To Hell You Ride Bluegrass Festival
By Natalie Hamingson
The Telluride Bluegrass and Country Music Festival has been taking place in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains for the past 35 years. Eamon McLoughlin, violinist and cellist for The Greencards, described Telluride as, “The jewel in the crown of festivals.” While I’ve never considered myself a bluegrass fan, I couldn’t pass up a free ticket to a festival that included David Byrne and Elvis Costello. While my experience with Telluride did not convert me to the genre of bluegrass, or make me agree with McLoughlin, the scenery and a few standout performances made the trip to Colorado worthwhile.
Telluride’s name is actually short for “To Hell You Ride,” which one can only understand after 7 hours of riding in a cramped van on the nauseatingly steep roads from Denver into the town. Despite the treacherous roads, the surrounding view of mountains and rivers is breathtaking, and not just because the town is at an altitude of 12,000 feet.
The festival held true to their proud claim of being green, as all waste was strictly recycled or composted, and attendees were encouraged to bring refillable containers for free water at the fountains.
After the security check of our bags that was less thorough than the inspections of our trash by festival volunteers inside, we headed into the crowd of North Face jackets to catch reggae influenced country singer Zack Brown. Brown was the first to feature a twangy cover of “One Love” and a guest appearance by dobro player and Bluegrass Festival legend Jerry Douglas.
David Byrne closed the first evening with a tremendous, but very un-Bluegrass performance that included Talking Heads hits like “Once in a Lifetime,” and a group of white-suited interpretive dancers.
One of Telluride’s many traditions is the “running of the tarps.” In order to secure a prime viewing location each day, ticket holders line up as early as the night before to find a spot for their tarp when the festival gates open each morning. Numbers that are handed out before dawn determines the order of runners, and today I volunteered to get up before dawn with the group that would get our cards marking our spot in line. After two hours of waiting on the street under a frost covered sleeping bag, we received our numbers at 6 a.m.. Luckily, belonging to a group of nine meant we were able to get someone else to do the running when gates opened.
Unfortunately, coordinating a group of so many people also means it takes a bit longer to leave the house in the morning, so I was only able to catch the last three songs of The Greencards’ afternoon set.
McLoughlin articulated the tone of Bluegrass perfectly when I asked him what the appeal of the genre was. “Thematically…it’s a sense of loss and longing,” he said. While I have no complaints about the musicianship I witnessed, at times the music’s somber tone had a lullabye-like effect on me. This was not the case with The Greencards, however, who had couples dancing in the walkways during their last jam with festival cofounder Sam “The King” Bush.
Just before leaving the festival grounds for dinner, I was able to catch the first three songs by Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis, including a “love song” called “When Jack Killed Mom.” I’ve never had much of an opinion either way about Lewis’s music, but her set may have performance may have been my favorite, simply because it was a massive relief to hear the sound of loud electric guitars.
Elvis Costello ended the second night with a set sounding as good, if not better, than he sounds on record, and featuring cameos from Emmylou Harris and Jenny Lewis. He appropriately closed with what could’ve been the crowd’s theme song, “Peace, Love and Understanding.”
We were rained out during the day, so we did not arrive on site until 9 pm, just in time to ring in the Summer Solstice (which the festival is scheduled around each year) with Gaelic Storm You may know this Irish band from the 3rd class party scene in “Titanic.” As the solstice officially began at 11: 45 p.m., the band held a sing-along to the chorus of their song “Me and the Moon.”
By now I was antsy to get off the tarp, so I heard most of the day’s acts from Telluride’s streets as I browsed the row of pricey boutiques on the town’s main street.
Emmylou Harris was the last act I caught before I bid the festival farewell. While the legendary voice was inarguably beautiful, the energy was a little too dull for someone already burned out on bluegrass.