Peeks at the 50th Telluride Bluegrass Festival – Day One

Sam Bush with Dierks Bentley at Telluride 50th – photo by Benko Photographics

Throngs of the bluegrass faithful trekked to the striking San Juan Mountains to get a hug from the beautiful box canyon of Telluride, Colorado, as they annually do for the Summer Solstice, and to witness the best bluegrass musicianship on the planet. This time for the 50th anniversary of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

50 years. Just think that through for a minute. 50 years! Absolutely legendary! And, a testament to this fabulous genre of music that not only fills your ears, hearts, and souls with all things good, but has also formed a welcoming community of fans that truly is family — which feels especially true after making your way to join the others beneath the majestic Bridal Veil Falls.

Below are some lil’ peeks into TBF50, Day One.  

Anticipation and Elation

The giddiness started about eight months prior when festivarians throughout the land stopped whatever they were doing to log into the ticket lottery and buy out the TBF50 in no time flat. We knew Planet Bluegrass would deliver as it always does: bringing us the virtuosos, showcasing top new talent, and ensuring that every corner of the fest is filled with magic. 

Weeks prior, folks began to roll in from across the nation to convert Town Park campground into a festival unto itself. They established an entire tent tarp village replete with stoves, bars, colorful flags, traditions, mysterious concoctions (talking to you, Crunchy Frog!), and some of the happiest people on Earth. Those who live in the woods leading up to the festival’s kickoff have a distinct positive and contagious vibe. They have been an integral part of creating the TBF uniqueness and they welcome all fellow festival-goers with hearty hellos and calls of “Festivaaal.” Bear hugs between festival family members, who have not seen each other since a year or several years prior in the canyon. The party has started, but the festival gate opens many days hence.

Excitement is tangible as we step into the Gondola to fly through the air to Firstgrass, TBF’s preamble, which is set in a natural amphitheater with mountains so close you could touch them. Bella White serenaded us with an angelic voice before Town Mountain threw down for a hoedown of honky-tonk, fastgrass, and country. The elated dancing herd gratefully danced their way off to the first Nightgrass of TBF50: Leftover Salmon!

And So, It (Officially) Begins

Entertainer extraordinaire Chris Thile kicked off TBF50 for the crowds on the freshly run tarps. We soaked in the sweet, sweet sounds of his mandolin echoing off those San Juans. We were swept away with the stories he told, the lyrics he sang, and his uber positive, joyous energy. He gifted us multiple renditions of beautiful Bach, and a re-imagined, spot-on number titled Magic is Alive. He also took on us on an epic musical journey of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, promising us that he, himself, is not one of the demons discussed in the song. We know, Chris. Far from it! You are the angel that welcomed us with open arms to the epic journey that will be TBF50. I mean, you actually made it hail, Thile, with your beautiful set.

Within seconds, the festivarians had slickers and ponchos donned, some smart ones taking shelter in the beer tent — none of them lost focus on the single man with his mandolin standing center on the best stage in the world. 

Wait! Long Jon?

What a tight, hot, thoroughly enjoyable set from Long Jon, Dierks Bentley’s bluegrass project. He, himself, a mega country star, now bitten hard by the bluegrass bug, and his crew of hot grassers, including Charles Worsham and Ben Helson, just killed it with some blistering picking.  People were up and dancing from the first few notes; but their jaws on their rain-puddled tarps. Goosebumps galore as he sang us Sun Sets in Colorado, with that apt line: “So won’t you come out here with me and chase this Rocky Mountain freedom.”

He welcomed his pals Ronnie McCoury and Jason Carter on stage for a ripping fiddling of Fire on the Mountain, and then Midnight Flyer. Dierks could not have been more fun, so personal and so hilarious. Cleverly playing on his third-place spot on the festival line-up, he joked that he beat out bluegrass legends Del McCoury and even Sam Bush in the line-up order before being the first one to welcome Sam to the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage for a fabulous Eight More Miles to Louisville with Anders Beck on dobro. Long Jon closed with an amazing rendition of Freeborn Man. The set was a festival unto itself. The barn has burned down and it was only 2:00 p.m., Day One.

The Tones Take Telluride

Oh to have the sounds of Béla Fleck’s Deering Crossfire ricocheting off the Telluride box canyon walls and striking us deep in our souls again! The jolt to living the lucky life kicked in for a fabulous set with our favorite otherworldly, genius musicians taking us to outer space and back to paradise. We were shown once again how incredible the Flecktones are. Béla and the boys treated us to a spectrum of treasured tunes, ripping solos, and laying down the hippest grooves on long-time fan favorites, Blu-bop and Sex in a Pan, and the newer impossibly fast Flecktones’ works Life in Eleven and Sweet Pomegranates

Béla also gifted us with a medley of Gershwin tunes before dropping into a spectacular Sunset Road. They closed with a perfectly funky Sinister Minister, with all in the crowd grooving to the beat with ear-to-ear grins. Howard’s jaw-dropping harmonica playing, Victor’s bass-slapping and twirling, and Futch’s drumitar vibing together with Béla’s perfect picking is the stuff of sheer magic. We are looking forward to our next cosmic ride!

The One and Only Del with an Only at Telluride Moment

Just seeing the legend that is Del McCoury standing center stage before the aspen-covered mountains was breathtaking enough. He could have simply strummed a couple chords and we would have been fully blessed  But, of course, instead, he picked flawlessly and sang in his beautiful high lonesome voice for all to hear. 

And, he spent a large portion of his set with his super talented family band taking song requests! Just amazing and too much fun.

Late night, a sight to see happened before our very eyes, an only in Telluride moment: Del McCoury joined The String Cheese Incident, who had just been jamming out with their joyous tunes, to sing I Saw The Light. What? Just too good! Friends grinned to each other: can you believe Del is playing with String Cheese? Can you believe String Cheese is singing I Saw the Light? Nothing short of a miracle — a wonderfully enjoyable miracle.

We saw the light in that moment – and we are the lucky ones: celebrating traditional, progressive, and all in between at TBF50. And, it is only Day One.

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About the Author

Jen Hughes

Jen Hughes is a devoted bluegrass enthusiast. An Upstate New York native who resides in Washington, D.C., Jen attends shows in and around the Nation’s capital, a bluegrass haven. She also makes the trek to as many festivals as possible each year. The sweet sounds of New Grass Revival took hold of her in high school and she has studied up on the genre backwards and forwards since then. Her hope is to get even more people hooked as she is on bluegrass music and its extraordinary artists and community.