Telluride Bluegrass: “40 Years Of Festivation"

Dan Sadowsky, Telluride, 2013 Clint Viebrock photo

Dan Sadowsky, Telluride, 2013
Clint Viebrock photo


Now 41 years ago, as the story goes, Telluride musicians John “Picker” Herndon, Bruce Lites, J.B. Mateotti, Kooster McAllister and Fred Shellman, collectively known as “Fall Creek,” played during the town’s Fourth of July celebration. After returning from the Third Annual Walnut Valley Festival and the national picking championships in Winfield, Kansas, the band made what turned out to be a momentous decision: Why not find a really good excuse to return to Telluride year after year? Why not start a Bluegrass Festival?

And that in a nutshell is how a tiny town high in the southern Rockies came to host a critically acclaimed outdoor musical party.

Since then, some of the greatest artists in the world have thrilled ever-growing crowds of fans. Rain, snow, sleet or hail makes no never mind, Festivarians continue to applaud, steadily and wildly, as bravura musicians smack down sets that were  – and still are – as tender as the night or unpredictable and turbulent as mountain weather.

Sixteen years ago when asked about the influence of Telluride Bluegrass on his career, David Grisman quipped: “I wrote a song called ‘Telluride.’ That should tell you something.”

In the infancy of Telluride Bluegrass, the cribs were still standing in town. There were no real prostitutes, but free love was a beautiful thing. Rumor had it, after the show, the talent headed to a three-day blowout at Dunton Hot Springs (before the facelift). And the party was the stuff of legend. Apparently part of the genius of Bluegrass founder Fred Shellman was understanding how overwhelmingly sexy the natural surroundings in the region really are – the drop-dead beauty of the hills, woods, and mountains. The whole set up was (and is) so darn seductive, everyone was always up for a trip to the ghost town to play on.

When Craig Ferguson and Steve Szymanski took over in 1989, they knew enough not to mess with Shellman’s formula for success. Shellman had started something similar in spirit and format to what former Telluride local, impresario Bill Graham did so well: every act represented the best of the best. There was an element of education in the programming, clearly, connoisseur stuff, but also a bird eye’s view for the newbies on the scene.

Steve Szymanski & Craig Ferguson of Planet Bluegrass

Steve Szymanski & Craig Ferguson of Planet Bluegrass

What then is Telluride Bluegrass?

More than an acoustic string band with a bass, a flat-top guitar played with a pick, a carved-back, carved-top mandolin, a fiddle and a five-string banjo.

More than the legacy of Bill Monroe, whom many remember fronted a band call “Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys” – because they were from Kentucky, bluegrass country. (Hence the name of the genre.)

Trying to pull the demographic hair off the handle “Telluride Bluegrass” just does not cut it. The weekend is not about one genre, however good, or another. It is not just bluegrass. It is jazz, roots, rock or whatever sounds are inspiring everyone who listens to and loves great music.

And so far, so good.

Just how good?

The answer is contained within the leather-bound pages of brand new book, “Telluride Bluegrass Festival: 40 Years of Festivation,” produced by Szymanski with a little help from a lot of his friends. Per Planet Bluegrass marketing honcho Brian Eyster, who edited:

“Our elegantly hardbound collector’s edition book will finally debut Festival weekend. And honestly, it all came together even better than anyone of us ever imagined possible: 350+ photos; essays by Sam Bush, Chris Thile, Bela Fleck, Emmylou Harris, Winston Marshall (of Mumford & Sons) and many more; year-by-year accounts by longtime Festival MC Pastor Mustard, whose writing is irreverent, insightful, colorful, and frequently hilarious, which only makes sense because Pastor has had a unique vantage to watch (and be an essential part of) the festival’s evolution over 40 years: MC for 29 years, musician (whose TBF performing career began at the 2nd Annual), and as a close personal friend of festival artists and staff. I really believe that with Pastor’s gonzo narrative and the gorgeous design (led by Willy Matthews and the brilliant designer Hans Teensma), ‘Telluride Bluegrass Festival: 40 Years of Festivarian’ stands among the great books on American music festivals. It is big league stuff!”


