Sam Bush again leads pilgrimage to Telluride
Sam Bush, the King of Telluride, has been onstage at every single Telluride Bluegrass Festival since the second annual, in 1975.”We pull in at 4 a.m., there’s not a light anywhere,” said Bush, reminiscing about that first night 32 years ago, when he arrived in Telluride. “We finally found the hotel. Main street wasn’t paved back then. There was nothing but outlaws and trust-funders. Now it’s a family town. Back then, it was so tiny you wouldn’t believe it.”Bush was just about 20 years old when he and bandmates Courtney Johnson, Ebo Walker and Curtis Burch formed New Grass Revival in 1971. John Cowan soon joined up, and their fusion of bluegrass, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and soul found crowds of eager listeners.”We walked in at 4 a.m., there were four keys laying on the desk, a note said ‘hey newgrass guys, welcome to Telluride,'” said Bush, talking about that first night. “We made friends that are still friends, right down to merchants in town that we’ve all known for years. It feels like getting to your summer home for a week.”Hailing from Bowling Green, Ky., Bush was used to audiences that wanted old-timey music, traditional sounds and less funky stuff. “In the Southeast, certain audiences would look up and say, ‘here are the hippy guys,'” said Bush. “[At Telluride] we were free to experiment.”The first of the now-legendary Telluride Bluegrass Festivals was a one-day event modeled in part after a Fourth of July celebration. It was held on July 6, 1974.
On June 27-28, 1975, the now two-day festival featured the Ophelia Swing Band (with Tim O’Brien, Dan Sadowsky, Washboard Chaz), Magic Music, Liberty and New Grass Revival. “We knew immediately when we played, here was an audience that was different,” said Bush. “They were ready for anything, ready for any kind of music.”Telluride probably grew more by word-of-mouth than anything else. Of course, not everything about coming to Colorado was easy for musicians. “When you’re not from Colorado, Telluride can be a challenging place to play,” said Bush. “There are times you think you’ll collapse because of lack of air. It can be a challenge. I’ve seen great singers come to Tellride and not be able to get enough air. I’m used to it. I bring layers. I’ve been playing outdoor festivals for 36 years now. Bring ponchos, rain boots, fleece layers, you may need them.”Set high in the San Juan Mountains right in a box canyon, the main stage can get chilly, but it has some of the best views a musician will ever see while picking on a guitar or mandolin. “We started telling our friends, John Hartford, Peter Rowan,” said Sam Bush. “You’re not going to believe this.”And word spread. The fourth annual festival went up to three days and by the mid-’80s the likes of David Grisman, Ricky Skaggs, Vassar Clements, Willie Nelson, Doc Watson and Emmylou Harris had graced the stage.
This year, Telluride runs Thursday through Sunday, June 15-18, and features acts such as Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, Nickel Creek, Bla Fleck and the Flecktones, Tim O’Brien, Neko Case and Barenaked Ladies.The festival attracts the musicians as much as it does the audience. For instance, this year, a few of the bands had to decide between Telluride and Bonaroo, a festival with crowds numbering over 100,000. “We have to miss out on Bonarroo this year,” said Jeff Austin, the mandolin player for Yonder Mountain String Band. “They had good offers. Like maybe we could fly you out and then you can go back. But you know how hard it is to contemplate leaving Telluride. Telluride is family.”Yonder Mountain has just been there long enough to be part of the family (six years and running). At Telluride everyone gets onstage with everyone else and rocks out for a bit. The clubs are packed every night, and it’s always a crapshoot figuring out who will turn up to play with someone else. “I need to look at the schedule and see who all is coming,” said Bush. “If you’re standing around ready to jam, someone’ll ask you. I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up playing some with them.”All that jamming leads to some damn good music. Bush even released an album in 2000 of songs played with Fleck, Cowan, Jon Randall, Darrell Scott, Jerry Douglas and others, during various Telluride festivals.
His latest release, “Laps in Seven,” out on June 13, also includes guest appearances by folks such as Harris, O’Brien, Buddy Miller, Jean-Luc Ponty and Shaun Murphy of Little Feat. “All of those people, we’ve all jammed at Telluride,” said Bush. “In Tim’s case, that’s where we actually met.””Laps in Seven,” is a mix of bluegrass, country, some serious rocking out, jazz influences and other goodies tossed in. It gives a good idea of what makes seeing Sam Bush live so damn good.First it’s traditional bluegrass, and then suddenly he’s off in some other world, may as well be the local country station, and then he’s back just as quickly. He might grab his electric mandolin and use the slide, or possibly he’ll decide to fiddle for a while, it’s anyone’s best guess. And he’s bringing his funk to the Roaring Fork Valley at the end of August for the last of the Snowmass Free Summer Concert Series, on Aug. 24. Bush said he knows the area and likes coming up here.”We did bars in the ’70s and a show with Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall, about five years ago,” he said. “The Wheeler Opera House is a wonderful place to play. We were part of the Snowmass jazz festival a couple of years ago. It was the year Neil Young did his show up there. I’ve been very fortunate to come to Aspen on occasion.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
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