to take the RV down to Telluride. There was a porch on Oak Street, and we started to pick. A crowd began to form.
Ben Kauffman (Yonder Mountain String Band bass player): I remember more and more people showing up to watch, and eventually someone from the festival came over and asked us to play the Elks Park stage, where you don’t need a ticket to see music. I remember thinking that was a huge deal. Like, Oh, my gosh, I hope we do well. It went so well that Craig offered us a spot at the actual festival the next summer. We played every year from 2000 to 2021. It became a staple of our career. Within the context of bluegrass music, there is nothing higher than Telluride, and position number two isn’t even close.
Sally Truitt (1992 Telluride Band Contest winner, co-producer of TBF 1992 to 2010, Ferguson’s ex-wife): You feel like you’re going into a corner of the world. There’s no way to get out, so you’re all stuck there together. It’s generally beautiful weather in a stunning setting, and there’s just something that lifts off of people when they arrive. Everybody lets their anxieties go. I know people who are really stressed, touring musicians, but when they come to Telluride, it’s like they have permission to just be themselves.
Green: When I started working the vehicle gate at Town Park, I was selling all the camping passes out of the trunk of my car. My boss told me, “If your trunk gets full of cash, call me on the radio. But don’t say, ‘Come get the money’; we don’t want everyone to know you have all that money. Just say, ‘I need a ham and cheese sandwich.’ ” So I’m out there wheeling and dealing, and pretty soon, I’ve got so much money that it’s probably worth more than the car. So I call my boss on the radio: “I need a ham and cheese sandwich right away!” And she goes, “OK!” And we’re all on one channel, and everybody starts chiming in. “Hey! If you’re doing a run, will you get me a corned beef on rye?” “I’ll take a salami and cheese!” She picks up, like, 20 sandwiches from [Baked in Telluride] and brings ’em around town. When she gets to me, she goes, “Dennis, we have to change the password.” The funny thing was nobody had a lock on their door, so she decided the best place to keep the money was in her freezer. Well, on Sunday, she’d come around with a sack full of frozen money. We literally got paid in cold, hard cash.
Truitt: The festival resists commercialism, but as we became able to support bigger acts, we’d get these road crews all dressed in black from New York City coming in and wanting to take over the scene backstage. They required us to provide their bands with security, so we were hiring our nephews, who were 16 and 17, to act as security and protect the artists from us.
Rich “Big Daddy” Estes (festival fixer since 1983, Town of Telluride streets superintendent): In 1997, I was standing backstage with Skip Kent, our stage manager, and he introduced me to Johnny Cash, who was letting one of his daughters play by herself during their set. He knew Skip really well, and Skip goes, “I want to introduce you to Johnny Cash.” I said, “Hello, sir, it’s very nice to meet you.” Skip turns toward me and says, “This is Big Daddy.” And Cash goes, “Oh, I love that name,” and shook my hand. As we’re standing there, he says, “You know, bless her heart, she sings as hard as she can, but she just doesn’t quite have it.” And I said, “She sounds beautiful to me, sir.” He goes, “Thank you so much for telling me that, Big Daddy.” Then he walked back out and finished his set. It was a touching moment from one of his last live shows. And there was nobody in the crowd who thought she sucked.
Present Day (2004–2023)
Sam Bush may be known as the King of Telluride, but he’s far from alone in his devotion to the festival. Over 50 years, only three people have booked the acts, only three have run parking, and only one—Cohn—has run security. Still, Bush’s enthusiasm and energy are legendary among TBF fans as well as his fellow musicians, who often request his presence on stage during their sets.
Bush: I really feel that I have grown up playing at Telluride. I was 23 the first year I came. This year, I’ll be 71. It’s hard to overstate the importance that it has played in my life. I’m fortunate to get to play a lot of well-thought-of festivals, but none is as well thought of as Telluride. It’s its own force.
