Try to drive into this town from June 21 to 24 this year and they won't even let you enter unless you're a "festivarian." That's because, during the third week of June for the past 33 years, this little winter ski town has become the rockin' home of the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
The annual event is unofficially considered the granddaddy of all bluegrass festivals and one of the most progressive. Relix Magazine recently listed the 1990 Telluride as No. 6 on the list of "Ten Concerts that Changed the World."
While it's called bluegrass, the four-day event is technically a mix of alternative, fusion, roots and folk music. Last year's lineup included the Barenaked Ladies, Bonnie Raitt, Bela Fleck (a banjo master and mainstay of the festival for 25 years) and his jazz fusion band the Flecktones, and headliner John Prine.
Fleck took a year off in 2005 to study more classical and African music, both of which were part of his hot 2006 sound at the festival. He'll be back this year playing with Chick Corea, as well as his own band, along with Alison Krauss and Union Station, the Sam Bush Band, Emmylou Harris, the Yonder Mountain String Band, Counting Crows, Los Lobos and more. At Telluride, a "festivarian" is anyone who is lucky enough to have a ticket to get inside Town Park during one or all of the days full of music, mountains and fun. We met plenty of locals who hadn't bought tickets but knew where to set up their picnic baskets and camp chairs on the streets nearby so that they could at least hear the music coming from the outdoor stage.
A lot of music is free during the festival, including the Telluride Troubadour and Band competitions and music workshops held at Elks Park on festival days. The town also opens up the ski gondola for anyone who wants to take the spectacular - and free - ride up to Mountain Village, almost 1,000 feet higher than Telluride's 8,750 feet above sea level, and back down.
Visitors park in designated lots outside the town borders and take shuttles into Telluride, where all the action and the music takes place, unless they're lucky enough to have secured a parking space and campground spot in the lottery, which began in December. The population - 2,300 - swells with 10,000 visitors during the four-day festival, which in addition to Town Park, spills over into the streets with bluegrass brunches at restaurants, free concerts in parking lots and in hotels throughout the area, not to mention the impromptu strumming and picking coming from many of the campgrounds of festivarians.
Tent cities rise up, with the most coveted being Warner Field next to the music stage, the latter surrounded by the ravishing high-country Colorado backdrop of 14,000-foot mountain peaks. Here, as the moon comes up, you can crawl into your sleeping bag, leaving your tent flaps open and still hear the music until the wee hours of the morning, and most people who call themselves festivarians don't ever want the music to stop.
There might be a period of four hours or so in the middle of the night when there's no music in Telluride during this summer solstice celebration, but it's not much more than that. All the local nightclubs make use of the plethora of live talent in town during this week, so there's good music coming from every pub after the festival music ends around midnight.
We stayed at the classy Hotel Telluride, where, during breakfast, the band River Road - mandolin, guitar and fiddle with a sweet-voiced female singer - were already serenading guests in the lobby.
The festival isn't just for grown-ups. Children think of the event as a circus set up just for them. In the family tent at Town Park, they can find clowns doing yoga and juggling, Hula-Hoop decorating and lessons, aging hippies demonstrating American Indian games, and performances of original songs and stories by professional musicians. A lot of the kids go on to an area beside the stage where, during the performances, they can dance and show off their talents on the Hula-Hoop to the beat of the music onstage, often with their parents joining in. Next to the play area is a pond stocked with rainbow trout, open for anyone to drop a line.
We met a little boy who had supplied his whole camping family with a dinner of fresh-caught trout the night before. Before the music starts at the park, it is not unusual for a little one to be walking down Main Street and be stopped by a clown who wants to fashion a balloon hat.
During the festival, the town is one big playground for all ages. The fun starts on the Wednesday night before the festival with a massive potluck dinner at the Camp Billy site, followed by the Free Box Fashion Show, with models wearing fashions from Telluride's free clothing box across from the post office.
The festival staff, known as Planet Bluegrass, is strongly committed to an environmentally conscious festival, and to that end, they have set up "Greentown" in the back of the festival grounds. The family area is powered by the sun, and "sustainable festivation" is encouraged through the use of reusable to-go coffee cups and utensils during the event. Wind power offsets the impact of the electric, diesel and gas used on the stages and lights. Last year, organizers managed to offset all the carbon dioxide emissions created by the artists' travel to and from the festival by purchasing wind power credits, and they offer festivarians the chance to do the same by providing opportunities to purchase between $5 and $10 worth of wind energy, with the help of Clif Bar and Renewable Choice Energy.
Because Telluride was developed for hungry, well-traveled, sophisticated skiers from all over the world, good restaurants abound here. We had saute of Muscovy duck with shrimp stir-fried rice, Szechuan peppercorn and sweet and sour sauce and five-spiced pear puree, onion soup at the contemporary French restaurant La Marmotte, and on another night, wonderful seven-herb pea soup with sweet potato fries and sausage-stuffed quail with broccolini, wild rice and lingonberry sauce, at 221 South Oak.
There are many hotels a short walk from the festival grounds. Everything, in fact, is within walking distance in this funky little town where from June 21 to 24, the mountains will once again, to the joy of festivarians, be alive with the sound of music.
If you go
* Flights: American Airlines and US Air fly from Boston to Montrose, Colo., near Telluride
* Festival details: www.planetbluegrass.com and www.bluegrass.com/telluride
* The Hotel Telluride, 199 North Cornet St., Telluride, 877-468-3501
* La Marmotte Restaurant, 150 West San Juan, Telluride, 970-728-6232, email@example.com, www.lamarmotte.com
* 221 South Oak Restaurant, 221 South Oak St., Telluride, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.221southoak.com