Summer in Telluride Means Bluegrass

37th Telluride Bluegrass Festival June 17-20

Everyone in Telluride has a favorite Bluegrass Festival memory. Maybe it’s because the festival is held on the solstice, when the days are the longest of the whole year and the warm weather coaxes barefoot dancing and other misadventure. I think it’s also because bluegrass is the perfect soundtrack music for summer in Telluride, when the rushing San Miguel River rolls like a banjo, the sun plays on the wildflowers like the delicate plinking of the mandolin and people head high up into the mountains, their footsteps keeping time like the steady “chuk-chuk” of the guitar.
My favorite bluegrass moment came in 2002, back when I was working for KOTO, the local radio station. They broadcast the festival live, so that locals who have to work can listen in until they finish their shifts and make their way down to the park. In between sets, we interviewed the artists, and that year I got to talk to Dr. Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass legend.
I am not a bluegrass fanatic, unlike many of the 15,000 people who trek to Telluride every summer for the festival, but I have learned to appreciate the genre and all of the so-called “newgrass” music it has spawned. So I was nervous to interview the Dr., who is the epitome of old school bluegrass, but I immediately warmed up to him. Unlike most of the big acts that come to Telluride, he met us before he went on stage, instead of trying to dodge the interview after his performance. He showed up dressed in a fancy hat and tie, looking like he was about to play the Grand Ole Opry. He was a sweet, gentlemanly old man and seemed genuinely flattered to be interviewed. After a few polite exchanges on the air, we shook hands and he asked me if there was anything I wanted to hear. My own personal request line! I wondered if he could play the oft-covered “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” an old standard and an anthem of sorts for mountain women.
I expected his set to be a sleeper, a quiet Sunday night closing act during which people could shuffle out, feeling satisfied after a weekend full of fun. Instead, The Dr. and his Clinch Mountain Boys took hold of Telluride Town Park and the crowd was transformed into a single, moving mass, twitching to the jangly beat and shaking in time with the banjo. They were the consummate bluegrass veterans, hitting each blistering note, singing in pitch-perfect harmony and howling their haunting Appalachian tune “Man of Constant Sorrow,” made famous by George Clooney in the offbeat film: O Brother, Where Art Thou? The audience fell in love.
So did I, and not just with the band. It wasn’t until the second curtain call that the Dr. obliged my request and played my song, and it was a sublime moment for me, listening to the original music performed by the artist who had written the song. The lyrics seemed especially relevant to me and a certain in-and-out-of-town climber as we danced, a happy reunion and one of those unforgettable snapshots in time. Ralph Stanley sang, just for us, and the sentiment was utterly simplistic but as perfect as the summer night: “Get down boys, go back home/Back to the girl you love./Treat her right, never wrong/How mountain girls can love.”