Pastor Mustard (aka Dan Sadowsky). His synapses explode like overheated popcorn. His signature banter is nonstop, displaying an off-beat, wry wit reminiscent of Tom Robbins. And there appears to be no “off” switch. This artist/philosopher/former MC could best be described as a postmodern superstar on the stage of life. If 15 minutes is all the fame we poor slobs get on this planet, this guy’s meter ran out a long time ago. Or not.

“Overall, I am humbled and happy to be part of this deal. Looking back, some part of me has no idea this much time has passed. Where in the hell  have my good looks gone? Over the past 40 years, you may have noticed the increasing number of sharks circling our event. Clear Channel, for one example, would buy Telluride just to shut it down and make more money at another venue. With a bit of luck, that will never happen. Telluride is run very efficiently by people who’d rather be playing the music. Hopefully, things will stay that way. Our audience is way too sharp not to notice if it all gets too slick.”

“Quite simply, Pastor was the best possible person to write this book. He’s quick with his tongue – witty and wise. His reign as MC transcends the formation and maturation of the festival. And he has a mind like very few people I’ve ever met. As an MC, the man was equal parts funny and controversial, and his writing makes us marvel and giggle through every page,” said Szymanski.

To prove Szymanski’s point, check out Sadowsky in the intro:

“I emceed the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for twenty-nine years. At least I think I did. I didn’t keep a diary or copious notes or any notes. Did anyone? 

“When I’ve been asked how I got the job I always want to drop one of those Bob Dylan answers that leaves the interviewer’s eyes crossed. I was hoboin’ on an empty freight to nowhere and the circus queen with her green machine jumped on and screamed, ‘It’s SNOWin’! How come you LIE about it!’ That’s what accounts for my smirk, anyway. But the truth, insofar as I can remember it, is funny too, just hard to recall. 

“For you see, my children, the mighty Telluride Bluegrass Festival you see today as a well-oiled machine had a wild, sloppy start. I lucked out and caught the first car on the TBF roller coaster. When I got involved with the festival I was fresh and young—definitely not coached for pro-level weirdness. But, like a marionette animated by a March hare, I was willing to dance, oh hell yeah. 

“Fred Shellman still had ties to Boulder so he must have caught my fledgling outfit, The Ophelia Swing Band, performing at some Boulder dive, whereupon he asked us to play the 2nd TBF. Ophelia Swing Band liked Fred instantly. We both were trying something impossible. Ophelia’s mission was to translate big-city horn-band tunes from the early swing era to acoustic string instruments and Fred was by god going to make Telluride the center of some kind of universe, festival-wise. He didn’t sell it like that. We just knew from his crazy enthusiasm. And Fred was the most funniest, most likeable person who ever lied right in your face. By ’78, Ophelia Swing Band went pfft and I moved to Telluride to build cabinets and ply my musical proclivities. Telluride in ’78—Jesus, what a madhouse. Old guys were like, 50, and the ratio of men to women was, oh, 5:1. Everyone seemed to have a split persona, one for day, one for night. So I got a slot Sundays on KOTO and invented Pastor Mustard to host. Good music and renegade humor ensued. The call-ins were conspiratorial, like during the Abuse That Artist© segment, and the artist was always Neil Young. I wanted my radio show to be Steve Allen on shrooms. (Dudes, Steve Allen invented late night TV, okay?) Freddy Shellman heard cassette tape air checks and wisely commissioned me to emcee the festival after his closest friends said he ought to step down because his Freudian slip was showing. As if mine wasn’t. 

“As the festival grew more complex—workshops, in-store appearances, sponsorships, concessions, shuttle buses, tweeners, recycling, and an ever-growing roster—so did the emcee gig become more all-consuming. Fred never censored Pastor Mustard, ever. His gift to me was simple permission. He may have been advised otherwise, but I think I never got too strange for him. I tried.

“I didn’t write jokes, although I did borrow a few. My emcee gig was all very nearly spontaneous, Steve Allen style. (On acid, remember?) If I ran it into the weeds once or twice over the course of three decades, feel free to pursue your options in the courts. Pastor Mustard just tried to make the weekend hang together, do sterling public service, and occasionally make you blow beer out your nose. My major artistic achievement was never once saying, ‘Hey! How’s everybody doin’ out there!’

