Held in a breathtaking setting – a magnificent canyon surrounded by majestic mountains – the Telluride Bluegrass Festival has drawn bluegrass fans to the San Juan Mountains in Telluride, Colorado, for fifty years. “It’s such an ethereal place, and coming here is a commitment,” says Grace Barrett, the festival’s director of communications and partnerships for Planet Bluegrass, the folks who present the festival.
“It requires some effort to get there. But people return, year after year, looking forward to the next festival. They come early and camp and reunite with friends they’ve met at previous festivals. For many, it’s the highlight of their year. People have been coming to this festival for over forty years – longer than I have been alive.”
Part of that appeal is, of course, the beautiful setting. But there is something special about the Telluride Bluegrass Festival that has such an incredible appeal. It could be the artists who play at the festival year after year. While primarily a bluegrass festival, other genres of music can be heard at the festival. It is a favorite festival for many artists. “Sam Bush's 50th consecutive festival will be this coming year, 2024. He played the second annual festival and every one since. He really is the king of Telluride, which I think is incredible.”
It is not unusual to hear traditional bluegrass followed by new grass, rock ‘n roll, or international music. While many artists return regularly to the festival, Grace says they like to keep the music fresh. “We always have a few wild cards, especially for the fans who return year after year,” Grace recalls one couple who biked the front range, got married, and made a two-week trip that included the festival. “They now come back to celebrate their anniversary at the festival.”
“Fans don’t have to decide which stage to watch because our festival only has one stage.” The Fred Shellman Memorial Stage honors the founder of the festival. “Everything happens on that stage, so there is no choosing between acts,” says Grace. “There are other events around time, including music and workshops. Education is an important component of the festival.”
Grace joined the Planet Bluegrass staff in early 2021. “We weren’t even sure there would be a festival that year,” she recalls. “I came in on the heels of a canceled 2020 season. We didn’t have a single event because of Covid. It was an interesting position to be in.” She had been to the festival only once before she took her job, and that was as a toddler with her parents. “My first real festival was the 2021 ‘Covid festival.’ We ended up having a two-week long festival that year with a smaller crowd - about 2000 people per day when we were used to having 11,000 people per day. We had to work on social distancing and other state guidelines.”
Grace worked on the magazine-quality program the festival is known for. “I’m just so proud of how long this festival has been in existence, and I’m so privileged to help present it.”
By 2022, the festival was back to normal. “It was a challenge for us because a lot of our sponsors had taken a financial hit during Covid. We had to change our business model a bit.
The festival takes place in Telluride Town Park. “It’s such a beautiful park,” says Grace. “We have a great relationship with the town of Telluride. The amazing thing is that the population of the town year-round is 2,500 people, but they welcome the festival and the fans. Everyone seems to have a mutual respect for one another.” The date of the festival is by design. Summer solstice, June 21, is the longest day of the year and the first day of summer. “It’s just a great kickoff to the summer season.”
To add to the festival atmosphere, there is a great partnership with creative vendors who offer quality handmade items, including dresses, fairy wings and more. Kids twelve and under are admitted free when accompanied by an adult to encourage a family atmosphere. “There are a lot of kids who were raised coming to this festival,” Grace says.
Next year’s festival will take place June 20 – 23, 2024. “It will be our 51st festival. There aren’t many festivals with that kind of longevity. It’s something we are very proud of.”