It was hard to find anything to really smile about, bracing against wave after wave of bone-chilling rain as we raced to the car in ankle-deep mud.
So why was the rain-soaked man, whose job it was to direct the flood of cars leaving the Telluride Bluegrass Festival last Friday afternoon, smiling with such obvious delight? Did he get paid extra? "That's my pay," he grinned, pointing to a brilliant rainbow that had just settled over this acoustic music Mecca nestled in the rugged peaks of Colorado's San Juan Mountains. "A pot of gold."Figuratively speaking, of course. But his point was a thoughtful reminder that the delicious beauty of the Rocky Mountains is found in its contrasts.
And the same might be said of the 23rd annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where the tradition of bluegrass music stood in delightful contrast to the abundance of folk and country and jazz and gospel emanating from center stage. Where America's finest musicians collectively created a rainbow of sounds that persisted long after the visual one melted into the skin-scorching heat of Saturday and Sunday.
"Slopping around in the mud for 10 or 12 hours listening to bluegrass in the hot sun . . . it was great," said Salt Lake attorney and mandolin aficionado Rob Rice. "It was my first festival, and I can only describe it as a cross between a Grateful Dead concert and a square dance."
For Salt Lake resident Natalie Boss, it was her second - and definitely not last - Telluride festival. "A wonderful experience. Just wonderful," she said. "The weather took some adjustments, but you buy some extra tarps and enjoy everything around you."
Rice and Boss were among the scores of Utahns who made the pilgrimage to Telluride, unquestionably the premier music festival in the western United States (and only a six-hour drive from Salt Lake City).
Most go for the music. But the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is about a whole lot more than music, whatever shape it happens to take. It is four days of exotic cuisine, jugglers, impromptu friendships, cheap trinkets, petting zoos, Teva tans and a whole lot of time to wiggle your toes in the mud and revel in some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere in the world.
As one fan told the local paper, "Telluride . . . nothing to do, it takes all day to do it, and there aren't enough hours in the day to get it all done."
And what better way to pass the time than taking in the sounds of legendary pickers like Peter Rowan and Norman Blake and Sam Bush? Or the poetic wizardry of songwriters like MichelleShocked and Shawn Colvin? Or the vocal splendor of singers like Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Maura O'Connell?
"I loved the Zion Harmonizers," Boss said. "It was Sunday morning gospel music, but they had everybody dancing. It was a ball."
"My favorite? Peter Rowan has always been godlike in my eyes. But there was such a wide-ranging scope of music and people who appreciated it," Rice said. "There was a certain amount of eclectic, talented people doing some avant garde stuff, and there was a nice mix of traditional stuff. That same mix was in the crowd: Deadheads and cowboys."
Regardless of musical tastes, it was hard not to find your own pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.
In keeping with the tradition started several years ago, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival was again a worthy family event. There were kids everywhere, dancing in the mud, playing in the mud, sleeping in the mud and probably eating it, too.
"I had reservations about taking my 4-year-old," Rice said. "But I'm glad we did. She had a wonderful time. We did the petting zoo and watched the jugglers and clowns. There was more than enough to keep her entertained all day long."
And in many respects, the festival was tailor-made for kids. As Salt Lake festivarian Deb Burcombe observed, "Where else can you eat with your fingers, get muddy, dress up in wild costumes and stay up late, and it's all OK?" The same could be said of the adults, too.
As Telluride Bluegrass Festivals go, this year's version was immensely enjoyable (they all are) even though it lacked some of the eclecticism of past years. Maybe the rains on Thursday and Friday dampened the enthusiasm of performers, vendors and festivarians alike.
As with past festivals, there were still many memorable moments to be savored for years to come. There was David Lindley and Hani Naser offering up an inspired rendition of K.C. Douglas' "Mercury Blues" (you may remember the Steve Miller version). There was Texas songwriter Steve Earle, finally enjoying the acclaim he deserves, joining Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin on stage for one of the finest sweet-and-sour combinations you'll ever hear.
There was Maura O'Connell delivering some spine-tingling traditional Irish folk music - a reminder of the true roots of bluegrass. And there was Sam Bush adding his mandolin magic to the jazz-bluegrass fusion of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. And there was the indescribable virtuosity of David Grisman - a treat even for non-purists like myself.
As with every festival, there was that moment of discovery - when some band you've never heard of delivers an awesome performance that re-establishes faith in the creativity of singers-songwriters. This year, it was the contemporary folk-rock quintet called June Rich.
And then there was folk prodigy Michelle Shocked, a "Telluride virgin," cranking up her electric guitar only to have her amplifier burn up. "The acoustic gods must be angry," she mused.
Michelle should consider it a lesson learned. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival is, above all else, the quintessential expression of acoustic music. Mandolins. Dobros. Fiddles. Stand-up basses. Guitars in various shapes and sizes.
Together, they create a musical pot of gold that enriches the human soul - an enrichment guaranteed to last until next June when music pilgrims - Rice, Boss, Burcombe and myself among them - make the journey to Telluride once again.