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A Preview and Guide to This Summer's Telluride Bluegrass Festival

By Peter Koelsch


n the middle of June, the small skiing town of Telluride, Colo., gears up to showcase the greatest of Bluegrass, Folk and American Gospel music in a four-day event, aptly titled the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The TBF has been held annually for the past 30 years, continually building a fellowship of fans and returning regulars who span the entire globe. These "festivarians," as they are known, are entirely devoted to celebrating this historic element of American music and its continuum in one of the Mountain West's greatest summer experiences.

Below is a guide to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, a guide to becoming a festivarian and celebrating one of the most unique and memorable experiences in America.

Bluegrass: a genre that evokes many feelings for many different Americans. Bluegrass is a representation of popular folk music from the historic deep Southeast. Though its exact birthplace is difficult to determine, both the grass and music’s main vein still pumps rigorously throughout the musty Appalachian Mountain range.

But one of Americana's most unique values is that its music gathers its distinction from the individual musician’s ability to jam, improvise and duel with other musicians, making the live performance both enjoyable and personally memorable for the audience.

To most, this music accompanies a certain economic status and carries an insufficient stigma for its audience. Though understandable, yet highly inaccurate, bluegrass is generally associated with the Southern slack-jawed yokel—a hillbilly playing a banjo on a porch with a jug of moonshine at his or her side. In reality, those qualities don't convey the complete picture of bluegrass and American acoustic folk music.

Bluegrass music is a style made popular during the Civil War that is an original American roots collection that brings together such diverse music forms as rustic Texas country, Irish Celtic dance and Southern Delta blues (among others).

At an elevation well higher than 8,000 feet, Telluride is made up of remnants from a historic mining town-turned-ski-town built at the base of the intersecting San Miguel and San Juan Mountain ranges, which are bound by a glacier. The winter runoff produces an active waterfall, providing a celestial backdrop, while water flows all year long through the heart of their town park and the small downtown (mostly comprised of renovated historic buildings) before merging with the Colorado River. But the town's placement, cool mountain environment and overwhelming elegant beauty is only the beginning of why the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is not one to be missed.

The ski town has always celebrated the culture and artistic expression of its residents and guests. For instance, the touring band The String Cheese Incident formed during one of the TBF events well over a decade ago.

The amount of festival attendees has now reached into the thousands, while Telluride's normal population barely peaks at 1,000 full-time locals. The only possibility for viable continuation of such an enormous attraction to such a small town depends on three things: positive and respectful attitudes of all “festivarians,” tolerance of all the festivarians from the townsfolk and the local need to enjoy and join the annual music celebration. If those basic requirements were not met, not only would TBF not be nearly as enjoyable as it is, the event would most likely be non existent.

“Our main goal for every year’s festival is for people to come back year after year,” states festival spokeswoman Annabel Lukins.

“This festival is so important because people always leave the four-day event ready to make plans for next year.”

Not only do the locals and the festivarians pick up on this positiveness and generous demeanor, but the musicians pick up on it as well. We have all been to a concert where something seems out of sync. The band is not playing up to your expectations, and the audience and the musicians on stage reflect that subtle, incredulous response equally.

“Everyone involved, fans and musicians alike, love Telluride because it is a place to share history and when a spot opens up to perform, musicians fight to get into the spot,” Lukins said.

All of the elements that make Telluride what it is ensure four days of unbelievable music. On any given day, you could very well be buying a stirfry platter when a headlining musician will ask you if it's any good. Hence, over the past 30 years, such intimacy has brought bigger and more notable bands and musicians to play this festival, while many become annual regulars.

Past TBFs have brought acts such as Willie Nelson, Ben Harper, Cake, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Nickel Creek, Bruce Hornsby, Natalie Merchant, David Crosby, Lyle Lovett, Taj Mahal, Ani DiFranco, James Taylor, Indigo Girls, The String Cheese Incident, Bill Monroe and even Johnny Cash.

The strangest and best element of TBF is that while many show stopping acts have graced the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage for the festival over the years, it remains a friendly and comfortable event.

My Summer Vacation(s)
When I was a child, my dad owned a record store and he was the only ticket distributor in the state of Utah to sell for TBF. He and my mom would get tickets and kids at the time were free, so TBF was our family summer vacation. I attended that festival from as young as my parents could take me, enjoying the music, but not really caring about it.

The year that TBF truly made a profound difference in my life was 1997, when Johnny Cash played his final live performance before his battle with pneumonia took him off the stage. To see the living legend performing live with my dad and 10,000 festivarians dancing along to Cash's many classics was an event to remember.

Every year since that performance, I annually frequent the festival and return home with a great story and an even greater memory from the TBF.

The cool thing about festivarians is that they differ from one another in every way possible. They can be your dred-locked, quilt-dressed granolas, dancing like they were kelp in the ocean. Or they can be your khaki-pant wearing, oxford-shirt-buttoning, Starbuck’s-chugging republicans, dancing like they were Eddie Munster in Riverdance.

Most importantly, festivarians can be anyone, at any age and dressed any way, because for those four days, the sole focus is the music and the enjoyment it brings the listener.

So far, the lineup includes these acts:

Thursday, June 19
The String Cheese Incident: The Telluride, Colo. natives headline the opening night of festivities with their fusion of reggae, calypso and folky bluegrass.