“Even though it was never a purist’s festival, you’ll hear from many sources that the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is the premier, the top, the best in the world. The stage crew is the best. The PA and soundcrafting is the best. The satellite events—such as the Elks Park workshops and Troubadour presentation—the best. Food, beer, camping, shuttles, volunteer training, family services, medical services—all the best. Backstage, performers are coddled righteously. Get the heck out of here, it is the ding-dang-diddly-dong BEST. But supreme is Planet Bluegrass’ attention to the Festivarian experience. Outta this world. 

“Your happy place may be a beach, or forest, or that one special yoni maybe, that you visit in your mind when the world goes wrong. Mine are the delicious moments when I, me, Pastor Mustard alone and uniquely, could slip between the Telluride audience, expectant as a new bride, and some massive musical talent, up there on stage itching to pitch forward toward their people, and feel the tension coming from both directions. Oh yes, oh yes, it’s so good. It’s the ceremony in ‘Master of Ceremonies.’” 

Pastor Mustard, shooting the talent Clint Viebrock photo

Pastor Mustard, shooting the talent
Clint Viebrock photo

Planet Bluegrass is printing only 5,000 copies of “Telluride Bluegrass Festival: 40 Years of Festivation.”

The limited edition may not go as large as the Bible.

Or “Gone With the Wind.”

Although it will be – gone with the wind that is.

You snooze. You lose.

To hear musing about Bluegrass history and more about The Book, click the “play” button and listen to my chat with the Comic Laureate of Planet Bluegrass, Dan Sadowsky.

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Susan Viebrock

Susan Viebrock

Susan is Telluride Inside… and Out’s founder and editor-in-chief, the visionary on the team, in charge of content, concept and development. For 19+ years, Susan has covered Telluride’s cultural economy, which includes non-profits and special events. Much of her writing features high-profile individuals in the arts, entertainment, business, and politics. She is a former Citibank executive specializing in strategic planning and new business development, and a certified Viniyoga instructor.
Susan Viebrock

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6 Responses

  1. Guy Faulkes says:

    TBF is on my Bucket List. (Along with about 100,000 other folks.)

  2. Richard Galvin says:

    Still a fun time, but the music is no longer the same quality as it was. Way too many pop rock acts. Its a country-bluegrass festivals. They hardly have any country and even real bluegrass some years is highly unrepresented. This year they have Steve Windwood. Unless he breaks out a version of a Bill Monroe song in the first couple of numbers I’ll be back at camp before he finishes. Of course this comes from a guy who is listening to Marty Robbins and thinks he’s a little too poppy at times.

  3. Tim Timberlake says:

    “My major artistic achievement was never once saying, ‘Hey! How’s everybody doin’ out there.” Amen and Amen! Can’t wait to feast my eyes on the book.

  4. Scott says:

    Here’s the part of the story you missed.

    Gathering in mid-summer for a big party in Telluride goes back to the Ute Indians. The Utes spent their summers in the Telluride Valley and Telluride was where they staged their most important spiritual ceremonies, had great parties, gambled on horse races and other games, danced the night away and gathered to renew old friendships and more importantly, it was the place to meet the girls or guys from over the hill.

    When the white man ran the Utes out and staged there own Fourth of July Celebration in 1876, it was really just a continuation of an old tradition (who wouldn’t want a good reason to spend a long weekend in Telluride in mid-June). The miners staged spiritual ceremonies (church, marriage, freedom, liberty, etc) had great parties, gambled, played games and danced the night away and got the opportunity to meet the gals or guys from over the hill who had all gathered from near and far.

    It was a grand event and surpassed all other holidays and gatherings in the sheer number of attendees and the distances from which they came, the amount of fun and provided a yearly opportunity for old friends to come together.

