Sam Bush Reigns as King of Telluride Bluegrass Festival

Solomon Burke, the Frames, Tift Merritt, Paolo Nutini Among the Weekend's Highlights

TELLURIDE, Colo. — It’s no wonder Sam Bush is considered the King of Telluride. The town’s famous bluegrass festival turned 35 this weekend, and Bush has played it 34 times. His Highness surrounded himself with a royal court of instrumentalist all-stars late Sunday night (June 22), with Dobro player Jerry Douglas, guitarist Bryan Sutton, bassist Edgar Meyer, fiddler Luke Bulla and banjo player Béla Fleck all at his side. I’ve rarely seen a man so radiant. Plus, playful songs like “Same Old Moon” get everybody in the groove, even when you’re not actually on the stage.

On Saturday night (June 21), during his official set, he jammed for more than two hours, eventually ripping through a bluegrass rendition of “Maneater” with Hall & Oates’ John Oates. I wish I had jotted down the songs from the exuberant medley at the end of the night, all wrapped up in reggae rhythms, but I was too busy dancing. It’s true that my hippie dance looks like I’m treading water — but without the water. However, something about his Saturday night set put me in motion. And that something might have been the contact high generously provided by my festivarian neighbors. Where else will you see someone take out his dentures before taking a hit?

Along with a stable of reliable performers, the festival takes pride in bringing in fresh faces. The Frames, one of the biggest rock bands in Ireland, brought Saturday night to a close with a dramatic, eloquent set. They’re not even close to bluegrass, but fiddler Colm Mac Con Iomaire is undoubtedly one of the most expressive instrumentalists I’ve ever heard. Earlier that day, after recovering from an altitude adjustment, lead singer Glen Hansard packed Elk Park in downtown Telluride for a songwriter session. Fans of the movie Once hung on every note, especially when he was joined by Marketa Irglova for their Oscar-winning song, “Falling Slowly.” I savored every second. And you better believe I was in the first row Sunday evening when they shared their invigorating music on the main stage as the sun gently faded.

On Sunday morning, my friend and I strolled into the park and could hear Solomon Burke in the distance. As I walked up to the photo pit, the R&B legend was barreling through “This Little Light of Mine.” It felt just like an altar call. Right after that, his emotional performance of Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain” complemented the majestic scenery perfectly. Now that’s the way to wake up on a Sunday morning.

About halfway through the Duhks’ energetic show, the audience was suddenly pelted with soft, small snowballs from above. I personally got gobsmacked right in the eye. With a new album coming in August, featuring a new lead singer, the Duhks are not afraid to mix up bluegrass, Cajun and Afro-beat influences while living comfortably on the periphery of acoustic music. They share that space with the Punch Brothers, a relatively new ensemble featuring Chris Thile, best known for his mandolin work as a member of Nickel Creek. Those five guys launched their set with “The 11th Reel” and a double-time version of a Gillian Welch song, “Wayside (Back in Time),” then slowed the tempo for a more experimental approach to acoustic music.

Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt made her Telluride debut on Saturday afternoon (June 21), confessing to the audience that she wanted to cancel the rest of her tour and play the festival every day. She balanced songs from all three of her albums, gracefully dipping into country music, soul and Americana territory. Jerry Douglas is equally diverse, which makes him a key player in Alison Krauss & Union Station. He previewed several songs from a solo album that’s coming in August. I swear, sometimes that Dobro talks. Most instrumental bluegrass works fine as background music, but when Douglas plays, the exquisite arrangements demand your attention.

The winner of the Telluride Troubadour contest, Nathan Moore, had a hard act to follow. “I’m so honored and freaked out,” he said during his brief set on the main stage. The quietly appreciative audience near the front of the stage turned extremely enthusiastic when Yonder Mountain String Band came on. Always a crowd favorite, they kicked off their set with “Looking Back Over My Shoulder,” a noteworthy nod to their 10th Telluride appearance.

The artist lineup on Friday (June 19) was splattered all over the musical map. The Emmitt-Nershi Band (Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon and Billy Nershi of String Cheese Incident) blended their jam band and bluegrass influences for a pleasing set that included a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” After that, Peter Rowan lent a mystical, Mexican influence to his music, immediately satisfying his fans with “Midnight Moonlight” and “Panama Red.” Scottish singer-songwriter Paolo Nutini stepped on stage at the precise moment of summer solstice and promptly won over the audience in his first live show of the year. At just 21 years old, he blended dance, reggae, pop and country into his lively set. Bonus points for bringing a trumpet player to a bluegrass festival. The younger folks especially enjoyed Nutini’s cover of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Not exactly Dylan, but …

Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby found the common ground between Bill Monroe’s groundbreaking bluegrass and Hornsby’s classic pop tunes. Listening closely to the words of “The Way It Is,” it’s hard to find more suitable lyrics for a festival rooted in folk music. Just before they took the stage, the festival organizers were honored by many of the musicians who have made Telluride a perennial success, including Del McCoury, Bush, Douglas, Meyer and Thile. A professional bluegrass musician for 50 years now, McCoury declared that Telluride is simply the best festival out there. The fans who have returned for the better part of 35 years would have to agree.

Read about the first day of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

View photos from the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.