Friday, June 20
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones: Back for his 17th appearance at TBF, Bela Fleck gets the crowd jumping with his bluegrass/jazz fusion music.

Saturday, June 21
Emmylou Harris
The Grammy-Award winner Emmylou Harris will grace the stage with her powerful and delicate voice. Spyboy will accompany Harris.

Sunday, June 22
Sam Bush closes out a day filled with acts like Nickel Creek, Bluegrass pioneers Hot Rize, and Alison Krauss. The Sam Bush Band performance will be memorable because the last performance is when everyone comes out to jam into the night.

Other performances will include John Cowan, Yonder Mountain String Band, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas Band, Peter Rowan and Tony Rice, Leftover Salmon, Alison Brown Quartet and many, many more.

How to Get There and Where to Sleep

Distance from Salt Lake City: 366 miles
Approximate travel time: 8 hours
-From Salt Lake City, head South on Interstate-15 for about 50 miles, until you reach the exit for Price via US-6/US-89 (exit #261).
-Continue on US-6 for 127 miles, through Price and Helper.
-Take the Interstate 70 East ramp, heading east.
-Take US-191 exit toward Moab (Exit #180)
-Pass through Moab or stop at Eddie McStiff's for supplies and then continue through Moab on US-191.
-After Moab, turn Left on UT-46, heading East.
-UT 46 turns into CO-90 at the UT/CO border. Don't freak out.
-Continue on CO-90 for about 35 miles after the border.
-Then CO-90 turns into CO-141 and CO-145, which you must follow. Confusing? Yes. Worthwhile? Absolutely.
-Continue on CO-145 for about 50 miles.
-At this point you should be seeing signs for Festival check-in and hippies playing their banjos. And you're there, man.

There are many places to stay during TBF. For the big spender, there are luxury accommodations, from bedroom residence suites to full-service condominiums.

The Inn at Lost Creek:
(WRITER’S PICK!) This condo community on top of the valley looks down to town or mountains. Enjoy pool, spa, fireplaces and balconies with incredible views.
Package rates from $143-175 per person, per night. Includes two four-day TBF passes, with a three night minimum required.
(888)601-5678, or check out

Telluride Mountain Lodging: Hotel lodging with kitchenettes, right by the river trail, leading to festival grounds.
$219-249 per person, per night.
(888)728-1950, or check out

Wyndham Mountain Lodge: hotel rooms to 3-bedroom condos, with free access to adjacent spa.
$249-349 per person, per night.
(800)789-2220, or check out

Other Lodging Accommodations:
Peaks Resort and Spa (800)789 2220
The Ice House (800)544-3436
Premier Mountain Resort (800)750-8750
Alpine Lodging (800)376-9769
Telluride Mountainside Inn (888)728-1950

Of course, not all of us are lawyers, doctors or porn stars, who can afford such amenities. For the majority of us, there is the option of summer camping in the Colorado valley wilderness and campsites, which are even more of a magical experience.

TBF offers two different locations in the Ilium Valley, filled with beautiful scenery and incredible hiking trails. Please contact Planet Bluegrass for more information on these campsites.

MARY E: This area is located about seven miles from the festival. Camping is $45 per person, and $45 per car (for the entire festival, not per night). Vehicles larger than 22’ are not permitted. You must have a four day TBF pass to camp here. Getting to and from the festival will be easy since the site is serviced by a free shuttle.

SHEEP CORRALS: This is the smallest of their campsites, located about 10 miles from the festival. Camping is $35 per person and is a pedestrian-only campsite. This means you can park your car in the camp parking lot, but not next to your tent. You must have a festival pass to camp here.

TELECAM: This is a tents-only ball field located about three miles away from the festival grounds. Camping is $50 per person and only for four-day pass holders. No cars are allowed on the field, but there is parking right next to the campsite for Telecam guests. This site is also serviced by free shuttle.

CAMP ILIUM: A quiet family- only camping area, about six miles from the festival. Ilium is a rustic church camp with several community cabins, limited tent camping (no RVs or campers), a bathhouse, a gameroom and a dining hall. It’s perfect for festivarians who want to be with their families and enjoy modest amenities. You must have a festival pass to camp here. This camp area is limited to 100 people and also features free shuttle service. The cost is $100 per person for the entire weekend, but is not available for purchase online.
For more information, call Planet Bluegrass directly (800)624-2422.

The following rules apply for all camping areas managed by Planet Bluegrass:
1) No Dogs. No Exceptions.
2) No Charcoal fires or hibachis allowed
3) All other types of stoves must have a metal pan underneath them to protect the grass/ground and to reduce the risk of fire.

You can purchase the tickets day- by-day, or the four-day pass. Check out, the official TBF ticket outlet for all ticket purchasing, driving directions, suggestions and further festival information. Planet Bluegrass can be accessed over the telephone at (800)624 2422.

Wizard Entertainment in Telluride, Colo. can be called at (970)728 4796 and Telluride Music is accessible over the phone at (970)728-9592.

Congratulations, fellow Festivarian! You are ready for the party to begin in the bluegrass hills of Telluride, Colo.! Now, if you could only find a ride...