Telluride Bluegrass: “40 Years of Festivation”

Telluride Bluegrass: “40 Years of Festivation”

Dan Sadowsky, Telluride, 2013 Clint Viebrock photo

Dan Sadowsky, Telluride, 2013
Clint Viebrock photo


Now 41 years ago, as the story goes, Telluride musicians John “Picker” Herndon, Bruce Lites, J.B. Mateotti, Kooster McAllister and Fred Shellman, collectively known as “Fall Creek,” played during the town’s Fourth of July celebration. After returning from the Third Annual Walnut Valley Festival and the national picking championships in Winfield, Kansas, the band made what turned out to be a momentous decision: Why not find a really good excuse to return to Telluride year after year? Why not start a Bluegrass Festival?

And that in a nutshell is how a tiny town high in the southern Rockies came to host a critically acclaimed outdoor musical party.

Since then, some of the greatest artists in the world have thrilled ever-growing crowds of fans. Rain, snow, sleet or hail makes no never mind, Festivarians continue to applaud, steadily and wildly, as bravura musicians smack down sets that were  – and still are – as tender as the night or unpredictable and turbulent as mountain weather.

Sixteen years ago when asked about the influence of Telluride Bluegrass on his career, David Grisman quipped: “I wrote a song called ‘Telluride.’ That should tell you something.”

In the infancy of Telluride Bluegrass, the cribs were still standing in town. There were no real prostitutes, but free love was a beautiful thing. Rumor had it, after the show, the talent headed to a three-day blowout at Dunton Hot Springs (before the facelift). And the party was the stuff of legend. Apparently part of the genius of Bluegrass founder Fred Shellman was understanding how overwhelmingly sexy the natural surroundings in the region really are – the drop-dead beauty of the hills, woods, and mountains. The whole set up was (and is) so darn seductive, everyone was always up for a trip to the ghost town to play on.

When Craig Ferguson and Steve Szymanski took over in 1989, they knew enough not to mess with Shellman’s formula for success. Shellman had started something similar in spirit and format to what former Telluride local, impresario Bill Graham did so well: every act represented the best of the best. There was an element of education in the programming, clearly, connoisseur stuff, but also a bird eye’s view for the newbies on the scene.

Steve Szymanski & Craig Ferguson of Planet Bluegrass

Steve Szymanski & Craig Ferguson of Planet Bluegrass

What then is Telluride Bluegrass?

More than an acoustic string band with a bass, a flat-top guitar played with a pick, a carved-back, carved-top mandolin, a fiddle and a five-string banjo.

More than the legacy of Bill Monroe, whom many remember fronted a band call “Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys” – because they were from Kentucky, bluegrass country. (Hence the name of the genre.)

Trying to pull the demographic hair off the handle “Telluride Bluegrass” just does not cut it. The weekend is not about one genre, however good, or another. It is not just bluegrass. It is jazz, roots, rock or whatever sounds are inspiring everyone who listens to and loves great music.

And so far, so good.

Just how good?

The answer is contained within the leather-bound pages of brand new book, “Telluride Bluegrass Festival: 40 Years of Festivation,” produced by Szymanski with a little help from a lot of his friends. Per Planet Bluegrass marketing honcho Brian Eyster, who edited:

“Our elegantly hardbound collector’s edition book will finally debut Festival weekend. And honestly, it all came together even better than anyone of us ever imagined possible: 350+ photos; essays by Sam Bush, Chris Thile, Bela Fleck, Emmylou Harris, Winston Marshall (of Mumford & Sons) and many more; year-by-year accounts by longtime Festival MC Pastor Mustard, whose writing is irreverent, insightful, colorful, and frequently hilarious, which only makes sense because Pastor has had a unique vantage to watch (and be an essential part of) the festival’s evolution over 40 years: MC for 29 years, musician (whose TBF performing career began at the 2nd Annual), and as a close personal friend of festival artists and staff. I really believe that with Pastor’s gonzo narrative and the gorgeous design (led by Willy Matthews and the brilliant designer Hans Teensma), ‘Telluride Bluegrass Festival: 40 Years of Festivarian’ stands among the great books on American music festivals. It is big league stuff!”


Pastor Mustard (aka Dan Sadowsky). His synapses explode like overheated popcorn. His signature banter is nonstop, displaying an off-beat, wry wit reminiscent of Tom Robbins. And there appears to be no “off” switch. This artist/philosopher/former MC could best be described as a postmodern superstar on the stage of life. If 15 minutes is all the fame we poor slobs get on this planet, this guy’s meter ran out a long time ago. Or not.

“Overall, I am humbled and happy to be part of this deal. Looking back, some part of me has no idea this much time has passed. Where in the hell  have my good looks gone? Over the past 40 years, you may have noticed the increasing number of sharks circling our event. Clear Channel, for one example, would buy Telluride just to shut it down and make more money at another venue. With a bit of luck, that will never happen. Telluride is run very efficiently by people who’d rather be playing the music. Hopefully, things will stay that way. Our audience is way too sharp not to notice if it all gets too slick.”

