TELLURIDE, Colo. — On several occasions during the first day at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival on Thursday (June 19), I saw this odd-looking fellow walking around. He looked content to be there, and considering the laidback vibe of this festival for the last 35 years, very few people probably noticed him, besides me and the excited girl in the snowboarding shop. He was wearing a colorful Black Sabbath T-shirt, chunky black spectacles and hair that stuck out like an over-brushed Barbie doll. My jaw dropped when it turned out to be Ryan Adams, rocking a new look, not to mention the big stage at the foot of the San Juan Mountains later that night.
Yes, you read that right — the rock ’n’ roll bad boy was headlining a very famous bluegrass festival, but it’s easy to see why he accepted the invitation. (Adams praised the beauty of the state as soon as he walked on stage. At the time, I had my camera pointed at one of his bandmates, thinking to myself, “Wow, Ryan looks good in that hat.”) I can see why musicians love it here, because the stage looks straight out on a mountain range. Plus, there are no other stages in the park, so they have the crowd’s full attention. Unlike other music festivals, there is no constant wandering. You plant yourself wherever there’s enough room for a tarp and make a day of it. What took me so long to finally get here?
Nashville singer-songwriter Darrell Scott opened the festival with a solo acoustic set featuring several new songs, as well as reliable standbys like “With a Memory Like Mine” and “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” (which Travis Tritt turned into a hit). One of his traditional country songs about drinking and cheating, “Too Close to Comfort,” suddenly made me wish Patty Loveless was playing the festival, too, but no such luck. Two up-and-coming bluegrass bands, Cadillac Sky and Uncle Earl, constantly told the audience how overwhelmed, honored and grateful they were to receive an invitation to perform at Telluride this year. Teenage mandolin picker Sarah Jarocz, former teen prodigy Chris Thile and a few songwriters also played way off to the side of the stage during the transitions, keeping the afternoon moving right along.
Folk singer Arlo Guthrie, who talks as much as he sings, made his first appearance at the festival this year as well. His earnest rendition of “Nobody Seems to Care These Days When a Soldier Makes It Home” prompted the guy behind me to say, “Whoa. That’s heavy.” And it was. On the lighter side of things, I saw a guy leap to his feet at the opening notes of the Del McCoury Band. “I’m dancing! Who’s dancing?” he asked, before dashing off to the mosh pit up front. Watching the esteemed, clean-cut bluegrass band through the eyes of certain members of this audience (that is to say, fans of jam bands) shed a whole new light on the McCourys’ musical appeal. In other words, when the band hits its mark, which is pretty much always, it really does feel good to shuffle around in circles. The moment he asked for requests, somebody hollered out for “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” — my kind of crowd. His repertoire is simply astonishing. After being in the music biz for 50 years, McCoury can still play just about any song you shout out.
Since I don’t know much about Ani DiFranco, I strolled through the festival to scrounge up a dinner of Asian dumplings and chilled edamame. I liked hearing DiFranco’s music in the background, though, since she opted for a laid back, acoustic approach and told quite a few stories about herself. With a satisfied stomach, I investigated the vendors on the other side of the field, which mostly offered organic clothing. So far, I have only acquired a big water bottle from local radio station KOTO, a free pair of wool socks from Point 6, a tiny Clif Bar and a few beer cups that we’re encouraged to reuse all weekend. Volunteers are scattered across the park to help you decide whether that trash in your hand is really trash or whether it could be separated into the compost bin or recycle bin.
I have never heard the word “sustainable” so much in my life, and I am duly impressed by the efforts of the festival to reduce the carbon footprint of such a massive undertaking. There are no bottles of water. Instead, you refill your own container with fresh mountain water as often as you want — at no charge. And I have been drinking lots of water, to help me adjust to the high altitude. Back in Nashville, I run three or four days a week. Here, I was out of breath just walking from our lodge to the gondola station. But I will be grateful to a friendly “festivarian” for guiding me to the box office once I got off the gondola from Mountain Village and, more importantly, leading us to the fresh muffins and croissants at the well-known eatery, Baked in Telluride.
At the end of a long first day, I wish Ryan Adams had chosen an acoustic approach with his band, the Cardinals, because I still personally enjoy the vibe of early records like Stranger’s Almanac (from Whiskeytown days), Heartbreaker and Gold. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t listen to his music. However, I like a lot of stuff from Cold Roses as well, so not all was lost. If only I had recognized him earlier in the day, maybe he would have taken requests, too.
The Telluride Bluegrass Festival continues through Sunday (June 22) with a lineup that includes Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, the Frames, Leftover Salmon, Tift Merritt, Punch Brothers, Steep Canyon Rangers, String Cheese Incident and the Swell Season.