Competitions at Telluride 2013

From the daily lineup of workshop style sets in the town’s Elks Park, to the tweener song performances throughout the main stage band turnovers, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is vibrant with outlets to fill all your bluegrass cravings. Two of these additional activities to the festival have grown over the years, both in their popularity with the audiences, and in their prominence within the acoustic music world. I’m speaking of the Band Contest and the Troubadour Contest.

I was honored to have the role as a judge in the preliminary round of the Band Contest this year and, though it may sound cliché, the competition was rich with talent. To help make the difficult decision of who will be the finalist to move on to the final round on the main stage, three judges use scoring sheets with stage presence, vocals, instrumentals, and material selection all factored through the playing of a slow vocal song, a fast vocal song, and an instrumental.

The scores are tallied and a private discussion between the judges is had in order to mull over how the numerical ordering pairs up – or differs – with the general feel we have for the groups. Though this is a private discussion, and much is on the line for bands that have traveled far, practiced diligently, and wish dearly to have the Band Contest feather in their cap, I can say that in my experience, the final bands have never differed from the combined scoring totals of the judges.

I have judged the Rockygrass Band Contest several times and this was my first judging Telluride. Each time, three people with no knowledge of the bands beforehand have come to the same conclusions as to who should play in the main stage finals. I’ve found my fellow judges to be honest, open, and knowledgeable to the utmost.

If you’re a band considering entering either the Rockygrass or Telluride Band Contest, here is my advice as a multiple year judge:

  1. Command the single mic. The stage and the audience are vast in these contests and taking a couple steps toward the mic for your solos and vocal parts won’t cut through that mountain air. Make the sound powerful and make your stage presence recognized by knowing well the dynamics of a single mic.
  2. Don’t overly promote yourself. I admit that this is my personal opinion and not mentioned in any Planet Bluegrass Band Contest materials. It bothers me when a band talks about having a CD available for sale, or pitching an upcoming show. This isn’t your time to sell your wares; this is your time to shine through your music.
  3. Have a trick up your sleeve and be ready to take a risk. This one can be interpreted a lot of different ways – and as it should – there are a lot of different qualities to music. You will be in this contest with 10 others bands, and if you want to win, there better be something about you that is unique. Whether it’s nailing a three part harmony, or arranging a solo between multiple instrumentalists, these tricks and risks show confidence and when done right, professionalism.
  4. Here’s a real insider recommendation: think about it a year from the Band Contest you’re entering, and discuss that timeline as a band. Go into the contest with the trust that your band will be a group of friends and collaborators, possibly even a touring act, a year from when you’re entering. In the back of the judges’ minds they know that the overall winner is a band that will be on the festival’s main stage one year out from the contest, and they want a group that will live up to the well-deserved reputations of the festivals and the traditions that have grown over decades of top notch performances. But no pressure…

In the 2013 Telluride Band Contest it was wonderful to see the strong female vocalists within several bands, including those making it to the final round. Congratulations to Front Country out of San Francisco for winning the 2013 Band Contest!

I’ve been interested in the Troubadour Contest over the years, but I’ve always observed it from a distance. When it comes to original songwriting, my personal interests and knowledge have focused on bluegrass music: Benny “Burle” Galloway with Yonder Mountain String Band, Shawn Camp’s work with The Del McCoury Band (and others), Jeremy Garrett and Jon Weisberger with the Infamous Stringdusters, and the stellar writing channeled through bands such as Blue Highway, Lonesome River Band, and Alison Krauss and Union Station. When it comes to a single guitar and a voice my knowledge level falls sharply.

It’s for this reason that I wanted to embrace the Telluride Troubadour Contest more so this year. I was fortunate in that I could gleam a bit of insight from one of the finalists – and overall 2nd place winner – Pete Kartsounes. Pete is a troubadour in every sense of the word; a composer and a performer, a poetic traveler who embraces the people and situations around him as he embraces his trusted guitar.

Pete KartsounesWhen you spend time with Pete Kartsounes you have a sense that he’s observing his surroundings for inspiration for his next song, but also very much a part of the moment with a keen ear and a welcoming personality to help inspire you a bit for your next song. Instead of ego you will find an individual who wishes to spend his time on stage collaborating with his competition. Instead of stress you will find someone who would like to stay up into the wee hours of the festival night, as the early dawn draws near and notes are found and shared.

I find Pete to be the epitome of the Telluride Troubadour Contest. It’s an event that showcases songwriters in the round, opposed to the lone guitar slinger; it’s a gathering of original voices, opposed to a chorus of mundane predictability; and it’s a time to share life experiences through song, opposed to banging out the next paycheck through lyrics of pickup trucks and PBR on a laptop in a Nashville cubical. Read up on Pete and hear his songs – it just might take you to the mountains of Telluride where there’s always a picker to sit by your side.

I had the pleasure of joining Pete Kartsounes and North Carolina guitar picker, Jon Stickley, in the Colorado blue spruce shade of Telluride’s Town Park Campground. Here they are performing Pete’s original song, Love.


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About the Author

David Smith

David Smith has been a bluegrass fan from Virginia, to Colorado, to North Dakota, and back to Colorado. He is a longtime bluegrass DJ, first with Durango, Colorado's KDUR Community Radio, and then with North Dakota's Prairie Public Radio. He and his family recently moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado where he continues his involvement with bluegrass music handling social media for the Durango Bluegrass Meltdown, and writing for Colorado Bluegrass Music Society's Pow'r Pickin' publication.