The Telluride Bluegrass Festival this week is celebrating its 41st year of roots music in the picture-perfect setting among the San Juan Mountain peaks in southwest Colorado. It's a shame if you haven't experienced it at least once.
Steve Winwood, the-66-year-old Englishman with more than 50 years of professional music experience under his belt, must have gotten wind of that because he'll be making his first trek to the festival this year before starting a tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers later this summer.
Though Winwood, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer with the Ray Charles voice who at 14 was a member of the Spencer Davis Group, then Traffic and Blind Faith before embarking on a stellar solo career, probably knows more about blues than bluegrass. But that shouldn't prevent him from fitting in with all the Americana acts. In fact, he should plan on it, urges Dan Sadowsky.
Now anyone not connected to Telluride or Colorado music since the 1970s might wonder, "Who the hell is Dan Sadowsky?"
Well, most folks around those parts know him as Pastor Mustard, who in his own inimitable way, preached the good word about the Telluride Bluegrass Festival as master of ceremonies for the majority of its 40 previous years. His other roles have included puppeteer, musician, radio talk-show host (currently the 10 a.m. Sunday slot on Aspen's KAJX) and Sam Bush comedic sidekick. (Sadowsky, right, with Bush in 2005.)
Sadowsky also is a first-time book author and passionate music fan who adores Winwood after seeing him live several times, and puts one of Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers at the top of his can't-miss acts this week.
First, though, he has a message to deliver to Winwood before the jack-of-all-instruments steps onto the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage in Telluride's Town Park as Friday's (June 20) headliner: Bring your mandolin.
"I wish I could tell him, 'Steve, why don't you call up Sam (Bush) and some of the guys and have them play some of your big hits with you.' Because it would be so cool," Sadowsky said in a freewheeling phone interview last week. "I don't expect him to do that because it really is a foreign gene. But nonetheless, you go back and look at some of his videos, and that horrible MTV crap that he put out in the '80s, the videos are terrible. But the songs are beautifully constructed and his voice is like no other."
That's unfiltered, shoot-from-the-lip Sadowsky for you.
The outspoken character/unofficial spokesman of TBF who gave up his emcee duties in 2006 (Sadowsky said being told he could no longer have an RV as a resting place behind the stage during his 16- to -18-hour days was "a deal-breaker") still is actively involved with the festival.
In fact, he was enlisted at the last minute to provide what memories he still has left of the event in Pastor Mustard's own breezy style for Telluride Bluegrass Festival: Forty Years of Festivation. The handsome coffee-table book edited by Brian Eyster of Planet Bluegrass comes out June 19, the opening day of the four-day feast for eyes and ears. Copies will be available for $50 at the Country Store and online for $60 at shop.bluegrass.com.
The pastor's private and public moments are shared in between the foreword by Sam Bush, the afterword by Chris Thile and among 28 distinctive essays by musicians and other prominent names of the festival, time-capsule posters and more than 350 photos artistically presented over 216 pages.
Sadowsky knew a book was planned for some time. Creative director Willy Matthews initially hired him last fall to write a 2,000- to 3,0000-word introduction. In the section titled "A View from the Pulpit," he pronounced the Telluride Bluegrass Festival as "the ding-dang-diddlydong BEST."
Reminded of that and asked what made it great, Sadowsky laughed, then said, "There's no comparison to anywhere else on the face of the Earth. Sitting in there with Bear Creek (Falls), spires rising up behind the stage and just backing up and looking down the valley ... Telluride in the 1970s, when I got there (after moving from Boulder), they really did spray a lot of fairy dust over these bluegrass musicians, who, like me, just could not believe what they were seeing."
Perhaps sentiments like those led to a thrilling couple of months for Sadowsky after he answered his cell phone while trying to dump some trash in the Garfield County dump in western Colorado this winter. The president of Planet Bluegrass, which runs festivals in Telluride and Lyons, Colorado, was calling.
"And you always worry a little a little bit when you see Craig Ferguson come up on your caller ID," said Sadowsky, who described their relationship as "tempestuous."
Yet the man whose emcee duties ended in 2006 was entrusted to write a year-by-year account after original author G. Brown's informative text was deemed, according to Sadowsky, too detailed and lacking the spunk of the festival that is "driven by this crazy, youthful bravado."
Given a two-month deadline, the emergency substitute went through a tense period while gathering his thoughts, programs, Wikipedia pages and YouTube videos to help jog his memory.