    My first Fourth of July in Telluride was 1972. The ski resort construction permit had recently been approved by the U.S. Forest Service and at least 350 new people had moved to town—so it was a wide open and exciting boom town and looked a lot like the mining camp town in the movie, McCabe and Mrs. Miller. (which came out about the same time and is a favorite of old Telluriders).
    The Telluride Fire Department which had taken over the organization of the event in the 1880’s, was made up exclusively of “Old Timers” and they decided to pull out all the stops for this year’s grand celebration. You see they had worked and dreamed for many years of seeing Telluride develop into a ski resort and now, it was actually happening.

    They hired a motorcycle stunt rider to perform and a sky diver to land on Main Street as additions to the big parade which had happened every year since the celebration was founded. The traditional water fight, tug of war, mining games and picnic in Town Park were also on the agenda. They printed posters and circulated them throughout the Southwest.

    The hoopla (surprisingly) attracted a large crowd of Hell’s Angels, or at least, what looked like them. It was a rough crowd and there was trouble everywhere. Drunkenness, explicit sexual behavior in the street, drug use and fighting all come to mind. Our Marshal, Everett Morrow, took after them with Deputy Mastisse and Deputy Jerry Koskinon, but they were out-manned. Twice Everett came to me and swore me in as a Deputy Marshal and we organized a vigilante committee of “newcomers” for show downs with the worst trouble makers. Fortunately, the visitors were really drunk and after a few skulls were cracked they calmed down or scattered. Everett was absolutely in charge of these confrontations and he was steely-eyed and stern while facing down the scofflaws.

    I remember one incident where Everett who was about five foot eight got in the face of a fellow that was at least six foot four and big who was swinging around a big chain and threatening everyone with a wild look in his eyes. This guy and his gang had broken into and taken over what would later be known as the Silverjack Restaurant building on Main Street and had set up shop there selling drugs and intimidating people and had seen talking to the some of the local girls.

    This guy was clearly the leader of at least five other tough looking guys who stood back a few yards and I could see that there were a few women further back in the shadows and I recognized one local girl. Everett walked right up to him—just like in the movies—and with his hand on his pistol told this guy quite simply, “drop it or I’ll kill you.”

    For some reason I thought this was an escalation, but Everett knew what he was doing His deputy, Mastisse was standing a bit behind him and just off to the right, I was on his left with Wayne Watkins, a local photographer, who had volunteered and been deputized. Mastisse was jerking at his black leather gloves and brandishing brass knuckles on both hands and acting like a Pit bull straining on his leash.

    The big fellow stood there for a moment and much to my surprise and relief said, “We are not looking for trouble here.” He held his hands out in front of him with his palms up and just dropped the chain. This provoked Mastisse and without saying a word he hit this guy a mighty blow on the side of his head with the brass knuckles, which dropped him to his knees where Everett finished him off with a good pistol whipping.

    This showdown was the last of the scary stuff. There were a few more isolated confrontations, but the word spread that the Marshal was one tough hombre and he wouldn’t back down. I can tell you, had Everett not been there doing his job, the bad guys, which out-numbered us five or ten to one, would have torn the town to pieces and burned it.

    In my way of thinking, Everett was a hero, he had saved the town. What was surprising is that no one ever said anything about it. Not the newspaper, the town fathers, or the other “newcomers” and no one seemed to give him any credit—like his $400.00 a month salary included him putting his life on the line. It sure gave me new respect for the law in general and Everett in particular.

    Not surprisingly, when the discussion came up before the Fire Department about next year’s 4th of July Celebration, the firemen voted NO WAY.

    I was not a fireman back in those days, nor an Elk where the real power was centered in the town, so I only read about it in the newspaper, The Telluride Times.

    Without thinking about it much, I called George Cappis who was a really good guy and one of the “oldtimers” who was sincerely fair to the “newcomers”, and told him that if the Firemen were not going to put on the celebration, that I’d do it. George was amused, but told me he would present my idea to the firemen.

    A month or so passed, and George called me back and said, “Have at it.”

    I must admit, I was a bit surprised. My thinking was more along the lines that I’d embarrass or persuade the firemen into doing it. I thought they just needed a pep talk and some people to volunteer to help. But, no they just dumped it like a hot potato.

