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06/22/2015

ROLLING STONE: Bush, Musgraves, Keen Make for Eclectic Telluride Bluegrass Festival

The official name of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, now in its 42nd year, is actually the Telluride Bluegrass and Country Music Festival. The event attracts roughly 12,000 folks to picturesque Telluride, Colorado, every summer solstice for a four-day gathering of world-class music. Although the country part of the name has been dropped colloquially, the festival's lineup tells a different story. This year's featured Ry Cooder, Sharon White, Ricky Skaggs, Kacey Musgraves, Robert Ellis, Robert Earl Keen and the Telluride House Band, among a slew of artists who were neither bluegrass nor country (Janelle MonŠe, Lake Street Dive, John Butler Trio, just to name a few).

The Telluride Bluegrass Festival has its King (legendary multi-instrumentalist Sam Bush, who's been playing Bluegrass for 41 consecutive years), its reoccurring characters (banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, dobro player Jerry Douglas, mandolinist Tim O'Brien, bassist Edgar Meyer; the list is endless), and a pickin' culture that's been cultivated for decades. Attendees consider themselves "Festivarians," and the main draws for them are the Sam Bush Band and the Telluride House Band. The latter consists of Bush, Fleck, Douglas, Meyer, Bryan Sutton on guitar, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and is billed as the "Pinnacle of Pick." The band's annual, only-at-Telluride-Bluegrass set traverses genres while honoring string music and a long history of American tunes.

The House Band's set fell on the first night of the festival this year, setting a high bar for the rest of the weekend. Playing a mix of chestnuts, instrumentals, and inventive covers (think the theme from the Pink Panther), the band doesn't prescribe to any one genre, instead creating a sound exclusive to Telluride Bluegrass. That's why a soul artist can perform alongside a jam band at a country festival: Festivarians like their twang to transcend. That means the audience appreciates country all-stars like Musgraves, but they also crave innovative "newgrass" tunes, like those Greensky Bluegrass is known for. Over the weekend, Greensky proved classic string instruments have few limits, mixing Americana with rock and extended improvisation, and busting out covers like Paul Simon's "Gumboots," Billy Joel's "Big Shot," and the Grateful Dead's "Black Muddy River."

Another band that's teetering on the country fringe is Fruition, a rock quintet that looks all Southern grit but hails from Portland, Oregon. Fruition, who played three sets throughout the weekend, melds covers like Credence Clearwater Revival's "Cotton Fields by Home" and Townes Van Zandt's "Loretta," with raucous originals filled with heartfelt lyrics and stadium-worthy energy. "Mountain Annie," the band's most famous tune, is infectious.

True country moments, however, came courtesy of folks like Robert Earl Keen and Robert Ellis, both of whom are Texans dressed to impress the Nashville elite (they both also chose to cover Richard Thompson's "Vincent Black Lightening"). The former is a Lone Star legend, known for clever storytelling through his unique brand of country music. The singer-songwriter just recently dipped his toes in the bluegrass pool with Happy Prisoner, an LP of bluegrass covers. Ellis, who plays more electrified country-folk, received widespread critical acclaim for his 2014 album, The Lights From the Chemical Plant.

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