Online Festival Archive / Program Articles
Pastor Mustard: Who Is that Guy?
by Charlotte Bell
Few people who occupy the stage at Telluride draw as many and as varied reactions as the Festival's presiding preacher, Pastor Mustard. Feedback on the comment cards (yes, Planet Bluegrass really does read them!) ranges from outrage over perceived political incorrectness to genuine appreciation of his off-the-wall hilarity.
No matter how you're affected by him, itís impossible to deny Pastor Mustard's ability to stay spontaneously wacky while keeping some of the longest hours of anyone involved in the Festival. He explains this talent thusly:
"I guess I'm just mentally ill enough so that it's amusing. It's when Craig is afraid I'm getting little bit too un-PC--that I'll begin speaking strange truths in crude and offhand ways--that's when I have to be yanked off the stage and medicated."
But, back to the original question: who is he? Pastor Mustard is known in some circles as Dan Sadowsky. When he's not festivating, he lives in Aspen, Colorado, with his wife, Alex Halperin and their two children, Reuben (aka Dijon) and Michaela (aka Poupon). Dan and Alex both publish magazines, and Dan is a graphic designer, too--business name, The Freelance Gorilla. He has also taught elementary school and says he is a "sometimes-musician." (If you didnít see him with Washboard Chaz on Friday morning of the 25th anniversary, their track is on Live at Twenty-five.)
Dan's been doing some self-appointed community service, too. The Basalt (Colorado) Battle of the Bands, staged the Saturday before Mother's day, is in its fifth year. "We raise funds for music in the schools with an event that provides a venue for both garage bands and school-sanctioned musical groups. All in the same show there's marching bands, pre-teen death-metal, folkies, rap and ranchera. My non-profit, The National Jam Foundation, does this to keep the community aware that kids are artists, that they need and demand music and art in their school experience."
Dan's first Telluride Bluegrass Festival was the second one, in 1975. His band, Ophelia Swing Band, which he describes as "a bunch of silly guys 'n' gals from Boulder," caught Fred Shellman's eye and were invited to play. Ophelia played there through 1976, and in 1977 he appeared with Washboard Chaz and Juno award winner Bad Ray Bonneville. Dan moved to Telluride not long after, where he says he "spent three years there one year."
Pastor Mustard materialized out of the ether in 1978 when Dan began hosting a radio show on KOTO in Telluride. The show aired at 10 am on Sunday mornings. "If you were righteous and faithful, you were in church, and if you weren't you may have had the radio turned on and you got me," he relates. He describes it as a good show, in the sense that he "got away with murder."
"It's not like the FCC was lurking around the corner monitoring KOTO's ten mighty watts just to make sure we weren't using the seven forbidden words," he says. "So Pastor Mustard played all the stuff I like to hearóantique African-American funk, swing, and classical jazz. I put in as much humor and weirdness as I could without actually planning much for it.
"We did call-ins and had testimonies. People got behind it quite a bit so they could holler and testify on the radio--all very tongue-in-cheek. Allegedly lonely women were pledging their love to Pastor Mustard on the air. It was pretty funny and got almost R-rated sometimes, but that's when having an R-rating was not such a big deal." (Ah, the '70s.)
Until 1978, Fred had been the Festival's emcee. As Dan tells it, Fred was having a rather difficult time staying awake for six days and talking coherently to the crowd. If you've ever wondered why Sam Bush always asks the crowd, "How many people have been here all four days?", well, that's a remnant of Fred's emcee days, when the Festival was actually three days. (Fred originally followed the line with, "How many people like cats?," which was a taken as an indication that he just might need a respite from the job.)
That year, the Pastor brought Fred some tapes of his KOTO show. According to Dan, Fred got "such a bang out of them he was just on the ground." Fred handed the pulpit over to the Pastor, and he's been there ever since. In a fashion typical of the early days, the Pastor preached to Festivarians gratis and found a place to crash on a floor in town.
For a five- or six-year period in the mid-'80s, the Pastor ran the instrument and band contests in addition to his onstage duties. He set up the mailing list, sent notices and placed ads before the Festival, ran the registration table and organized the judges during. When the Festival expanded to four days in 1988 and the contests moved to the Sheridan Opera House, he relinquished the position to concentrate on his current one, which is:
"I'm a figurehead, I guess. They prop me up, shoot me with vitamin B12, and pray I don't embarrass anyone. Craig, the festival promoter, didn't used to talk on mic much because of a bad case of stage fright, which is kind of the opposite of what I have."
Like so many Festivarians, he looks forward to reuniting with old friends each year. "My favorite part of the job is Telluride itself and hooking up with friends again every year," he says. "I secretly enjoy the sort of stop-motion-photography aspect of the thing. I hardly ever see these people during the year. One of these days I'm going to splice together the whole reel in my brain and watch everybody decrepitate."
As a man of the cloth, albeit a somewhat non-traditional one, the Pastor can sometimes wax philosophic. He spoke of a conversation he had with one of the Drepung monks in 1992, which brought the significance of the Festival into focus for him. "[The monk] said he loved being here because [the landscape] reminded him of Tibet and northern India, but he also said that they do the festival thing there, and have been for centuries.
"I said, "Well, what do you mean?" And he said, "They are religious festivals, but it's very similar to this." People save up all year and travel for miles, sometimes days, and they stay for about a week. They pray and dance and there are performers who are especially good at singing, all with a Buddhist theme. They have lots of food and people are trading out of booths and knapsacks.
"So it's not like we invented it. It pointed up to me that there's probably a human gene for festivating, especially when it's done with the same kind of uplifting intent that's been going on in the Himalayas for the last five or six hundred years. So it's not really a by-product of some oddball subculture. It's a mass shamanistic catharsis that's as natural and healthy as washing your feet. It kind of put me in the picture, put the whole thing together for me."
What characterizes this particular festival for him is that it's about great music, but set in a context of great humor. "So, much as I've thought of the thing as an incredible goof over the years, it means quite a bit to me. I never think of [being an emcee] in terms of power and control, that's just silly. And the, 'Hey how's everybody doin' out there?' (use the FM voice) emcee trip is just way too ordinary. But I like to hang with the stagehands. It's a kick to merge with their sterling work ethic, and there's lots of laughs. Remember that most of the stage crew are veterans of two decades so we've hit a groove. Ultimately we're there to run a hell of a show and do right by the audience and performers both. Scientifically speaking, if hilarity doesn't erupt often enough in this kind of marathon, the lab rats will bite each other, right? So if folks get amusement from the fact that the emcee sometimes behaves like an adrenalized weasel, and nobody gets hurt, that's okay for our show. Uh, usually."
As much as he enjoys his position as emcee in Telluride, the Pastor generally refrains from emceeing other events. "I've been asked to and I've done it but it's just not the same," he says. "I just don't feel like I can put on the same party hat, professionally speaking, anywhere else. One of Fred's best qualities was that he gave you permission--not explicitly, but tacitly--it pleased him when you explored Neptunian reaches of your whole weirdness. In most other situations they have conditions, like, 'We're shooting this down to just a little to the left of the middle, Dan,' and it's just not fun."
When asked if he has any pastorly advice for Festivarians, he said simply, "Don't vote Republican. Don't send any contributions to skinhead organizations. Make sure that the people who are running your radio station know that you don't want to hear Rush Limbaugh. Aside from that I'd say go out there and wear sunscreen, eat a whole bunch of 'wateymellums' and drink buckets of water."
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.