Mustard: Sam’s a friend, but he just has a very special spirit. You can feel it. I’m telling you, Sam does not drink or take drugs; he wants to be able to play until the day he dies. It’s about the music to him. Doing what he does in Telluride is like holding a beach ball underwater with one hand.
O’Brien: The way he plays that mandolin, the forward thrust of that thing—it rules. He brings that same forward thrust to everything he does. He’s got so much energy he could power a small city.
Ferguson: I don’t think I can explain Sam’s significance to the festival. I mean, the festival is Sam. There’s no direction it grew that he couldn’t join. Classical, Irish, jazz, whatever. There might not be a more respected musician on the planet. People love to play with Sam. Somebody like Yo-Yo Ma—he can play with anybody—and he loves to play with Sam Bush. And certainly, in Telluride, if Sam walks out to join your band, you’re joining the fraternity.
Bush: There were a couple of years when I almost didn’t play. I was diagnosed with testicular cancer in November 1982 that required two surgeries and chemotherapy. Being back onstage in Telluride was a tearful experience. Then, in 2019, I had a bowel obstruction on Mother’s Day and underwent four surgeries in a month. We canceled a lot of shows, but at home in Nashville, I said, “I am not missing Telluride.” Bryan Sutton would come over and help me work out muscularly. Stephen Mougin helped restore my lung power. Telluride was my first show back. [My wife], Lynn, worried that I wasn’t strong enough, and maybe I should’ve waited. But I couldn’t have enjoyed playing more.
Denise Mongan (longtime TBF camping director and lodging coordinator): I really appreciate the fact that hippie kids can still come and experience Telluride and afford it. They can sleep on the ground and get on a school bus and go into town. The average Joe cannot move here, but he can attend the bluegrass festival and experience barefoot dancing in the park.
Big Daddy: One time I saw these two girls trying to schlep their camping gear to a site in town. I go by on my four-wheeler and say, “Hey, let me help you.” They were so giddy. They’re like, “We came here looking for guys.” That was their goal. They wanted to hook up, party, and listen to bluegrass. So I rolled in with them to a site where 15 guys were standing around drinking beer, and I said, “Hey, fellas, these girls are looking for someone to check ’em for ticks.” And the guys looked at me, like, Really? And the girls said, “That’s right. That’s what we’re here for. We want to be checked for ticks.” People try to capture that every year—relive their youth. I think that’s what Bluegrass is: It’s their youth.
Mustard: The restricted dimensions are very important. It isn’t huge. I think that’s part of the reason why the festival has not been swallowed by one of these godforsaken companies that eat festivals and shit ’em out. They could buy Telluride and cancel it so they get better attendance somewhere else. But it’s not quite big enough to be eaten by the large predators.
Ferguson: We’ve had two serious offers from companies to sell the festival over the past five years, but we’ve never been too interested in that. Probably no amount of money would make it worth compromising what we’ve created for the past 30 years.
O’Brien: I’ve played all but three of the festivals. In 2007, I thought, what happens if you don’t go? So I stayed home and discovered that I just did a bunch of dumb gigs. And I was missing it. And I said, Why would I do that? It’s almost like a duty. That festival has given me a musical life in a lot of ways, and I don’t want to miss it.
Mustard: When I stopped emceeing in 2006, I was miffed. But I have to say, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is the love of my life.
Cohn: I’m 74, and when I talk to Craig, he sometimes asks, “How much longer do you want to do this?” And I go, “It’s in my DNA now. It’s who I am, what I am.” We stand at the gate at the end of the festival and thank 10,000 people as they’re leaving. It’s a great feeling. The people are going, “Hey, thanks, you guys; thanks for doing this.” It’s real.
Ferguson: We’re in a situation where one email sells out the festival. I didn’t even feel like we could announce this year’s lineup with our standard press release. Who does that help? It’s not going to help the people who have tickets, and we don’t need help selling tickets in the future. So I’m telling our staff, and they have this blank look on their faces, like, That’s not marketing! But we’ve done the marketing. For 50 years, we put on a show. Now, we enjoy it.