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2018 Telluride Bluegrass Preview

Tim O'Brien on the Telluride Stage. Photo by Benko Photos

Summer solstice means it's Telluride Bluegrass Festival time. This coming Thursday (June 21) at 4:07 a.m. MDT, the sun will have moved as far north as it is going to move, and the longest day of the year will be here. A couple of hours before that, Dierks Bentley and the Travelin’ McCourys will have finished their set at the Mountain Village Conference Center, kicking off the 45th version of Planet Bluegrass’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

I caught up with Planet Bluegrass Vice President of Communications Brian Eyster to talk about the lineup and all things Telluride Bluegrass. There is a lot to cover. Thirty-one acts on the Telluride Town Park stage over four days, plus ten Nightgrass shows in Telluride in addition to that kickoff show in Mountain Village. The last notes will ring out early Monday morning when Punch Brothers close it out at the Sheridan Opera House. Telluride has its regulars, who will be back this year: Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, Peter Rowan, Tim O’Brien, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Chris Thile, who grew up as an artist here and rolls in this year with four billed appearances – a solo show, two Punch Brothers sets, and a special live broadcast of his radio show, Live From Here. Many other alums will be there in 2018: Leftover Salmon is back, as are The Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass, Emmylou Harris, I’m With Her, Del McCoury, and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Eyster and I started our conversation with a new name, at least to me: The War and Treaty. They are slotted for Sunday’s “gospel set.” As great as the evenings at Telluride can be, 10:45 Sunday morning is often a festival highlight. The War and Treaty surfaced at the 2017 Americana Music Festival when they were asked to fill in for Buddy Miller, who wasn’t feeling well. Rolling Stone said they were one of the best things they saw that year, describing their music as “mixing primitive blues, R&B and gospel-style shouting.”

“Their name first came up from Abigail Washburn," Eyster recalls. "She said, ‘You ought to check these guys out, they’d be a great Telluride Bluegrass set.’ And then we started hearing about them everywhere. People who went on the Cayamo cruise said that every set they played the audience size doubled.” The War and Treaty are Michael and Tanya Trotter, and they bring an interesting backstory to the stage. She started singing and writing at age 13; he was discovered while serving his country in the Middle East. “It’s such a good story of being in the Middle East writing songs for fallen comrades, playing in a war zone," Eyster says. "Really intense and that echoes throughout all their music, that intense passion. They’re going to be a wonderful surprise for Festivarians and a band that won’t be a surprise much longer.”

Yonder Mountain String Band has played Telluride for almost 20 years, and their standard time slot is late Saturday afternoon. This year they’re moving to Sunday afternoon to make room for Live From Here’s broadcast on Saturday. More on Live From Here later, but I had to ask Eyster about the marshmallows: Will they move to Sunday? For the last several years, bags of marshmallows have magically appeared during the Yonder set, and the air is filled with those white puffs of sweetness. Eyster’s hoping not. “I think that, at this point, if the marshmallows went away … it was really fun for a few years, I’d love to see a new tradition grow up surrounding Yonder Mountain String Band. It’s fun for some people in the crowd, it’s a headache for the stage crew and I don’t know if everybody in the band loves the idea of this going on throughout their set. They’re such great musicians. To some degree maybe it gets to the point where it detracts from that, from their show.” We’ll see about that, Brian. 

After Yonder on Sunday, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band steps onto the stage, then Punch Brothers, and then Sturgill Simpson shuts it down with a four-piece band that, according to various reports, blew the socks off Bonnaroo.