    Fourth of July 1973 was coming on fast when George Cappis and Bucky Schuler, another one of my favorite “Oldtimers”, called in January to let me know that if we were going to have a fireworks display that I’d need to order the fireworks. They gave me a catalog to look at and the contact information.

    Well, this was a new one. I’d never seen a fireworks catalog before where you could order really big fireworks and the aerial stuff had very cool names like “Blossoming Chrysanthemum” and “Stars Falling in Green”. I called the fireworks manufacturer and gave him my story and he said that if I had the money he had the fireworks. I got together with Terry Tice who had Telluride Trappings located across the street from me and we went through the catalog together and ended up ordering about $1500. worth of fireworks. Terry and I came up with $500. between us and signed some kind of agreement to pay the balance and sent it in. We had a plan to pass the hat for the balance, since back then a thousand bucks was real money in Telluride.

    In early summer, I realized that the Fourth was coming fast and came up with a reorganization plan. It was mainly to not invite the Hell’s Angels back, but also included expanding the parade, and making the picnic and games in the park more family and kid focused.

    My big idea was to go out to Town Park and build a stage so we could have some live music. The problem as I saw it, was that from about 6 P.M. and 9 or 9:30 when the fireworks were shot off there wasn’t much to do and people had nothing better to do than drink and get into trouble.

    One evening in late June, I got together some guys which included Burk Thompson, George Greenbank, Kent Ryan, Chris Gerdts, and Ralph Parker and we scavenged some wood from some construction sites and went out to the Park. The “newcomers” weren’t really allowed to use the Park, so it was all a bit cheeky of us to just go out there and build a stage. We decided that we had better get the stage as far away as possible from the Fireman’s Picnic area where the electricity was located, or there’d be trouble. The deciding factor for the location of the stage turned out to be determined by the length of our extension cord. (Which is why the stage is located where it is today.)

    I called an old friend of mine, Bobby Mason in Aspen and asked him if he could bring his band down, Black Pearl, to play for the celebration. Bobby was very excited and said he would be there. As the big day approached, the fireworks arrived and I asked the firemen if they would store them for us at the fire station. Of course, they agreed and a few of the guys showed some interest in what we’d picked out. When we went to drop them off Bucky Schuler was there with Gary Bennett and they showed us the plumbing pipes they used as mortar tubes to shoot off the big ones, like three and four inchers. We had no idea what to do with them and the fireman said that they’d help us put it together. The plan was to go out to Firecracker hill the morning of the Fourth and using old tires and sand we’d bury the pipes and aim them at the sky and then at the appropriate time light the big bombs, drop them in and run. Chris Gerdts was stoked over the whole thing, but I was very apprehensive. This wasn’t like shooting off roman candles in the back yard.

    With just a few days left before the event, I began to wonder why I hadn’t heard anything from Bobby, so, I decided I’d better call. After a few tries, it was clear that there was no one home up there in Aspen. It was time to scramble to get a band.

    The only, and I mean only local band was the Fall Creek Boys which included, John Herndon, J.B. Mattioti, Fred Shellman, and Kooster McAllister. I called John Herndon and asked him if there was anyway that they could play. John immediately accepted. The Fall Creek Boys was a Bluegrass band and although they didn’t know too many songs and didn’t have a PA sytem, John assured me that it would all come together.

    The day before the event, George Greenbank and I went over to the Fire Department to get the mortar tubes. We loaded them in my pickup truck and drove them out to Firecracker hill. Bucky, Shorty Faye, and George Cappis came with us to show us how to set them up. We unloaded everything and started trying to set up when Shorty announced with his famous “shit eating grin” that we’d passed the test and it was all an elaborate joke. The firemen would shoot off the fireworks, collect the money we owed and we were off the hook—whew! Oh, and they’d shoot off the dynamite charge at day break too.

    As it turned out, Fred Shellman, who played guitar with Fall Creek, came up with the money to buy a PA system and drove over to Denver and bought the thing and came back—non-stop. He arrived back about ten in the morning and we all met out at the stage. Fred was a bit red-eyed but assured everyone that he would make it and it would work. John thought that the stage was a bit barren and came up with the idea of putting up a curtain back drop which also served as some protection from the sun. We hustled around and ultimately John Mansfield, who had a company that painted houses, donated his big tarp which worked just fine.

