The ride to bluegrass heaven |

The ride to bluegrass heaven

Joel Stonington
Nickel Creek's Chris Thile invited Sam Bush onstage for a dueling mandolin piece - some of the finest pickin' in the history of the universe. (Joel Stonington/Aspen Times Weekly)

I first heard about the Telluride Bluegrass Festival from a cousin who called me Drool. I didn’t like the nickname but I liked my cousin, Ian, and he was bigger.

“Drool,” he said, “you have to go to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, it’s unbelievable.”I was 12. I’d never been to a concert. But I wanted to go to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival about as much as I had ever wanted anything in my life. He made it sound like heaven.It is.

Set in the San Juan Mountains, right in Telluride’s box canyon, the main stage has some of the best views a musician – like previous performers David Grisman, Ricky Skaggs, Vassar Clements, Willie Nelson, Doc Watson and Emmylou Harris – will ever look at over a sea of 10,000 heads.This year, Telluride ran from June 15 through 18, and featured lead acts such as Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, Nickel Creek, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Tim O’Brien, Neko Case and Barenaked Ladies.We hit the road and arrived at an improvised roadside campsite around 11:30 p.m. on Friday. The next morning we cruised into Telluride, a small town turned festival for one weekend each year. It was sunny and happy. People were walking around with smiles and with a bit of a peaked, tired look. We had a yummy breakfast and went to a music shop to stare at pretty instruments.

The tunes started around noon, so in we went.Five minutes into the festival grounds we passed someone trying to light a bowl with a magnifying glass. Tony Rice and Bryan Sutton, two of the best flatpickers in the universe, were onstage doing their amazing things. But the magnifying glass? That’s true creativity right there. The sun was beaming down and just lying there took some serious energy. Everyone was decked out in their festival gear: water-spraying devices, hats, bikini tops, beer-holder chairs, sun tents, past festival T-shirts, etc.

From there it was just a matter of settling into some of the hottest bluegrass anywhere, slathering on the sunscreen, checking out the tent with nice guitars, going to the Port-A-Potty, eating ice cream, remembering there are amazing musicians onstage and getting up to dance for a bit. That first afternoon we saw John Cowan Band followed by Yonder Mountain String Band, and later, Sam Bush. Yonder pretty much showed everyone up that day. Lead mandolin player, Jeff Austin, just couldn’t help saying, every other song, how psyched he was to be there and how happy they were to be playing the main stage.But Sam Bush is the king of Telluride and pretty much proved that by inviting Peter Rowan onstage at the end of the set, as well as Yonder Mountain String Band, Drew Emmit and Pastor Mustard.

It was one of those awesome jams that makes Telluride famous, where someone invites a ton of good musicians onstage and they all rock out. Also true to Telluride, we slept in the back of a 4Runner that night. It’s just the way it goes at the festival. Either you figure it out early and camp nearby, or you figure it out late and camp far away. If you get there really late then you have your choice of camping in the boonies, in a ditch or in the back of a generous person’s truck. It took about three hours to get the kinks out in the morning. The breakfast burritos were good. And the lineup was sa-weet, starting at 2 p.m. it went: Del McCoury Band, Tim O’Brien Band, Nickel Creek, John Prine and Barenaked Ladies.

Del McCoury sang with his two sons on Father’s day, Tim O’Brien busted out some Celtic tunes, and Nickel Creek had an absurdly sweet rendition of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”Good times, good times.Mostly, though, the afternoon was just about hanging out with good people on a big lawn listening to great music. We talked. We felt a certain amount of jealousy about high-backed chairs. We took a few tours past the free Clif Bar tent. We laughed.

And now it’s one of those wonderful light moments that is quickly receding into the past. If there was any agreement that came out of the weekend, it’s that we’re going all four days next year. Tickets for the 34th annual festival (June 21-24, 2007) go on sale in a few short months, on Nov. 27.

Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is

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