Telluride Bluegrass Book: _40 Years of Festivation_

Kiran Herbert on June 19, 2014

Old Crow Medicine Show, Credit: Benko Photographics

Telluride, Colorado has long been considered a sacred place. Town Park, where the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is held each year, is located in a box canyon 9000 feet above the sea, surrounded by mountains and adjacent to a waterfall. For centuries that particular spot has been revered, starting with the Ute Indians, who used to gather there to party, feast, dance, and mingle. ‘Bluegrass,’ as the locals know the festival, has been carrying on that tradition for four decades now.

2nd Annual Festival, Credit: Sam & Arthur Siegel

This year marks the 41st anniversary of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and its promoters are releasing a limited edition commemorative book to revel in how far it’s come. “40 Years of Festivation” is hardbound in Spanish Leather, a 214-page celebration of one particular slice of American history. It’s a gonzo style look at a community brimming with creativity, energy, and a frontier spirit. In it’s essence, it captures a town and a festival that equates ‘home’ for so many.

New Grass Revival, Credit: Benko Photographics

The book’s 350 plus photographs (selects featured here) will draw you in initially, but it’s the essays—by many, including Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan, Del McCoury, Billy Nershi, Vince Herman, Adam Aijala, Tim O’Brien, and Emmylou Harris—that’ll encourage you to read the whole thing. Appropriately, Sam Bush, as the father of the fest, wrote the introduction, and Chris Thile (who’s to play the opening set at this years festival) has the last word.

String Cheese Incident, Credit: Benko Photographics

“I love the word bluegrass. I love bluegrass music,” writes Sam Bush, “[But] those of us who’ve been there all these years know the festival isn’t just bluegrass—never has been. Very few sweat the moniker.” Brian Eyster, the director of communication for Planet Bluegrass, once told me “the word ‘bluegrass’ doesn’t stand on its own.” He continued, “Really the genre is ‘Telluride Bluegrass,’ and that is the genre of that we present with the festival.” In the book it’s the photos—of the Dixie Chicks and David Byrne, of Mumford and Sons and John Fogerty—that really drive that point home.

David Byrne, Credit: Benko Photographics

Year-by-year accounts make up most of the book, and were written by longtime festival MC Pastor Mustard in a hilarious, irreverent style, often in twenty-minute spurts (the best part: the captions add as much as the prose). At it’s heart, “40 Years of Festivation” is a coffee table book, not an archive, but the pages have something for everyone, whether you’ve attended the festival for most of your life, the past few years, or it’s still on your bucket list. The official festival posters alone are works of art worth collecting—never trite, predictable or saccharine—but within the book they serve as anchors, helping to set themes and guide the reader. Throughout the pages you see the main stage grow, yet the landscape remains consistent; one of the most beautiful locales on earth, more dependable than even Sam Bush’s presence.

Sam Bush and Pastor Mustard, Credit: Benko Photographics

Only 5000 copies of the book have been printed, and they go on sale Thursday, June 19 at the Country Store inside the festival grounds for the price of $50 (they’ll be shrink-wrapped to protect against the elements, whether it’s 80 degree heat or some summer snow). As the festival’s 10,000 tickets are long sold-out, it’s a safe bet that these are going to go rather quickly. For those who can’t make it this year, some copies have been set aside and will be sold online at the same day. The book will be a colorful addition to a lineup that includes Ray LaMontagne, Brandi Carlile, Nickle Creek, Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band, Dave Rawlings Machine, the Lone Bellow, Allison Krauss (as part of the Telluride House Band), Greensky Bluegrass, and Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, to name just a few.

“You can have serious friends but you don’t totally know them until you share Telluride with them,” Chris Thile writes towards the end of his essay, and for a lot of Festivarians, that’s irrefutably true. The book offers a way to bring the summer solstice home, to be shared with the people you care most about anytime of year. “It’s the same way most people think of Thanksgiving, only with three more days,” Thile writes of the festival’s attendees, “For us, music is a thick as blood.”

Credit: Benko Photographics