DENVER — When Zach Tucker reflects on the last five decades of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, he’s struck by the fact that the event’s ethos has largely remained the same. Granted, 27-year-old Tucker, who now serves as the director of operations for production company Planet Bluegrass, didn’t attend the festival in its early years. But he’s gleaned as much hearing the stories from old-timers who still work for and attend the event.
Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which celebrates its 50th anniversary June 15-18, has always been about enjoying great music in one of the most distinct locations in Colorado.
“I get chills every time I crest the hill and come into the valley and see the waterfall at the end,” Tucker said of Telluride, which inhabits a box canyon nestled among 14,000-foot mountain peaks. “It’s the same feeling that hasn’t changed for the last 11 years I’ve made that trek. The first time I rolled in I couldn’t believe that somewhere this beautiful existed in Colorado — or in the world, for that matter.”
Despite its reputation as one of the country’s premiere music gatherings, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival has humble beginnings as a small gathering on a pop-up stage in Town Park. Since that first iteration in 1974 — when it was called the Telluride Bluegrass and Country Festival and tickets cost $2 per person or $5 per family — it’s grown to include some 12,000 attendees and a permanent stage that’s been rebuilt several times to accommodate the ever-popular event.
“Fifty years for a festival is almost unheard of,” Tucker said. “Only a handful have reached that milestone and maybe ever will.”
To celebrate, the festival will host a pop-up museum that chronicles the event throughout the years outside the gates for anyone in town to enjoy, whether they have a ticket or not. Historic posters will also be for sale. Additionally, Planet Bluegrass collaborated with Upslope Brewing Co. on a special beer, an orange blossom-infused wheat ale called FestivAle, that will be served throughout the weekend.
Longtime festivarians and locals agree that when bluegrass reverberates throughout the box canyon, there’s an inescapable majesty that lures them back year after year. That’s no doubt, in part, why Telluride Bluegrass Festival notoriously sells out within minutes of tickets going on sale. Tucker said that tradition dates back to the early 1990s when the festival booked James Taylor to headline.
That feeling is also a draw for bands like 2023 headliner the Sam Bush Band, which has performed at the festival dozens of times over the years. Other big-name acts on this year’s lineup include Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Punch Brothers and Yonder Mountain String Band.
Some even got their start in the festival’s contests for up-and-coming musicians before graduating to the main stage and becoming household names in the music scene. Greensky Bluegrass, which headlines the main stage on Friday night, won the band contest in 2006, while Gregory Alan Isakov, who performs Sunday, won the songwriter contest in 2007, Tucker said.
Durango resident Chris Aaland, who will attend for the 26th time this year, contends the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is more sonically diverse than its brand name suggests. The lineup continually expands to include genres such as rock, jam, gospel and world music, among others.
“It’s bluegrass in name only,” said Aaland, who works at KSUT Public Radio in Ignacio and produces music festivals in Pagosa Springs. “It’s more of a musical appreciation festival. I love that even as an insider they book bands I’ve never heard of and make sure not to miss.”
What truly makes the Telluride Bluegrass Festival iconic — even more than the music — is the community it’s cultivated over the last 50 years, Aaland added. His first event in 1997 was the second date that he and his now-wife shared, and they’ve been going every year since — except for in 2020 when the festival was canceled due to COVID-19. They now lodge with another couple they met in the overnight line preceding the Thursday morning tarp run, when festivarians literally sprint to claim their spot in front of the stage.
Aaland’s favorite tradition, however, is a Sunday morning potluck. Started as just a few couples who decided to get fancy with their food during the morning’s music, which is typically gospel, the brunch now includes more than 40 people who bring dishes to match a theme that changes each year. In 2023, the theme is anything to do with crab.
“Telluride’s the magic,” Aaland said. “Half my friends in the world I met on the tarp, and what a great way to go through life.”
Visual artist William Matthews tries to capture that magic every time he designs a poster for Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He estimates he’s crafted more than two dozen designs since the 1980s, though he doesn’t know the exact count. And while it’s often a challenge to find a fresh angle, for the 50th anniversary Matthews knew he wanted to focus on the setting — “the thing that makes the fest unique,” he said.
The poster features a dreamy and colorful landscape of the valley without any development — no mining-era buildings or modern-day, multimillion-dollar mansions. Instead, Matthews tried to make the scenery “operatic” using just its natural elements.