    As I have always said, “The best revolutions and best parties are self-organizing.”

    There was only one thing I had left to do, which was to go around and ask all the bars in town to close for the evening when the fireworks were shot off. I believed that we really needed to pull this one off without anyone getting hurt and without there being any trouble. Everyone said that they were grateful for the work we were doing for the town and said that they thought closing was a good idea and I thought it was done.

    The morning of the Fourth was brought to life with the loudest dynamite blast I’d ever heard. I had thoughts that maybe the boys had overdone it. The parade happened perfectly as scheduled and the crowd was large but almost completely local people and although there were a few motorcycles around there was no trouble.

    The picnic in the park and the family games were really fun. We had three legged races, and all the regular silly contests, but I think the big winner was Clint Wolf’s contest of who could build a sawhorse the fastest and then stand on it. I think Roger Mahnke’s team won. It was really hilarious.

    That same year, there were a number of people that just volunteered to provide food and drink in the park in the afternoon after the Firemen’s picnic had concluded. Dick Unruh sold watermelon slices, George Greenbank set up a hot dog stand, Burk Thompson sold ice cream cones and my partner in the Belmont Liquor Store, Davy Greever gave away beer. This was the beginning of concessions in the park.

    The band started up about six o’clock and there was a great crowd that didn’t take long to get into the swing of things and danced up a storm in the dirt with a lot of softball size rocks lying around right in the middle of everything. Trust me, no one noticed. The band didn’t know but a couple of songs, but they played them over and over and it was the best music and the best band in the world that evening.

    The firemen shot off the fireworks and I remember laying on a blanket in the park with a bunch of friends and doing an impromptu MC job by announcing, “that was a “blue daffodil, oh, and there’s an exploding star spangled banner.” The crowd roared and
    every one was happy and smiling and there was a sense that maybe we had bridged the gap between the “Oldtimers” and “Newcomers” and a sense of cooperation and working together was in my opinion born that night.

    The next morning, I got up and heard that sometime after midnight two young men from Albuquerque had missed the turn South at Society Turn and driven off of Keystone Hill. It was estimated that they were going more than eighty miles and hour when they missed the first curve and flew off the road clearing the tops of the big pine trees. Both were dead. They had been drinking. I was crushed. I drove out to the crash site and watched as their bodies were hauled out and cried.

    It would be my last time to organize a Fourth of July Celebration and the next year when The Fall Creek Boys said that they wanted to do it again and had the idea to start the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, I declined to participate, but wished them well.

    It took me two years of campaigning to get the State of Colorado to put up a guard rail on that curve.

  5. wiseoldsnail says:

    craig ferguson absolutely DID mess with fred shellman’s formula for success . with very little to no regard for fred shellman the man nor the friendly nature of his creation, ferguson’s takeover of telluride bluegrass was a messy affair

    the difference between them : shellman was a man of heart and soul … ferguson is a capitalist

    the parties at dunton were legend for good reason : there was very little in the way of separation between those who were the top stage talent and those who were the hard working (and talented in our own ways … including that many of us were/are also musicians) crew . my favorite was sitting in a crowded dunton cabin listening to steve goodman, who we lost in 1984 to leukemia . he was as personable as he was talented

    i worked production : from security to grounds crew to stage set up to active stage hand and spotlight operator (all for no to very little pay), at every bluegrass festival from the 7th annual tbf in 1980 to about ’88 (and continued to attend until i departed tiny town in 2004) . there are stories from my perspective (and others like me) that cannot be told by the likes of dan sadowsky . while his contribution to tbf is the stuff of greatness emerged from nothing but a will and intent to entertain, his perspective, by definition of his position at tbf, leaves out so much . this is in no way suggesting that sadowsky’s story line is invalid … i’m certain it will be an excellent read … but his telling should be taken with the fact in mind that no one person can tell this story … and no person can ever really tell freddie’s story

    too bad those of us who are low on funds will likely never set eyes on the book

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