Bluegrass through the years
For 23 straight years, I packed my car and coolers for Telluride Bluegrass. Lifelong friendships blossomed, then some died: Scott Spencer, Dancing Pat, Hippie Jerry. Some of the artists we all danced, sang and drank to are gone now, too: Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Johnny Cash, John Prine, John Hartford, Charles Sawtelle, Mark Vann, Jeff Austin, Andy Goessling and Solomon Burke.
When it all started for me, I was in my 20s. Bill Clinton had just started his second term. Think about that for a minute. My string of Tellurides has lasted the second Clinton term, all eight years of W. and Obama, and three years of the current guy. I’m now in my 50s.
Back in June 1997, I walked into Southwest Sound a few days before the festival and bought my ticket. My girlfriend that I’d been dating for less than a month already had her ticket. Southwest Sound is gone now, too. Within a few years, I was buying over the phone and, later, online. The physical tickets themselves went the way of the dodo, replaced by electronic vouchers stored on cell phones or printed out.
Five years later, that same woman with whom I attended my first Telluride became my wife. Shelly has attended 20 TBFs through the years, missing two due to the timing of the births of our second and third children and one because of a wedding across the country. Our middle child, Gus, never got to see Town Park. But little Rosie has been four times and Otto 12.
But then came 2020 with its COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment, business closings, police brutality, civil unrest, drought, forest fires. Festival cancellations began in March and continue to this day. Planet Bluegrass, the promoter of Telluride Bluegrass, RockyGrass and Folks Fest, was quick to write off 2020 as the Year the Music Paused.
Enter the good folks at KOTO, the NPR affiliate for San Miguel County. This Friday through Sunday, KOTO will air “Bluegrass through the Decades,” a collection of live recordings from more than 20 years of Telluride Bluegrass.
“When word spread that the 47th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the KOTO team thought it would be very important to pay tribute to the weekend in some way; to celebrate the incredible music Planet Bluegrass has delivered to Telluride’s doorstep through the decades,” the station wrote in a press release.
For more than 20 years, KOTO has been streaming Telluride Bluegrass (and other major festivals like Blues & Brews, Jazz and The Ride) to listeners around the world. So, from 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. each day (Sunday will end a little early, as the real festival typically does), fans can stream past festival highlights. If you live within the station’s terrestrial FM footprint, you can also listen on your radio. A daily schedule will be posted on KOTO’s Facebook page each morning.
“Expect three days of music curated largely from KOTO’s festival archives,” the station noted. “From the very first performance of the Fall Creek Band in 1973 to Doc Watson in 1985 to the incomparable Nanci Griffith of 1988, we’ve found some gems.”
Planet Bluegrass graciously supported KOTO’s efforts and supplemented the station’s archives with standout sets like Johnny Cash in 1997, David Byrne in 2009 and Janelle Monae in 2015. There will also be a few “virtual” surprises throughout the weekend.
KOTO has produced a limited number of commemorative T-shirts, posters and other souvenirs that you can purchase to support the station, which lost its biggest fundraisers in 2020 – namely, beer sales at Telluride Bluegrass and other festivals. You can also donate online.
The station is also hoping listeners will get creative and enter their Tarp Team photo contest for a chance to win a future festival pass. Creativity is mandatory. Email your tarp-themed photos to firstname.lastname@example.org to enter.
My plans are torn. The Spencer/Aaland clan has been a fixture in the Front of the Line gang over the past two-plus decades, and we nearly always land in the second and third rows of tarps adjacent to the electrical snake that leads from the sound booth to the stage. We’re a mixed crew of mostly Telluride and Durango festivarians, with chapters from as far away as Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Belize.
For the past 15 years, it all culminated with a Father’s Day brunch on the tarp on Sunday morning. Fried oyster po-boys, smoked pheasant gumbo, poached salmon, elk chile, pot roasts and the omnipresent chocolate-dipped strawberries are a few of our staples. Rumor has it that some of our crew is planning a tarp run and meal in Town Park this Sunday to keep that tradition alive.
I’m one of the founders of the Spencer/Aaland brunch. Beth Lamberson, Scott Spencer and I created it when I baked four pheasant pot pies, Beth chipped in a couple slabs of poached salmon, and Scott dipped a bunch of enormous strawberries into molten chocolate. We assembled these in KSUT’s “Mondo Condo” in the Camel’s Garden, which Scott managed, and trucked it on through Planet Bluegrass’ security checkpoints. One security team leader was certain of contraband and followed us right on up to the tarp, where she eventually relaxed and enjoyed a slice of pheasant pie.
Yet my participation this Sunday is in doubt. As a proud owner of a ceramic heart valve and Gore-Tex sleeve that protects my surgically-repaired aorta, I’m in one of those pesky high-risk COVID-19 groups. Social distancing is mandatory in my world. If I show up, I’ll be shacked up and masked up on the outskirts of the Father’s Day Brunch.
Or, I can enjoy it in my own back yard. Otto and Rosie can line up in the front yard and race their tarps into the back. I can relax on my back deck while streaming KOTO, mixing my cocktails in a blender and cooking whatever my heart desires. My beers would be served in icy mugs, and when I need to relieve myself, those green festival porta-potties will be replaced by my own three well-stocked bathrooms. I won’t even have to hire a dog sitter.
Festivals will return. COVID-19 will go away. For now, though, I can festivate virtually with my friends at KOTO.
When that evening sun goes down? Email me at email@example.com.
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