“I know that since last fall, [Sturgill Simpson] was yet again letting his muse take him where it would, and that means a rocking quartet," Eyster says. "Sturgill’s a great guitar player, and he has a lot of freedom in this band to go with it. They’re really tight, but raw, and they build off of everything we all love about Sturgill, the songs and the attitude, cool arrangements. He’s been wanting to play Telluride for a couple of years. We thought we were going to be able to do it last year but it didn’t quite work out with his schedule. I feel like it is working out for the best, because this is going to be a great way to close the festival with this tight rocking quartet.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Sunday’s the end. Thursday’s the beginning. Thursday evening goes like this: I’m With Her, Del McCoury, and Tedeschi Trucks Band. Friday evening has The Infamous Stringdusters, Emmylou Harris, The Telluride House Band (that’s Bush, Fleck, Douglas, Meyer, Sutton, and Duncan), and Greensky Bluegrass. Saturday evening has St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Sam Bush Band, and Leftover Salmon. It’s hard to decide which of the four nights has the best lineup, and who’s the closer. “Yeah, every night it really is going to be fantastic," Eyster assures. "We are really happy with the way it came together, we’re honoring and welcoming back some of these artists that have been so important to the festival for decades as well as bringing in new voices, Tedeschi Trucks, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Sturgill. I think it really all fits together nicely. It covers a lot of musical ground from blues rock to bluegrass, those classic Telluride sounds, it’s going to be a hard year to find a time to wander back to the beer booth.” On our tarp, we take turns making the beer run, so I think we can handle that part. But point taken.

Telluride is a bit different than other festivals because you come in each morning, put the tarp down, and there you are for the day. “The thing about Telluride Bluegrass is it’s a single-stage festival, it’s all about hanging out on the tarp and everybody sharing the common experience rather than running around to different stages where everybody finds their own little moment of magic," Eyster says. "This is a shared communal magic that is kind of unusual in the festival world these days. It’s something that artists tell us every year that it’s one of the things they love most about the Telluride setup. But it lends itself nicely to these lineups where we can pack three hot bands next to each [who] could all be the closer but everybody gets it, they’re all playing for the full audience and the momentum is kinda building but every one of the sets is really hot. It’s hard to say what’s the headliner cause everybody’s there for the whole thing.”

Eyster and I have done the pre-game talk in prior years, and I always ask him the same question: Who’s the new artist I have to see? This year he tripled down: “The first three acts on Friday. The Maes, Frigg, Phoebe Hunt and the Gatherers. All three of those, this is by far their biggest gig ever in the United States. Two of them are coming from a long way away, Australia and Finland. Those are the three that I cannot wait to see on that stage. We had the Maes here in Lyons last summer, it’s just going to be a beautiful way to start the Friday. The two sisters in the Maes grew up in one of the first families of Australian folk music, and the community singing tradition. Harmonizing is something they’ve been doing since birth. It’s wonderful what they do as a trio with a wonderful cellist. And they’ll be followed by this wall of sound, this intense Nordic fiddle music of Frigg, there are four fiddlers on the front line of this band. No drums or anything electric. It’s just awesome what they do. There are definitely Americana elements, but there’s just enough of a twist that you know you’re not listening to a band from America. The whole thing just has this really cool drive to it. I can’t wait. Phoebe Hunt and the Gatherers are led by Phoebe, who’s a wonderful singer-songwriter, but then the band is just stunningly virtuosic. Dominick Leslie, the mandolin player, grew up going to the Planet Bluegrass festivals, started going to the Rockygrass Academy when he was a kid. This is a dream come true for him, and for everyone in the band. This is song-driven music, but there are some swing elements, [as well as] jamgrass, folky singer-songwriter, and they imbue it all with virtuosity. Those would be my picks for three bands that people probably haven’t heard of.”

Planet Bluegrass is always pushing the envelope, taking risks, and expanding the already expansive genre that is Telluride Bluegrass. That’s happening again this year (Frigg seems like a great example), though the most remarkable twist is the decision to bring Live From Here to the Town Park stage for a live broadcast on Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. Mountain Time. This is unprecedented programming for the festival, and for Live From Here. And to some degree it’s about a Favorite Son who wants to celebrate Telluride in Telluride. “I saw the show in Denver two years ago," Eyster says, "and the whole opening monologue was about Telluride Bluegrass and Chris’ introduction to Colorado. You could tell how important the festival is to him, and to the way he looks at music. I think that’s what he wants to share with this live broadcast, that Telluride represents the breadth of music, and that there can be people out there who can be as excited by Bach partitas as [they are about] classic soul and bluegrass. For him, Strength in Numbers was a real eye opener when he first saw them in ’93, I think, when Nickel Creek played the Family Tent. I think he wants to reflect all that back to the broader world and show them this magical place called Telluride.”

