Battling Back From the Devastating Lyons Flood, Planet Bluegrass and Its Signature Festival Roar Back, Better Than Ever
By Marta Tarbell
In the aftermath of the mid-September flood that all but decimated the Planet Bluegrass hometown of Lyons, Colo., any fears that the 41st Telluride Bluegrass Festival might not take place were quickly allayed by the TBF’s characteristic can-do approach to all things.
Three days after the 2013 flood that all but destroyed Lyons, “we bought a backhoe,” says Festival Director Craig Ferguson, and got to work.
But worries about TBF 2014 weren’t fully allayed until Dec. 5, “when we plugged in our server” for the first time since September, and “within 16 minutes,” as countless wannabe passholders well know, all of this year’s four-day passes had sold out.
And even though electricity to “all the buildings is supplied with big extension cords” throughout Planet Bluegrass even now, true to form, the TBF brass now focus on the good that came f rom the historic flood. “Progress can be pretty powerful,” Ferguson reflected, and “a lot of things are winding up better than ever.”
To that end, as their bluegrass.com website reports, “Thanks to the tireless work of our crew (dawn ’til dusk every day since September), Planet Bluegrass 2.0 is now a reality, including a re-sculpted seating area with better views for everyone, a rebuilt Wildflower Pavilion, and new river pathways and beach.” Fiber optics are being installed, reported Ferguson, who stopped in at Watch offices (with TBF Vice President Steve Szymanski and Marketing Director Brian Eyster) Monday to discuss what Ferguson dubbed this year’s “really classy” festival, with Béla Fleck’s Friday night performance – alongside 60 members of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra – possibly topping that list.“Walking out with 60 people on that stage is kind of historic,” Ferguson said.
“Bonnaroo wanted to do it, but couldn’t pull it off,” Eyster added.
Fleck debuts a new piece, “The Impostor,” that clocks in at roughly 30 minutes; he’ll appear again with the four-piece classical string quartet, Brooklyn Rider – “violins, viola, cello, joined by historical classical banjo,” Eyster joked. “He’ll do some Flecktones stuff, too,” chimed in Szymanski.
“We always want to do what Béla wants,” said Ferguson.
Some more TBF highlights: Jerry Douglas Presents the Earls of Leicester, who, this time around, deliver a Flatt and Scruggs tribute, with the Earls “playing all these songs from the 40s, dressed in the classic ties and everything,” said Eyster.
“And we’re rocking out, too,” Eyster said, with artists ranging from Steve Winwood to Brandi Carlile (“My current favorite artist,” said Ferguson, her appearance “What’s on Brian Eyster’s iPod” in The Watch a few years back notwithstanding). “Brian erases his iPod once four people know about the artists,” Ferguson quipped.
“And Jason Isbell is going to rock,” Ferguson went on, as will newcomer Nicki Bluhm….”
Then too, there’s “Chris Thile and all his many faces,” said Szymanski, from “the Nickel Creek Reunion coming to open the festival again” Thursday night to Punch Brothers Saturday to soloing for this year’s first set.
The Sunday morning Gospel set is bluegrass this year, with “one of the more-awarded bluegrass bands, Dailey and Vincent,” Ferguson said, “and the House Band is juiced up, with Alison Kraus coming as a special guest,” in part because Douglas and Krauss are playing with Willie Nelson Saturday night at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and Krauss’s manager said he’d rent the private plane it takes to get them to Telluride in time for the Sunday show, “if Alison hops in and plays….”
“It will be the first time they’ve all played together since IBMA,” Ferguson said, since the September 2013 onstage appearance of Krauss, Douglas, Fleck, Sam Bush, Del McCoury, Tony Rice and Mark Schatz of the International Bluegrass Music Assn.’s Special Collaboration.
But forced to pick, these three men at the helm of TBF just might pick Thursday, June 19, at TIME in the festival’s Country Store, when their special edition 216-page family scrapbook, Telluride Bluegrass Festival: 40 Years of Festivation, goes on sale June 19 at the Country Store inside the 41st Annual Telluride Bluegrass. The book features more than 350 photos as well as essays by Sam Bush, Chris Thile, Béla Fleck, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglas, Winston Marshall (of Mumford and Sons) and more, alongside full-page reproductions of each year’s art poster and year-by-year accounts by 29-year festival emcee Pastor Mustard.
“We can’t wait for people to get their hands on this gorgeous book,” with its hologram-style debossed lenticular image of Sam Bush on its brown-leater cover, said Eyster. “With Pastor’s gonzo writing style, I really believe this book stands among some of the great books about American festivals.”