How a Texas Ski Trip Turned Into One of Colorado's Biggest Music Festivals

A performance during 2014's MusicFest in Steamboat Springs.
A performance during 2014's MusicFest in Steamboat Springs.
Todd Purifoy, Richard Clark, and Carl Dunn for MusicFest

If there are any deals to be had in downhill skiing, they're clearly in bulk purchasing. John Dickson was still a college student in southern Texas when he saw an ad in the local paper for a ski trip to Colorado: Bring at least sixteen people, the ad promised, and your lift tickets will be free.

That was in the mid-'80s, and Dickson knew he wouldn't have trouble finding a crowd to accompany him to Colorado. He regularly hosted concerts at his house, passing around a hat for beer money while musicians jammed in the garage.

See also: Why Bands Love to Play in the Mountains

As it turned out, he brought 600 people with him on that first ski trip. Some of them were musicians, and the group skied all day and put together informal shows at night. Thirty years later, the trip is still an annual tradition, but it has grown somewhat: Now called MusicFest, Dickson's retreat is a full-fledged week-long music festival featuring fifty bands on a dozen stages. Passes for the fest, which runs January 5-10 this year, are capped at 6,000 and include lodging at hotels and condos throughout Steamboat Springs as well as four days' worth of lift tickets. The passes range from $239 to over $1,000 per person, depending on the accommodations, and have sold out more or less instantly for the past fourteen years. "It's not a college trip anymore; there are people of all ages," says Dickson. "The one common thing is that it's a true community. It's no-nonsense. It's not over the top, and it's not commercial."

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The lineup is described on the event's website as "the finest Texas and Americana" music. It's heavy on regional country music from Texas -- sometimes referred to as "red dirt" -- and many of that genre's heaviest hitters are playing this year, including Cody Canada and the Departed, Reckless Kelly, Stoney LaRue and plenty more. "It's such a wide variety," says Dickson of the lineup. "It's just got to be good, authentic, genuine music. When these guys write a song, it's not about making it three and a half minutes and finding a little hook that's going to appeal to the mainstream. The fans who follow this type of music, they find it on their own. These bands work hard; they tour their butts off. It's not about getting on the radio or TV. It's about connecting with their audiences."

Dallas-based duo the O's will be making their MusicFest debut this year. The band's members have heard good things about the festival from tourmates Jason Boland and the Stragglers and other artists who've made the trip in previous years. "Whenever they mention it, it's ultimate praise about how much fun it is," says banjo player John Pedigo. "It's one of those festivals that's artist-friendly and fan-friendly, a festival where everyone can come and have a good time without even trying."

"Now that we're going, we did some light-to-average research on how to avoid frostbite and getting lost in the woods," quips Pedigo's bandmate, Taylor Young.

 

The O's will play four shows at MusicFest, at venues ranging from outdoor tents to converted hotel conference rooms. That's part of the appeal of the festival: The stages are spread throughout the town and range wildly in atmosphere and size. "Every venue lends itself to a different style of show," says Dickson. He also says the festival tends to inspire unique performances. "There's a different vibe when [the musicians] get up here. There's a sense that they're on vacation. They get to walk around and spend time with their fans."

Pedigo and Young say they don't know exactly what their plan is for downtime in Steamboat Springs this week. The MusicFest lineup is full of artists they admire, but Young was an avid skier when he was younger. "There are five mountains right there to take advantage of," he says. "I guess it depends on how hard you party and how willing you are to wake up early. And those are questions I'm really just posing to John and myself."

Pedigo jumps in: "Are we going to get up?"

Young: "Are we going to go skiing?"

Pedigo: "Are we going to eat enough?"

Young: "Will we drop out of a helicopter or a fast-moving jet plane when we fall onto the top of Mount Colorado?"

They'll find the answers this week in Steamboat Springs, thanks to John Dickson's little ski trip that has quietly grown into one of Colorado's most successful music festivals.

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