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Thirty Years of Bluegrass, Telluride-Style
by Charlotte Bell

In 1973 a magical seed was planted. The seed was sown into the dry and seemingly inhospitable soil of a small mountain town tucked into a box canyon in the San Juan Mountains. No one knew what kind of plant might sprout from the seed or if, in fact, it would sprout at all. Certainly very few thought it would grow into a tree whose rings would someday number thirty.

1975 TBF poster
1975 TBF poster

Yet here it is, 2003. The tree is still expanding, its rings tracking not just years, but remembrances of so many hearts awakened and inspired by its verdant mountains and virtuosic music, and of friendships cultivated under cerulean skies. Thirty years have passed, and this tree still grows, inviting old friends and new to relax and partake of its fruits.

Telluride in 1973 was a tiny mountain hamlet known mainly for its winter culture—its steep and challenging ski slopes. In the summer, for the most part, the town napped. Only one event brought folks from all over the region, the town’s annual Fourth of July celebration, a robust tradition begun in 1899.

Its Bacchinalian nature was the stuff of legend. Consequently, the event had become the subject of much controversy among residents who had tired of its impact on their peace and quiet. By 1973 the town decided to scale the celebration back to one day (from its traditional three or four) and to make it more family friendly. The 1973 Fourth of July event featured one new element, however—a bluegrass band named Fall Creek, whose members included Fred Shellman, Kooster McAllister, John “Picker” Herndon and J.B. Matteoti.

The Fall Creek boys were diehard fans of bluegrass music, so much so that they drove to Winfield, Kansas, to attend the 2nd Annual Walnut Valley Festival in the fall of ’73. It was here that the spark for a Telluride Bluegrass and Country Music Festival ignited.

Says Kooster: “The original Fall Creek Band had gone to Winfield, Kansas, to the National Flatpickers Convention. We really had a good time, and we met New Grass Revival there. We decided when we came back that we’d like to put on a festival here in town. At that time, we didn’t know what was involved in putting on a festival, and neither did the town, so they gave us the go-ahead. By not knowing what to do, it actually made it possible to put on the Festival, because we didn’t realize things like you’re supposed to have money to pay the bands before you hire them. If we had known, it never would have happened.  We just sort of did it the Telluride way.”

TBF crowd in 1977
TBF crowd in 1977

According to “Picker” Herndon, the true inspiration for the festival was an up-and-coming group called New Grass Revival who bent all the bluegrass rules, playing electrified music on their traditional instruments. New Grass members at that time were Sam Bush (mandolin, fiddle and vocals), John Cowan (bass and vocals), Courtney Johnson (banjo) and Curtis Burch (guitar, Dobro and vocals). (In 1981 Courtney and Curtis left the band and were replaced by banjo phenom Béla Fleck and guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Pat Flynn.) “Mostly the festival got started to bring Sam Bush here, New Grass Revival,” says “Picker.” “That was really the main push behind it.”

In 1974 Fall Creek gathered a cadre of bluegrass bands, including themselves, Black Canyon Gang and the headliners, a band from Denver. According to Kooster, the headliners were named as such by virtue of the fact that they had driven all the way from Denver. The festival was a one-day affair, and took place on July 6, as part of the Fourth of July celebration. An estimated 1,000 people attended.

The Festival’s acoutrements were primitive at best. “We built the very small stage from all sorts of scraps of wood and barn wood,” says Kooster. “It was just an open platform that year. Then each year we built a little bit more onto it. It sort of evolved and grew.”

