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Bela Fleck:  25 Years at Telluride
by Charlotte Bell

Some folks are born to bluegrass, pickin’ on the front porch as soon as they can hold a mandolin. Some are raised in families that faithfully tune their radios to the Grand Ole Opry every week. Others fall in love with bluegrass music much later in life when that high, lonesome sound resonates deep in their very souls. Telluride’s passion for bluegrass was awakened through an indescribably dynamic band called New Grass Revival.

New Grass was famous—infamous in some traditional circles—for their bold and innovative approach to bluegrass. Using traditional bluegrass instrumentation (with the exception of electric bass), the band tackled everything from Bill Monroe tunes to r & b to reggae, punctuated by long space jams. Whether you knew bluegrass music or not, the band’s musicianship commanded respect and their genre-crossing interpretations of songs made any listener feel at home (and in awe). Inspired by a New Grass Revival performance at the Walnut Creek Festival in Winfield, Kansas, members of the Fall Creek band—Fred Shellman, John “Picker” Herndon, Kooster McAllister and J.B. Matteoti—cooked up the idea for a bluegrass festival in the little town of Telluride.

For a decade New Grass’ lineup included Sam Bush, John Cowan, Courtney Johnson and Curtis Burch. In 1981, Curtis and Courtney left to form another band, and Sam and John welcomed two new members, guitarist Pat Flynn and the banjo’s most innovative up-and-coming artist, Béla Fleck—whose introduction to bluegrass banjo came through The Beverly Hillbillies’ theme song. As amazing as the band’s former incarnation had been, the new edition catapulted NGR into bold new territory.  In the words of Rick Gartner of FRETS magazine, with the personnel change “the New Grass locomotive [was] transformed into a bullet train.”

1982 would be Béla’s first year traveling to Telluride, to the Festival that was formed in honor of the band he’d recently joined. Béla says he was psyched about the Festival from the beginning. Band mates had regaled him with stories about the Festival all year. He spoke of his first venture into the canyon. “I remember it was like magic. Of course I was nervous as I was the new guy in a band that was very well loved at Telluride.” At the time he couldn’t have known that he would become one of the Festival’s mainstays, performing as a guest with countless other bands, playing numerous solo and ensemble sets, and introducing the world to all manner of incredible musicians and musical styles through his groundbreaking jazz fusion band, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. “When I started in ’82, I was just playing with New Grass Revival, and within a few years I was playing in lots of different sets. I feel like I grew up with the Festival. It’s like a big family that welcomed me in.” 2006 marks Béla’s 25th year at the Festival.

Like so many of the artists who come to Telluride year after year, Béla appreciates not only the Festival’s incomparable setting, but also the adventurous attitude of the Festivarians. “Telluride has a very smart audience, and it has developed over the years,” he says. “We don’t have to play down to them. You know you can try things here that you may not be able to in other venues. The audience actually encourages the musicians to try new things.”

Whether the audience influenced those booking the Festival to venture into previously unexplored territory, or whether it was the other way around is impossible to discern. Either way, Festival’s open-minded booking policy fits Béla’s own penchant for blending his banjo playing into virtually every musical genre. “The Festival has always been open to new ideas like solo sets. I could call them up on the phone and throw out ideas and they’d say, ‘Sure, let’s try it.‘” From the mid-1980s Béla presented a solo set most years, joined by such stellar artists as Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall, Tony Trischka, Bruce Hornsby, Jerry Douglas and countless others. In his solo sets he presented material ranging from his own original compositions to the Beatles to Bach. In 2004 he brought his duet set with Edgar Meyer to the main stage, a collaboration that had wowed standing-room-only workshop crowds at the Sheridan in downtown Telluride for years. 

One made-for-Telluride group that would return to the Festival several years hence was the all-star ensemble, Strength in Numbers. Billed in 1988 as the Telluride All-Stars, Strength in Numbers included Béla, Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas and Mark O’Connor. After their Telluride debut, the group produced an album titled The Telluride Sessions, featuring compositions that resembled classical chamber arrangements while showcasing the members’ technical acumen. Béla explains the group’s origin:  “Edgar and I probably started the idea for that, and Edgar first. Edgar thought we could be a band. He booked us all for his first solo album, called Unfolding, and I produced it for him. We worked together on it, put it all together. It was all his music, but I knew a little more about the studio at that time than he did so I was able to be helpful and get him what he wanted. So when I was talking to [original Festival director] Fred [Shellman] about the festival I said, ‘Hey you should let us play a gig that way.’ Fred gave us that opportunity, and when it happened it really clicked. So when Craig [Ferguson, director since 1989] took over the Festival, he gave us the opportunity again and again. Then we ended up making a record.”

After New Grass Revival disbanded in late 1989, members dispersed into different projects. In 1988, Béla had formed what was intended to be a single-performance ensemble to appear on PBS’ “Lonesome Pine Special” series. That band included keyboard/harmonica virtuoso, Howard Levy; bassist extraordinaire, Victor Wooten; and the creator and master of the Synthaxe Drumitar, a mysterious character named Future Man. This was not to be a one-time gig, however. The band made their stunning Telluride debut in 1990 and have performed at Telluride, and all over the world, every year since (with the exception of 2005, when they took a year-long hiatus from Flecktone touring in order to pursue other projects).

As with New Grass Revival, Béla would break new musical ground with the Flecktones, eventually garnering numerous Grammy nominations and awards, and reaching #1 on the jazz charts. When Howard left the band in 1992, they continued to tour as a threesome, occasionally inviting special guests to appear with them. In 1997 ace saxophonist Jeff Coffin (who also contributes clarinet and flute to the mix), began touring with the group and continues to this day. Even after 18 years, the band continues to evolve and create new musical idioms.

Telluride offers them a great opportunity to stretch even a bit further. Depending on who’s going to be at the Festival, the Flecktones like to alter their regular set to accommodate artists such as Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Chris Thile, Bruce Hornsby and even Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. The band has also introduced Telluride to a number of not so well known, but equally amazing artists such as ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, Tuvan throat singer Congar ol Ondar, East Indian percussionist Sandip Burman and Theramin player Pamela Kurstin. Last year, during the Flecktones’ sabbatical, Béla brought two completely different trios to Telluride, one that included legendary jazz musicians Stanley Clarke and Jean Luc Ponty, and the other that included fiddler Casey Driessen and guitarist Bryan Sutton. Béla has enjoyed the challenge of playing with so many diverse musicians and groups. “I love to put myself into risky situations, but I do like to be prepared and I want to feel that I can learn or be pushed musically by the collaboration.”

Reflecting on his 25 years at the Festival, Béla notes, “I feel that the spirit of the Festival is as it always has been. There are more hotels, and the town has changed but again the spirit is still there. It has been exciting to see the new musicians grow and come into their own.” The spirit of Telluride that encouraged Béla to present an amazing palette of musical colors over the years continues to inspire others. “Jerry Douglas and Edgar were encouraged to be different and to do their own thing. We saw them grow up and get strong and successful. Now folks like Chris Thile are getting the same encouragement.”

For his 25th Telluride Festival, Béla will return with the Flecktones for a set on Friday night. On Thursday night he will join another group of all-stars—Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Tim O’Brien and Bryan Sutton. As usual, Festivarians can expect some surprises when Béla and this cadre of Telluride stalwarts take the stage.

Charlotte Bell is a yoga teacher, freelance writer, oboist and Festivarian since 1983. She is currently writing a book titled Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life that will be published by Rodmell Press in 2007.

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