There are 367 miles separating Telluride, Colo., from Salt Lake City—a scant distance for those faithful Utahns who make the pilgrimage every summer solstice. For devotees of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, it is the end of the road—literally and metaphorically.
Situated in a box canyon with 13,000-foot peaks towering overhead in every direction, the festival’s majestic scenery alone is worth the trek. Then, of course, there’s the entertainment-packed weekend with an illustrious 38-year history.
Again and again, it beckons some Utahns—many for more than two decades now—for reasons that go beyond the music.
First, there’s the initiation, so to speak. You don’t find Telluride, it finds you.
Salt Lake City resident Jim Wilcox has introduced a handful of folks to the festival over the years, and he testifies that he himself was converted.
“My first year, a friend called me up and said there’s this bluegrass thingy we ought to, maybe, check out. At the time, I could take or leave bluegrass music—I wasn’t a true fan,” Wilcox says.
That was 1986. Did he enjoy himself? He’s been 23 times now—21 times in a row this year.
New Grass Revival straightened him right up. That old school, boundary-pushing, path-paving conglomerate comprised of Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, John Cowan and Pat Flynn was a festival mainstay in the early years.
“I was blown away. I mean, I was like, ‘Damn. How do they do that?’” Wilcox says. “Now, I absolutely love bluegrass.”
Yet the grandaddy of Western festivals isn’t solely focused on bluegrass, despite the name—new genres and bands are presented each year. Weirder still: The diehards’ irrevocable love doesn’t exist solely around music, either. The festival is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
During an hour-long interview, Wilcox barely mentions music again; rather, he focuses on the community’s many facets.
This “experience” includes memorable Dutch oven lasagna he makes yearly at his camp—called O’Kellyville—or the Thursday-night home-brew party in the Town Park campground. He laughs over the wild costumes at the Free Box Fashion Show—where every article modeled must come from the famous Free Box at North Pine and Colorado Avenue. Then there’s the liquor-soaked fruit pieces, called rum balls, that are dished out liberally.
But mostly it’s about the people. “It’s like a bunch of old brothers and sisters seeing each other, really. It’s all bear hugs and high-fives,” says Wilcox, adding that this tight-knit family usually only sees one another once a year at the festival.
Many of his friends are Country Store concessionaires. Wilcox has sold CDs and artist schwag for 15 years and, more than likely, has met UVU philosophy professor David R. Keller there.
Keller’s CD collection is largely composed of Telluride finds. “My wife and I love to buy CDs there,” he says. “It’s bands that we wouldn’t have known about outside of the festival.” Keller beams over this “element of surprise.”
Stating he’s too old to camp, he stays at a friend’s Telluride home. So, for Keller, the festival is all about the music.
“There’s actually too much. You have to pace yourself and have a plan,” Keller says. “There’s more good music than any one person could possibly enjoy.”
However, this year, for the first time in two decades, Keller laments that he won’t enjoy the music; it sold out earlier than he expected. “It could be a sign that Telluride is becoming too popular,” he says.
“I’d still recommend that anyone interested in folk music go once in their life, like every Muslim should go to Mecca.”
The 2011 lineup includes bluegrass stalwarts and annual performers Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Darrell Scott and Edgar Meyer, among others. The boundary-pushing bands from beyond the bluegrass realm for this year include Mumford & Sons, The Decemberists and Robert Plant & The Band of Joy.
And the pickin’ and grinnin’ continues at organic upshoots at many campsites, after the music on stage ends around midnight. “It’s heaven for them. The campground music goes all night until dawn and jam sessions blossom all over the place,” Keller says. “It’s totally spontaneous, and there’s no record of it once it ends. That’s what’s so neat about the whole experience.”
TELLURIDE BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL
Thursday-Sunday, June 16-19