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Telluride Bluegrass reimagined

Festival organizers planning for bluegrass series or mini-festival

  • Special Thanks  Bria Light, Telluride Daily Planet Staff Reporter
    • Bluegrass

With the San Juan Mountains in the audience, Chris Thile starts the 2018 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Remember the days of a packed Town Park and festivals? The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 slate, but this summer, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival aims to reboot with a small festival tailored to comply with public health orders. (Planet file photo)


Across the Northern Hemisphere, the end of June is celebrated as the official beginning of summer, heralding long, golden days of sunshine at last. In Telluride, however, the weekend of the summer solstice is synonymous with the twang of the banjo, the capering of the fiddle and, of course, thousands of colorfully clad festivarians grinning as they boogie down en masse in front of the Town Park stage.

Nobody needs reminding that plans for last year’s 47th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival ground to a screeching halt shortly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the festival canceled for the first time ever in April. Now, a year into the pandemic as vaccine rollouts ease case numbers and deaths worldwide and the promise of warmer weather appears on the horizon, festival organizers are cautiously optimistic about hosting a reimagined Bluegrass festival in June.

“It’s a work in progress,” said festival organizer Craig Ferguson, noting that while juggling the evolving nature of ever-changing data and circumstances surrounding the pandemic, planners are moving forward with a festival or possible concert series, but that all plans are subject to change.

“If we’d been asked about a festival this summer six weeks ago, with where we were with the pandemic, we would have almost definitely had to say no,” he said.

As cases have dropped and restrictions have eased, however, organizers are laying the groundwork for a live festival, albeit a mini-version with fewer acts, fewer days and fewer festivarians. Organizers have crunched the numbers for Town Park’s capacity to allow for social distancing and currently anticipate that ticket sales will be sharply limited, as well as subject to approval by town authorities. Ferguson estimated that Town Park could host a maximum of 2,500 people when accounting for social distancing, a far cry from the usual 12,000 or so bluegrass fans that flock to the box canyon for the festival weekend in normal years.

However, organizers are also looking into the possibility of hosting a series of bluegrass shows across multiple weekends, allowing for smaller crowds but more opportunities for concertgoers to attend. Ferguson said that under this iteration, the first weekend would host the “old-timers” of the festival — the bands that have played at the festival the longest — with the subsequent weekends hosting popular groups of shorter tenure with the festival.

“It’s quite a process, and we’re not going to try to pretend that we can be what we usually are,” he said.

For example, craft vendors, Night Grass shows and the volunteer program may all have to be axed this year, due to concerns relating to the pandemic.

“Indoor stuff is just so much harder,” he said of Night Grass, the late-night shows popular at various indoor venues around town. “The idea that people are going to socially distance after beer 30, when it’s midnight — we just don’t want to take that kind of risk.”

Meanwhile, town officials continue discussions regarding summer festivals while incorporating public health guidance from the state and county as it arrives. Though county cases of the virus have dropped sharply over the past month, one lesson from the pandemic is that planning for the future is a task fraught with uncertainty, frustration and sometimes, last-minute changes.

Current public health restrictions, noted Telluride Mayor DeLanie Young, dictate that Town Park would be able to host a maximum of 500 people, but officials are hopeful that current virus trends will ease restrictions by summer and safely allow for higher capacity limitations.

“Generally speaking, council is optimistic that events can occur this summer and that our case trends and disease prevalence continues its downward trend,” she said, reflecting on discussions at last week’s Town Council meeting.

Ultimately, she observed, all events taking place on Town of Telluride property such as Town Park will have to be in compliance with state and county public health orders, and indicated that officials and organizers are currently waiting for further direction from the state about what precautions and restrictions will be required for summer events like festivals.

As for vaccines, Young said officials are not taking a stance either way on whether festival attendees need to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The town is not taking any distinct position on requiring vaccinations,” she said, adding that private organizations may be able to do so.

For now, though many of the details are still in the works and all plans may change, it appears that some level of live bluegrass music in June is likely a go.

“It will all be so much clearer a month from now,” Ferguson said.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to dust off your favorite Bluegrass attire and blast some face-melting Sam Bush mandolin solos in preparation for the whatever version the 2021 Telluride Bluegrass Festival is able to take.

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