John Hartford at TBF 1980
John Hartford at TBF 1980

Amidst the revelry a chance meeting took place that made Fall Creek’s dreams come true. “During the first festival, Steve Dahl, who at that time was working for Stone County Booking Company, was traveling through town, saw the Festival and was talking to me,” says Kooster. “I was working at the Hole in the Wall pizza place [now Sofio’s], and I had mentioned to him how we would love to have New Grass Revival play at the Festival, just sort of wishful thinking. A couple of days later, I got a phone call at the Hole in the Wall—because that’s the only place he knew where to reach me—from Keith Case, who was at that time managing New Grass Revival, saying, ‘I understand you want to hire New Grass Revival for the Festival.’  We really hadn’t thought that the Festival was going to turn professional and hire national acts, but when it sort of fell in our lap, we said sure. I believe their price then was $1,200, which to us was an ungodly amount of money, but we said okay. We hired them and the rest is history.” Fall Creek became High Country Concerts, producers of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

In 1975 the Bluegrass Festival got its own weekend, a week earlier than the Fourth of July celebration. Local groups played on Friday and out-of-town groups—Ophelia Swing Band, featuring Tim O’Brien, Dan Sadowsky (aka Pastor Mustard) and Washboard Chaz; Magic Music (with Chris Daniels); Liberty (all the way from Aspen) and headliners, New Grass Revival—performed on Saturday. Three thousand festivarians attended.

John Cowan remembers New Grass’ first invitation to Telluride. “I remember Sam calling me and saying, ‘They want us to come play this festival in this place called Telluride.’ I was like, ‘What’s that?’ Sam said, ‘Well, I don’t know. It’s these guys, these crazy guys, and they just love us to death and they want us to come out and play. It sounds really cool.’”

“We hit town at 4 am and the only modern-day condo was the Manitou, and that’s the one they had us in,” remembers Sam Bush, of his first Telluride experience. “The keys were out on the desk. I mean, where else in America would the keys just be laying on the desk, saying ‘Here’s your rooms, boys. Welcome to Telluride?’

Bush, Bowers, Hartford in 1977
Bush, Bowers, Hartford in 1977

“The next morning I’d probably slept about three hours and somebody’s beating on the door. I open the door and this guy says, ‘Can we borrow your PA speakers and your snake and …? Hi, my name’s Kooster.’ Then he goes, ‘Are you Sammy?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ I had shorter hair than he was expecting, and he didn’t recognize me. So that’s how I met Kooster. He knocked on the door, woke me up and they borrowed half our PA, because the dancers had stomped their snake the night before. They weren’t experienced and didn’t realize you had to bury the snake, which is the group of wires that sends the signal to the sound board out front.“

Fred’s wife at the time, Marikay Shellman, remembers silkscreening T-shirts in her kitchen and making sandwiches for backstage. Since several of the bands had a traveled a long way to get there, backstage accommodations needed to be just a bit more upscale. “The posters were a little fancier that year,” she recalls. The little homespun festival was on its way.

Each year the festival grew, in numbers and in stature. By the third year three national artists appeared at the festival, New Grass Revival, John Hartford and Bryan Bowers. Ironically, in the year when the entire country celebrated the nation’s bicentennial Telluride’s venerable Fourth of July celebration did not happen, and never returned.

Because the festival staff had not been trained as concert promoters, each year brought new learning experiences. “Picker” recalls the third year, when a lot more people turned up than expected. “The gate receipts kept coming back to the backstage shack and we didn’t have any provision for moving money. We had no idea we were gonna have any money! All of a sudden we had this huge amount of gate receipts, all in small change and we just didn’t know what to do with it.

Newgrass Revival in 1977
Newgrass Revival in 1977

“…The cash box was a little metal box, and we had two or three garbage bags just full of money. So we sent J.B. ahead of us carrying the metal boxes that looked like they had money in them. Not too far back from there were two rather nasty looking characters with garbage bags with pieces of trash on top full of money. That’s how we transported the funds and put them in the bank.”

That year Kooster and “Picker” decided they would rather play music than promote it. They left High Country Concerts and formed a new band, Possum, that performed at subsequent festivals. That year also brought a new face to the festival staff. Helen Suback (better known as Helen Forster of “E-Town” fame) met J.B. Matteoti while working security for the Festival and later married him. She and J.B. coordinated the Festival, along with Fred, for the next five years.

