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Hallelujah and pass the sunscreen
by Charlotte Bell

Since Carlton Haney’s first bluegrass festival in 1965, gospel music and Sunday morning have gone hand in hand. Early bluegrass festivals featured the hand-clapping, foot-stomping variety performed by gospel artists, in addition to inspirational sermonizing from a fundamentalist preacher. (Perhaps even early bluegrass festival fans needed a bit of revving up by Sunday morning.)

Gospel music is meant to inspire. The pure, intricate, harmonies are chilling. There’s nothing like a group of crystalline voices singing a cappella in perfect balance and harmony. But the most important element of the gospel experience is that everyone is invited to be a part of the celebration. This is no remote stage performance where audiences sit back and listen, then applaud politely at the end of each song. Gospel music is made for movement. Audience members clap rhythm, dance, sway and sing along. As the spirit surges, the lines between performer and audience blur. For a magical moment in time everyone—no matter what their station in life—unites in festive, spirited song.

Telluride Bluegrass Festival didn’t jump into the gospel tradition right away. In fact it wasn’t until the the eighth festival in 1981 that the Gospel Jam was born. Says Marikay Shellman, “The whole [gospel] thing started because I just fell in love with Liberty [from Aspen], and they got into gospel tunes. I used to beg Fred [Shellman, Festival founder] to have a gospel set Sunday mornings, so that’s how that all started.”

In keeping with its penchant for bucking tradition, Telluride’s gospel philosophy has always been…well…different. First, instead of a fundamentalist preacher introducing the set on Sunday morning, Telluride has Pastor Mustard, sermonizing throughout the weekend . And second, from 1981 through 1988, the gospel set was anything but formal. The players were whoever was able to drag themselves out of bed and be at the park in time to play. (I remember seeing Chris Daniels brushing his teeth on his way to the stage one Sunday morning.) Many an incongruent combination of artists came out of what became a (loose) gospel tradition.

“The Gospel Sets are something that really evolved over the years,” says Alan McNaughton. “It started to be a really loose thing, and all the musicians were invited to come down and sing. There wouldn’t be any practice, they’d just walk up on stage. Somebody’d suggest a song, and whoever knew it would sing it, and everybody else would kind of follow along, just wonderful musicians with great voices. It had this wonderful air of spontaneity to it.”

The informal gospel jam tradition ended in 1989 when the Festival changed hands. Sensitive to the complexities of warming up an often-bedraggled Sunday morning audience and to the artists’ desire to rest following the after-hours jams, Festival director Craig Ferguson began experimenting with other options. After three full days of music, mountain weather, excessive reverie and late nights—with Saturday night often reaching an apex of festivation—scheduling Sunday morning was a delicate task.

If the aim of the gospel set was to invoke a uniting spirit, Planet Bluegrass would approach this musical tradition with inclusiveness. Rather than confining the gospel set to a particular type of music, the Festival began to showcase spiritual music traditions from various genres and cultures.

The extraordinary luthier and stringed instrument virtuoso, William Eaton, performed lovely, ethereal Sunday sets for two years. In 1991, the Seldom Scene performed what was probably the closest thing to a formal, traditional bluegrass festival-style gospel set in Telluride’s history.

Then in 1992, Sunday morning rites took a radical turn when Tibetan monks from the Drepung Monastery in Dharamsala, India, blessed the festival site from the hill behind the stage early Sunday morning. Following the ceremony, the monks danced and chanted on stage for two hours, filling the valley with the vibrations of the “awesome voice.” Telluride resident and longtime production staffer Esther White said a few years later, “After the monks were here, the town really changed. I can’t exactly describe it, but it’s different.”

Native American flutist Howard Bad Hand and the Heartbeat Singers opened Sunday morning in 1993. In 1994 a trend was born that continued for several years. During this period gospel singers from the African-American tradition, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Five Blind Boys from Alabama and the Zion Harmonizers among others, provided the spirit of Sunday for Festivarians. In 2003 Festivarians awakened to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Edgar Meyer, Béla Fleck, Mike Marshall and Chris Thile. Michelle Shocked followed, invoking the spirit with her gospel group.

This year gospel legend Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers will open Sunday morning’s festivities. Mavis began performing with her family at age 11. The group, haled as the “first family of gospel,” recorded eight Top 40 hits, including “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again,” which held the number one slot during the early 1970s. Mavis will bring her gospel magic to Telluride, performing traditional songs, as well as the songs of her legendary mentor, Mahalia Jackson.

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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