Nothing Says Summer Like Telluride’s Bluegrass-Fueled “Running Of The Tarps”

Nothing Says Summer Like Telluride’s Bluegrass-Fueled “Running Of The Tarps”

Telluride Bluegrass 2017 hit the ground running on Thursday. Literally… This just in from StephanieWolf of Colorado Public Radio(Also by the by, the music yesterday and today – in particular though not exclusively – Chris Thile by himself; Freddy & Francine (now off to New York to direct off-Broadway musical about The Dead); Tim O’Brien, Dierks Bentley & Travelin’ McCourys, Brandi Carlile, Jeremy Kittel, and today rolls on –  has been primo. In fact, mind-blowing.)

“Festivarians” make a mad dash to claim their spots in the daily tarp run at the 2016 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Corrtesy, Stephanie Wolf/CPR News.

No doubt, you’ve heard of Spain’s “Running of the Bulls,” but what about the “Running of the Tarps”? Because it’s definitely a thing at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

It happens every morning of the four-day bluegrass jam session. Festival goers — aka the festivarians — make a mad dash from the gate to claim their spot for the day in front of the stage. The sound of bagpipes echoing through the small mountain town is the alert that the tarp run is about to commence.

Tarp runners typically pack light, with nothing but the clothes they’re wearing, running shoes on their feet and tarps in hand, waiting for the signal.

When “GO,” booms from a loudspeaker, the gates open and people rush onto the grounds with a bluegrass rendition of the “William Tell Overture” blaring over the PA system. They’ll fling open their tarps, staking claim over small patches of valued land.

A Tarp Is More Than A Placeholder

In that crowd is Scott Russell. The firefighter paramedic recently moved to Garland, Texas from Denver, but has attended the Telluride Bluegrass Festival nearly every summer since 2005. He’ll likely have been up since sunrise to prepare for the run; others camp overnight to get their place in line. When the moment comes, Russell has laser focus on grabbing his “primo spot” near the sound booth with easy access to the aisle.

More so than his strategy, it’s Russell’s tarp that stands out.

“In tarp world, everybody else has the vinyl tarps. They get hot and burn your legs and they get sticky when you spill your beer,” Russell says. “So I got a canvas one, a painter’s canvas. Once it was a blank canvas in front of me, it drove me crazy — it had to have some art on it.”

That was in 2008.

Scott Russell bought a canvas artist tarp in 2008 and festival attendees have been drawing on it ever since.

(Stephanie Wolf/CPR News)

Now, the tarp is covered in drawings — everything from the face of a gorilla to Waldo from the “Where’s Waldo?” books, even a portrait of Russell. He provides a bunch of permanent markers and leaves them out to “let people get creative.” Some images have faded from years of sun exposure.

Friends have contributed to the artwork, Russell says, as have strangers. Sometimes, he doesn’t meet the people who draw on the tape.

“I’ve been gone and come back to see [the art],” he says. “But for a lot of it, [the people who draw] spend time on the tarp, so I get to meet them.”

Those strangers might become friends for the remainder of the four-day festival.

A Long-Standing Tradition And Institution

Dan Sadowsky, who emceed the festival from 1978 to 2006 and is known by regulars as Pastor Mustard, describes the tarp run in the bluegrass festival’s book as “a fury of sinew and skill exploding from the gate, running like a midnight shower rain or express passenger train for the sweet square of real estate that will be theirs for that day only.”

How the 30-plus-year tradition began, is a bit of a mystery.

Craig Ferguson, the president of Planet Bluegrass, the Lyons-based producer behind several Colorado music festivals, including Telluride Bluegrass, certainly can’t recall how it started.

“Although, there [are] legends,” he muses. “The summer solstice topless run has to be my personal favorite” — the bluegrass festival happens every year during the summer solstice…

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