In 1977 the town gave the Festival three days. Again the line-up expanded to include even more nationally known artists, the likes of Byron Berline, Willis Allen Ramsey and Peter Rowan. The legendary all-star jams, those onstage parties where a dozen or more musicians cram onto the stage, had by now become a tradition that endures today.

By 1978 attendance had risen to 7,500. The Festival recorded its first live LPs, Tellulive, featuring a sampling of artists appearing that year, and Too Late to Turn Back Now, a recording of New Grass’ set. It was during this year that another Festival tradition was born, the annual appearance of Hot Rize, a Boulder-based band featuring Tim O’Brien (fiddle, mandolin, guitar and vocals), Nick Forster (bass and vocals, also of “E-Town”), Pete Wernick (banjo and vocals) and the late Charles Sawtelle (guitar and vocals). Hot Rize continued to perform at every Telluride Bluegrass Festival until they moved on to different projects in 1990. They have performed reunion gigs at several Festivals since (including this one!).

Dancing at TBF in1984
Dancing at TBF in1984

Through the years the Festival expanded in many ways, through the lineup, the attendance, by adding workshops and contests in 1981, and by launching the Telluride Academy in 1988, which now sponsors the Festival’s educational component, including the wildly popular Family Tent. Also in 1988 the Festival expanded to four days and concluded with an incendiary set by Little Feat followed by a fireworks display.

This was to be Fred’s last year at the helm. The following year a group of partners formed in Boulder and bought the Telluride Festival Company, and hired Craig Ferguson, formerly the Festival’s attorney, to run production. Craig, along with Steve Szymanski, Sally Truitt, Carli Zug, Pat and Laura O’Kelly, Jon Eaton, Durfee Day, John Cohn and a host of others continue to act as stewards for the Telluride Bluegrass tradition. In mid-1990, Fred passed away in a tragic accident at his home in Boulder. The Festival’s permanent stage, built in 1991, was named in his honor.

Telluride Bluegrass Festival was destined to be unconventional. With the iconoclastic New Grass Revival as its centerpiece, it could not be otherwise. As the years passed, the musical lineup became more eclectic. The Festival has welcomed artists of all stripes. Non-bluegrass artists such as The Band, Little Feat, Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, Shawn Colvin, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Willie Nelson and Leon Russell shared the stage with Bill Monroe, Norman Blake, Peter Rowan (who shifts genres almost annually), Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris and David Grisman.

1976 TBF poster
1976 TBF poster

The Festival’s reputation as a melting pot for all kinds of unclassifiable music has drawn criticism from traditional circles and praise from its diehard fans, many of whom attend faithfully every year. It has been the inspiration for such ground-breaking musical collaborations as Strength in Numbers (originally named the Telluride All-Stars), a group that featured Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor playing genre-defying “chambergrass.” Telluride’s creative booking policy has also inspired and informed other festivals, including California’s Strawberry Music Festival.

While the Festival production company itself has become a well-oiled machine, the friendly atmosphere remains. “We really prided ourselves on setting a homey atmosphere for the visitors,“ remembers Helen. “The visitors were to be treated as friends; that was our motto. I’m happy to see that there’s really been a resurgence of that in the last few years, especially with the folks that are handling the festival now. I really like the warm, fuzzy way that they really try to be kind to people, and make them feel at home here. I think it’s really important.”

And so the tree of Telluride continues to flourish. Like the music it is hard to define, a graft of many types. This tree has grown tall and strong like the oak. Its meandering branches, like the elm, provide respite for people far and wide. Its fragrance is sweet like the cherry; its roots, deep as the willow. May it be blessed with the longevity of the bristlecone pine.

Charlotte Bell is a freelance writer, yoga and meditation instructor, oboist and longtime Festivarian living in Salt Lake City.

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