From his 29 years of emceeing the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Dan Sadowsky a.k.a. Pastor Mustard's favorite story has to do with Natalie Merchant and cheese doodles.
In the anecdote, which he retells fondly in the new book, "Telluride Bluegrass Festival — 40 Years of Festivation," he walks into the outspoken rock star's green room to find this scene:
"I open the door and there was Natalie in there, except that and her face was bright orange with cheese doodle dust up to her eyebrows and she had both hands stuffing cheese doodles into her face," he told the Denver Post in a phone interview.
Watching the festival grow from a few bands in the late 1970s to an internationally renowned festival that sells out in a matter of hours, Sadowsky has decades worth of memories in Telluride. Many of them didn't even fit into the book, which goes on sale at the beginning of the 41st Telluride Bluegrass Festival on June 19.
Known for its tradition, the festival defined itself in its first five years with performances by innovative bluegrass band New Grass Revival. Since then, the members of that band — including Sam Bush and Bela Fleck — have become fixtures at the festival. This year, headliners include Brandi Carlile, Steve Winwood, Leftover Salmon and, of course, Bush and Fleck.
In 40 years, the festival has built its own lush history. Festival organizer Planet Bluegrass has commissioned the book to celebrate this legacy, broken down by each year. It's the first of its kind, according to Sadowsky, and the book combines the storied past of the festival together with photos and festival posters.
How long did it take you to recollect and write about 40 years of a festival?
There was a screaming deadline. I had less than two months to write anything. It was a little daunting. I have friends who are writers and I asked them, 'How would you do this? How much cocaine would you need to do this?' The best advice I got was from a friend who does a writer for a living and she said, 'You can do anything for 20 minutes.' So I set my timer for 20 minutes and wrote.
You get the call that you had two months to capture this entire festival. Were you terrified?
I've written before and on deadline, but I didn't even take time to calculate how many words I would need. So I didn't give myself a chance to think if it was possible. I freaked out for awhile and then I just did it. It was wonderful and kind of emotional. Try it sometime. Take five or six years and try to remember those years in detail, and it gets very emotional.
So, I love how the book is structured with the intro by Sam Bush and the afterward by Chris Thile, why is this the logical way to frame the book and what does this say about the changes of the festival and the transition of generations?
You know that's dealt with in a very minor, sort of glancing way in the book. But you always have to bring new people into the festival. People age out that's just the way life is. I think that traditional bluegrass festivals have tried to hold change at bay, but Telluride was never a bonafide bluegrass festival. They've always been open for new things. I can tell that they've experimented a little. They've kept the folks who have been fantastically great over the years. And the new guys — the Mumfords and the indie folks — they don't only want to show what they've got, but they know TBF is a time for cross-pollination. And they value that.
One thing I wanted to ask about was did this history come from your recollection and other people's memories, or was some of this documented? Did this require research or digging some of this up?
I have to give some credit to my predecessor. It was certainly good to have G Brown's work, which will be published elsewhere, and he was engaged by Planet Bluegrass before me. I was able to use his work to jog my memory. I made special effort not to paraphrase him or the work that he put. The thing that I did was deliberately different. I didn't have the advantage of making an investigative report. There's a lot that's not told here, but the essentials are there. The bottom line is that it's meant to be a coffee table book. I tried to convey the fact that there was drama and a story for each individual year.
Is there an era you can pick out as the golden era or one that defined the festival?
The first five years defined the festival, there's no question about that. Fred Shellman was a visionary and he wanted to have his favorite musicians come to Telluride and damn it if he didn't find a way to do it. The founding of the thing is where the interesting stuff got started. And the catalyst there was New Grass Revival was doing everything that this festival has promoted.
Do you think the festival would have been the same without New Grass Revival?
Absolutely not. No way. I guess I've thought about that: What would have happened if we didn't have New Grass in 1975? When Fred saw New Grass, that was it. He pretty much created a setting for them to play and lured them out there.
Is there any aspect of the book that you knew you just had to get right?
The guy who started the festival, Fred Shellman, passed away in 1990, and he had a rough couple of years before that. And his heart was broken because he didn't have the festival anymore and then he died. The fact that the festival changed hands, that wasn't pretty either. I was privy to only so much of that and some of that is absolutely nobody's business. I try to tell it from the point of view of the musicians who were affected by that, and frankly, it took so much air out of our sails that Fred had died and the festival went on, that it took us a minute. It took us a minute to figure out how we would feel about it.
Matt Miller: 303-954-1785, email@example.com, @Official_MattM
Telluride Bluegrass Festival
Brandi Carlile, Steve Winwood, Nickel Creek, Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush Band, Ray LaMontagne and more play the 41st Telluride Bluegrass Festival. June 19-27 at Telluride's Town Park. Tickets are sold out.