Those who know Live From Here know that part of the subject of the show will be Telluride itself. “They’re spending the whole week in Telluride, and they’ll be writing spoken word pieces, the radio drama and comedy pieces that they fit in there as well, and live performances, all kinds of special guests," Eyster says. "They put they whole thing together within a couple days before it and I think the writing will reflect the culture and traditions of the festival out in Festivarian Nation as well as from Chris’ perspective as a musician who plays the festival.”

It's no small thing to do this. The festival has its own production crew, and generally takes care of that for most performers, but when you roll in with a two-hour radio broadcast that means a lot of people. “It’s a huge crew," Eyster explains. "There are technical folks and there’s a whole crew of writers and the whole broadcast team. It’s a huge production, but the idea of the show is that they do take it out on the road and they do it in theaters and venues as an ‘evening with’ kind of thing, but to do it like this where they have one hour to go from Peter Rowan to live radio broadcast, that’s a big undertaking. But, boy, that’s a team of professionals. Having dealt with them now for the past year, they’re definitely consummate professionals. We can’t wait to see what they have up there on the show, but it’ll be fun for everybody.”

Live From Here will feature St. Paul and the Broken Bones, I’m With Her, Punch Brothers, and probably others from the Telluride lineup. For those who can’t make the festival, here’s a list of radio stations that carry the show. And for the rest of the festival, old faithful KOTO broadcasts most of the sets as well as interviews with artists. You can stream that online if you’re outside the KOTO listening area.

When a festival hits 45, it can look back on acts that were created on its stages. I’m With Her certainly fits in that category. Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan played their first set together at a Punch Brothers Nightgrass show about four or five years ago, and now they are, well, an Americana supergroup? “They’ve done such a great job of taking their time," Eyster says. "[Their Nightgrass debut] got them thinking about trying to pursue this as more than just a one-off. They came out to Rockygrass the next year. That was fantastic. [Planet Bluegrass President] Craig Ferguson said that was his favorite musical set maybe of the entire summer. But the thing that was cool is rather than just going out and recording a record right away, they took a couple of years, cleared their schedules so that they could really make this their focus. [They were] thinking about repertoire and arrangements and dynamics between the three of them. They’ve built it into something that’s really more than a supergroup. It’s so clichéd to say it’s more than the sum of its parts but that was really their vision from the very beginning. They wanted to be a band, and showcase their three talents and how those talents lift each other.”

I’m With Her not only formed itself at Telluride, but its members each have histories there well before they came together. And they represent a generation of younger artists who are committed to this kind of music. Sam Bush came to this festival its second year, and has been coming back ever since. Del McCoury played with Bill Monroe, and is regularly at the festival. I asked Eyster about that next generation, particularly with regard to the women of I’m With Her and Chris Thile: “Yes, them, and then even younger, like the Billy Strings generation. Billy’s in his early to mid-20s and, boy, that is the future of this music. And there are artists like him still in middle school and high school that are coming to the Rockygrass Academy that are right behind them. And they are pushing each other. The younger generations are so respectful of, and always feel like there are things that they can and want to learn from the Sam Bushes and the Del McCourys. At the same time they’re pushing Sam and Del, and those guys love to invite [the younger guys] up to play on stage. I can’t think of a stronger genre in music than this Telluride Bluegrass Big Tent in terms of the power of the musicianship and excitement from the fans.”

Well said. Now I've got to go buy a tarp, and some sunscreen. The sun's a lot closer this time of year.