Last night I returned from what has become the most consistent annual mile marker in my life, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I first attended on a lark after seeing a poster on the bulletin board of a local music store in 1983. Among the stellar roster of musicians listed on the poster was New Grass Revival, who I’d seen—and been wowed by—several times in Bloomington, Indiana, in the ’70s. If New Grass was going to be in Telluride, so would I.
If you’ve ever been to Telluride, you will know I’m not exaggerating when I say that this picturesque little hamlet sits in one of the most gorgeous box canyons anywhere. The whole experience was stunning—the scenery, the amazing musicianship, the unusual musical collaborations, the beatific crowd. I haven’t missed a Telluride Bluegrass Festival since then.
No matter where I’m working or living, I make time in my schedule for Telluride. The third week of June is off limits to anything else. Many times I don’t bother to visit the website to look at the roster of musicians before the festival. I just know that it will be phenomenal, and I’ve never been disappointed.
In 1984, I began a working relationship with the festival. My husband at the time wrote a pre-festival promotional article for a local independent, and I shot photos. This gained us access to the press area in front of the stage, more notoriously known as the “poser’s pit.” Being able to see the musicians—their flying fingers and accompanying facial gestures, as well as their entertaining off-mic banter drew me in. I continued shooting photos for seven years, produced their festival program for four years, and have written feature articles in the program since the early 1990s.
I’ve come to know the production, security and backstage crews, as well as some of the musicians whose talents often leave me stunned. In the past 28 years, the luckiest of these have aged and mellowed; others have passed on. This year, I was sad to learn that one of my favorite Telluride characters, Jack Carey, a longtime press pit security guy, lost his life not long after the 2009 festival in a bicycle accident involving a head-on crash with a pickup truck.
In April of each year, I get to research and write two or more articles for the festival program. I love this because it puts me in my “festival head” two months before the event. Most of my research involves talking with people who likewise cherish the festival. The joy and anticipation are contagious. From that point until the time I round Society Turn on the road into town, I think of my upcoming trip to Telluride and smile.
This year I was honored to write about one of my favorite festival regulars, Peter Rowan. I met Peter in 1994. Like me, Peter practices Buddhism, and we’ve had a number of interesting conversations about the nature of life and practice. No matter what he chooses to present at Telluride—and it changes from year to year—his music has a spiritual undertow that resonates profoundly with my own musical sensibilities.
For his 2010 festival appearance, Peter would reunite with four other venerable Telluride regulars—Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Viktor Krauss and Larry Atamanuik—to play as Crucial Country. Crucial Country’s last appearance was in 1994, and it’s no exaggeration to say this set of music was transcendent. I was not alone in experiencing this. Planet Bluegrass, the company that produces the festival, made Crucial Country’s 1994 set available on CD. Even Sam Bush, who just celebrated his 36th Telluride, told me he left the stage thinking it was the most fun he’d ever had playing the festival.
From many years of seeing the Grateful Dead, I know that sometimes the magic happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. I know that no truly magical event can ever be reproduced. I’m also clear about the fact that expectation breeds disappointment. So while I wasn’t expecting this year’s Crucial Country experience to be a carbon copy of 1994’s, I can’t honestly say I was not without some glimmer of anticipation.
Whatever anticipation I might have been feeling crashed when I woke up Friday morning, the day of the Crucial Country set (as well as another of my favorites, Hot Rize), with a sour stomach and chills. I felt truly awful, wanting nothing more than to be horizontal, wrapped in blankets to ease the shivers while sipping ginger tea.
The internal conflict was overwhelming. I didn’t want to miss a moment of music—and there was lots to look forward to that day—yet I didn’t see how I could walk to the festival and then sit in the blistering high-altitude sun for hours when I was struggling to sit up in bed. Not wanting to miss the day’s opener, cellist Ben Sollee, I went. I loved his music, but my body was just too weak. I walked back to my room and slept for three hours.
In the hours of fitful rest, each awakening brought the question of whether I’d go back to the festival at all that day. Most of the time the answer was no. When my partner, Phillip, returned to the room for a brief respite, he encouraged me to return just for Crucial Country and Hot Rize. I vacillated endlessly, mainly because I wasn’t sure I had the strength for the walk to the festival grounds. And what if I got there and felt so bad I couldn’t walk back?
We made it to the press pit just in time for the start of Crucial Country. I dearly wished to enjoy the show, but I didn’t have the energy even to tap my foot. My body was freezing, even as most of the 10,000 souls on the field were boiling in the midafternoon sun. About three songs into the show, longing to be supine again, I whispered to Phillip that I needed to leave. “After this song,” I said. Then it occurred to me that I wasn’t sure I could walk back. I was that weak.
Then I gave up. I closed my eyes and let go of any effort to relate the music in any of the ways that were familiar to me. The sound washed through me. I heard with my cells rather than with my ears, and in this let-go state, my body began to heal. I could feel the cell tides turning. I was transparent—just music and nothing else.
By the end of the Crucial Country set, I knew I had the energy to stay for Hot Rize. During the Hot Rize set, I found my feet spontaneously tapping once again.
So again, Crucial Country was a transformative experience for me. Was it the music? Was it the fact that I was willing to let the whole thing go? Or was it coincidence that I began to feel better at precisely the point when I did? I can’t say. But as a musician and lover of sound, I can’t say that the combination of tones coursing through my cells didn’t change things at some fundamental, pranic level.
Saturday and Sunday, my healing continued, slowly but steadily. Even as I write this on Tuesday, I feel the residual effects of whatever bug invaded my intestines on Friday. In yogic terms, I can feel that my annamaya kosha (physical body) is still compromised. But the residue of the beauty of Telluride, the reunions with old friends, and the transcendent power of music have nourished my pranamaya (pranic), manomaya (mental/emotional), vijnanamaya (insight and intellect) and anandamaya (bliss) koshas. I am transformed not in spite of, but because of the multilevel shake-up that illness always brings. And I am grateful for the healing power of mountains and music.
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