“Quite simply, Pastor was the best possible person to write this book. He’s quick with his tongue – witty and wise. His reign as MC transcends the formation and maturation of the festival. And he has a mind like very few people I’ve ever met. As an MC, the man was equal parts funny and controversial, and his writing makes us marvel and giggle through every page,” said Szymanski.

To prove Szymanski’s point, check out Sadowsky in the intro:

“I emceed the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for twenty-nine years. At least I think I did. I didn’t keep a diary or copious notes or any notes. Did anyone? 

“When I’ve been asked how I got the job I always want to drop one of those Bob Dylan answers that leaves the interviewer’s eyes crossed. I was hoboin’ on an empty freight to nowhere and the circus queen with her green machine jumped on and screamed, ‘It’s SNOWin’! How come you LIE about it!’ That’s what accounts for my smirk, anyway. But the truth, insofar as I can remember it, is funny too, just hard to recall. 

“For you see, my children, the mighty Telluride Bluegrass Festival you see today as a well-oiled machine had a wild, sloppy start. I lucked out and caught the first car on the TBF roller coaster. When I got involved with the festival I was fresh and young—definitely not coached for pro-level weirdness. But, like a marionette animated by a March hare, I was willing to dance, oh hell yeah. 

“Fred Shellman still had ties to Boulder so he must have caught my fledgling outfit, The Ophelia Swing Band, performing at some Boulder dive, whereupon he asked us to play the 2nd TBF. Ophelia Swing Band liked Fred instantly. We both were trying something impossible. Ophelia’s mission was to translate big-city horn-band tunes from the early swing era to acoustic string instruments and Fred was by god going to make Telluride the center of some kind of universe, festival-wise. He didn’t sell it like that. We just knew from his crazy enthusiasm. And Fred was the most funniest, most likeable person who ever lied right in your face. By ’78, Ophelia Swing Band went pfft and I moved to Telluride to build cabinets and ply my musical proclivities. Telluride in ’78—Jesus, what a madhouse. Old guys were like, 50, and the ratio of men to women was, oh, 5:1. Everyone seemed to have a split persona, one for day, one for night. So I got a slot Sundays on KOTO and invented Pastor Mustard to host. Good music and renegade humor ensued. The call-ins were conspiratorial, like during the Abuse That Artist© segment, and the artist was always Neil Young. I wanted my radio show to be Steve Allen on shrooms. (Dudes, Steve Allen invented late night TV, okay?) Freddy Shellman heard cassette tape air checks and wisely commissioned me to emcee the festival after his closest friends said he ought to step down because his Freudian slip was showing. As if mine wasn’t. 

“As the festival grew more complex—workshops, in-store appearances, sponsorships, concessions, shuttle buses, tweeners, recycling, and an ever-growing roster—so did the emcee gig become more all-consuming. Fred never censored Pastor Mustard, ever. His gift to me was simple permission. He may have been advised otherwise, but I think I never got too strange for him. I tried.

“I didn’t write jokes, although I did borrow a few. My emcee gig was all very nearly spontaneous, Steve Allen style. (On acid, remember?) If I ran it into the weeds once or twice over the course of three decades, feel free to pursue your options in the courts. Pastor Mustard just tried to make the weekend hang together, do sterling public service, and occasionally make you blow beer out your nose. My major artistic achievement was never once saying, ‘Hey! How’s everybody doin’ out there!’

“Even though it was never a purist’s festival, you’ll hear from many sources that the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is the premier, the top, the best in the world. The stage crew is the best. The PA and soundcrafting is the best. The satellite events—such as the Elks Park workshops and Troubadour presentation—the best. Food, beer, camping, shuttles, volunteer training, family services, medical services—all the best. Backstage, performers are coddled righteously. Get the heck out of here, it is the ding-dang-diddly-dong BEST. But supreme is Planet Bluegrass’ attention to the Festivarian experience. Outta this world. 

“Your happy place may be a beach, or forest, or that one special yoni maybe, that you visit in your mind when the world goes wrong. Mine are the delicious moments when I, me, Pastor Mustard alone and uniquely, could slip between the Telluride audience, expectant as a new bride, and some massive musical talent, up there on stage itching to pitch forward toward their people, and feel the tension coming from both directions. Oh yes, oh yes, it’s so good. It’s the ceremony in ‘Master of Ceremonies.’” 

Pastor Mustard, shooting the talent Clint Viebrock photo

Pastor Mustard, shooting the talent
Clint Viebrock photo

Planet Bluegrass is printing only 5,000 copies of “Telluride Bluegrass Festival: 40 Years of Festivation.”

The limited edition may not go as large as the Bible.

Or “Gone With the Wind.”

Although it will be – gone with the wind that is.

You snooze. You lose.

To hear musing about Bluegrass history and more about The Book, click the “play” button and listen to my chat with the Comic Laureate of Planet Bluegrass, Dan Sadowsky.

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