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You don’t make it 50 years unless you’re doing something right. 30 years ago the Telluride Bluegrass Festival was already considered legendary from the careers launched, the friendships forged, and the moments filed in the region of the brain reserved for only the most cherished of memories. As one of the most forward thinking stages in bluegrass, Telluride has always been an important incubator for the evolution of the art form, a proving ground for the talent that plies it, while still offering a place for the traditionalists to present the music in its purest form.
It’s just a number, but much effort was expended to make sure the 50th installment of the festival was just as memorable as the previous 49, if not more. From the stage backdrop that included a mountain and celestial bodies, to the return of some of the festival’s most legendary living performers—and the showcasing of the present and future as well—all the stops were pulled out for 2023. The festival has never been just about bluegrass. It’s always included critically-acclaimed performers from folk, country, and whatever else that may be completely unexpected, but strangely intuitive to Telluride.
Weather has always been a factor throughout the festival’s 50-year history since it’s at such a high elevation. 2023 was no different. Thursday started off raining off and on, leading into Friday that featured not one, but two festival evacuations due to lightning in the area. Those grousing about the alarmist nature of the policy shut their mouths when a lightning strike hit right on the festival site where people certainly would have been congregated if not for the evacuation, and a massive burst of light and clap of thunder shook the whole town.
Luckily, the only real casualty of the weather was the set of Leftover Salmon who only got to play two songs and never returned to the stage. But aside from an abbreviated set from Sarah Jarosz, and a song or two knocked off of the Bassekou Kouyate/Ngoni Ba set, everyone else soldiered through the rain, sleet, and near freezing temperatures until Saturday afternoon when Sierra Ferrell took the stage and the skies ceased crying for good, revealing a fresh coat of snow on the caps of the picturesque mountains encircling Telluride town (see video).
“Bluegrass” might be in the festival’s name, but over the last few years it has become a haven for up-and-coming country and roots talent too. Thursday saw appearances from Canadian Bella White and West Virginia’s Charles Wesley Godwin. Friday it was Grass Valley, California duo Two Runner opening the show (read review) and receiving a standing ovation, and North Carolina’s Town Mountain taking the stage after (read review). Saturday is when Sierra Farrell performed, and turned in arguably the fest’s most memorable set (read review) . Sunday’s set by solo acoustic guitarist Yasmin Williams received one of the biggest standing ovations all weekend.
But being the 50th anniversary, bluegrass was still the centerpiece, and rendered sentimental by some firsts and lasts. For the 50th, Béla Fleck reunited the Flecktones for the occasion: Victor Wooten, Futureman and all. And of course they define the nexus between bluegrass and jazz, taking both art forms to their apex.
Sam Bush who headlined Saturday night is considered the King of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, but Chris Thile was the event’s most active performer, opening up the festivities on Thursday, then playing two sets with both Nickel Creek and The Punch Brothers respectively. Fiddle player and founding member of The Punch Brothers, Gabe Witcher, played his final two shows with the band at the 50th (read review). The Punch Brothers were formed at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2006.
Another memorable moment came in the form of mainstream country artist Dierks Bentley taking the stage with his dedicated bluegrass band Long Jon made up of elements of Bentley’s touring band, along with Charlie Worsham and others (read review). Dierks is a part-time Telluride resident, and has been a big supporter of the event for years,
Traditions abound at the festival, including throwing marshmallows at Colorado’s own Yonder Mountain String Band. And we’re not just talking about during the first few songs. They were getting pummeled throughout the entire set, despite a request to save the ritual for The Punch Brothers since they had a more worthy occasion for the marshmallow love.
West Virginia was well represented in 2023, with bluegrass legends Peter Rowan and Tim O’Brien both playing sets, along with Charles Wesley Godwin and Sierra Ferrell who just might be #1 and #1A for the next breakout artists in independent country. Both Godwin and Ferrell remarked about how it was the most beautiful place they had ever played. There is no more beautiful setting in music then to Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and the best view is the one from the stage, inspiring the artists and their performances in a way that makes them one of a kind. Godwin won over the crowd especially when he concluded his set with his rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” (read Charles Wesley Godwin review)
A couple of legendary country music women also performed. Many consider Emmylou Harris as the Queen of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and she performed with North Carolina’s Watchhouse (formerly Mandolin Orange) as her backing band. Though it seemed a little curious when first announced, the acoustic approach worked perfect for a bluegrass fest. And anyone wondering if Mary Chapin Carpenter still has it, wonder no more. She turned in one of the more rousing sets of the festival, including performing her handful of ’90s country radio hits that have come back into vogue, and hopefully will have her joining Emmylou in the Country Music Hall of Fame eventually.
2023 also saw the return of the Troubadour competition that looks to find the next great up and comer. Winning the competition was Jackson Emmer, who isn’t just any ol’ songwriter, he’s one whose signature songs all seem to razz on popular country music in some way. This had folks in stitches and finding favor with Emmer all weekend. Coming in third place was Caitlin Cannon, who’s 2020 record The TrashCannon Album received a 9.5 rating here at Saving Country Music (read Caitlin Cannon review). Don’t be surprised if you hear more from both of these artists in the future.
Along with jam grass bands The String Cheese Incident, Greensky Bluegrass, and Sam Bush Band headlining the first three nights, Sunday night saw the return of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant to Telluride, though strangely for the first time together. The set started with selections from the duo’s award-winning albums with an excellent band behind them that included JD McPherson on lead guitar, and Stuart Duncan playing a host of instruments. But the performance really got going when Plant pulled out some Led Zeppelin material like “Gallows Pole,” “Battle of Evermore,” and “When The Levee Breaks.” It did feel more like the Robert Plant Show with an Alison Krauss accompaniment. But it was still one hell of a way to close out the 50th Annual Festival.
About the only head scratcher for some was the booking of Gregory Alan Isakov as the penultimate performer on Sunday. Though nobody would question his artistry, the shoegaze nature of his indie rock style took some of the energy out of the crowd at a time when they needed to rally after four days of festing. But Isakov and his band concluded with a traditional bluegrass song playing around a single mic, and finished strong.
A lot has changed over the years at Telluride. During Sam Bush’s set, he reminisced about some of those changes, including remembering when none of the streets of Telluride weren’t paved, and when important performers first appeared. Aside from the Newport Folk Fest, no festival has as much important history behind it as Telluride. And along with celebrating that history, new stories, new stars, and new legendary moments were made in 2023 that they will hopefully reminisce upon at the 100th.
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All photos by Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos. Sincere apologies to any performers not pictured or mentioned, especially Full Cord and The Infamous Stringdusters who were missed while covering the Workshop stage, and Nickel Creek, whose photos got lost due to a faulty image card.