Telluride Bluegrass Festival's longtime MC reflects on Colorado's most storied music fest
New Grass Revival plays at Telluride in 1987.
The reach of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival extends down the mountains, across the country and around the globe. The weekend-long celebration of acoustic instruments, immaculate songwriting and untamed nature has brought big-name artists from around the world to its stage.
Next weekend, Telluride Bluegrass will celebrate its fortieth anniversary, with a lineup that includes Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Ray LaMontagne and more. To commemorate the milestone, the organization that puts on the festival, Planet Bluegrass, is releasing a book called Telluride Bluegrass Festival: 40 Years of Festivation. Featured in its 216 pages is an extensive collection of photos from throughout the event's history, as well as a series of essays by past performers like Chris Thile of Nickel Creek, Béla Fleck, Emmylou Harris and Tim O'Brien. The whole thing is held together by missives from Telluride's master of ceremonies from approximately 1978 to 2006, Dan Sadowsky, known to his friends and the "festivarians" as Pastor Mustard.
The book will be offered for the special price of $50 at next weekend's concert. After that, it will be available at full price at bluegrass.com/book and at any other Planet Bluegrass festival. We're reprinting Pastor Mustard's introduction below, to give you a sense of the book's contents and because he captures the scope and feel of the festival better than we ever could.
I emceed the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for thirty-one 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-diddlydong 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."
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