Sadowsky never kept notes or a journal during the four decades, saying, "Well, I wish I had. ... I had no thought that I would ever write about this thing except for just sort of daydreaming, 'Wouldn't it be interesting to do this?' "
With Tim O'Brien, one of the five original members, playing mandolin, fiddle and guitar, Sadowsky's group was on the bill in 1975 for the second Telluride Bluegrass Festival (spelled "Ophilia Swing Band" on the poster, right). That's where they met future Telluride fixture Sam Bush, co-founder of the groundbreaking New Grass Revival. Three years later, Sadowsky became emcee of the festival and the streak continued for almost three decades. To the best of his recollection, that is.
"It was, in fact, 29 years," Sadowsky said. "I had to go back and count. The number pops up in the book a couple of times and it's different each time. (laughs) That's a typo that never got changed. But I'm sticking to 29."
Sadowsky had trouble pinpointing his all-time best Telluride fest because "there are just so many for so many different reasons."
And while many of his favorite performers are featured in the book, he included some during this interview:
• Steve Goodman: "One of the most astonishing performers still that I've ever seen. ... Wow, he was just a fireplug."
• Strength in Numbers (Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor): "It was beyond belief the incredible amount of musicianship. And also knowing for sure that it was an astonishing feat, just like some astonishing high-wire kind of feat that they pulled off."
• The Band: "Just being a couple feet from Levon Helm and seeing Garth Hudson and all the remaining guys. ... I have this affection for folks with a very high level of musicianship playing string-band music."
More recent performers who have caught his attention are Thile, the grand mandolinist of Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek who makes Sadowsky feel like "a little freakin' teenage girl"; and Lake Street Dive, the Boston- and Brooklyn-based quartet that played Telluride last year, visits Planet Bluegrass' Folks Festival this August and has become his new favorite band.
"No question about it," Sadowsky said. "Blows my freaking mind, makes me happy as hell."
He also has enjoyed acts who refuse to play it safe and use Telluride as a testing ground to challenge themselves, citing Shawn Colvin as an example.
Sadowsky recalled the singer-songwriter in a solo performance there in the 1990s. "And she was really doing very amazing stuff, taking chances with her vocal turns and so on," he said. "And I thought, 'That's it. That's what we want to see. We want to see you being so freaking good but then trying to top yourself, going for the hard combination.' "
Sam Bush and New Grass Revival at the 14th Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 1987.
While the number of acts has increased appreciably as the festival added one, then two more days, the single stage at Town Park remains, making it unique as big business squeezes the heart out of multiple-stage, multiple-weekend festivities elsewhere.
Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better in Pastor Mustard's mind. Since he arrived on the scene, the differences can be both appealing and appalling to Sadowsky, who's happy to see advance ticket sellouts and says "it's a great club to be in" -- but ...
"Different feeling, though, when you're not struggling for ticket sales anymore," he added.
Sadowsky also believes "indie-folk, indie-pop has changed the festival. Jamgrass has changed the festival. Quite a bit of the festival is given over to, and I'm not criticizing this at all, you know, Yonder (Mountain String Band), Railroad (Earth), String Cheese (Incident), Greensky (Bluegrass). That's great because that was invented here. That happened because of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival."
He applauds the fact that organizers still dare to mix things up, bringing in established artists while also introducing crowds to fresh faces with huge potential, younger demographics and, in some cases, a built-in following.
Popular mainstays such as Bush, Fleck and Douglas create magic together and separately, and others festival acts like Johnny and June Carter Cash (in 1997) and Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris (in 2013) have joined forces on very special occasions. (At left, Johnny and June Carter Cash at Telluride in 1997.)
In 2011, I had the pleasure of seeing Harris not only perform with her own Red Dirt Boys (with members of Mumford & Sons, including Marcus Mumford, in attendance) but also appear during sets by Bush and Old Crow Medicine Show. Fleck also collaborated with multiple bands, including Mumford & Sons during their star-making, defining performance through the rain, sleet and snow on the final day.
"It's great to have these Internet-era stars coming to the show, but from my observation, sometimes it works and sometimes not so much ...," Sadowsky said. "I'm fully aware that the Deep South is a concept that's repellant to a lot of folks who just show up at Telluride. Nonetheless, there's a tradition of showmanship and musicianship that is ... that's synonymous with the Deep South, that musicianship. ... And then there's kids who are like 21, and it's just like their seventh show. And they have like a zillion followers on YouTube. What is that?"
Still, Sadowsky looks forward to returning to Telluride this week for Festival No. 41. Continuing another tradition, he'll introduce Sam Bush again.
"It's so much fun to hang out backstage at Sam's show because he always brings up a whole bunch of people for a cluster at the end," Sadowsky said.
Otherwise, "I'll just be the old mysterious gray-haired guy in the VIP tent," he pointed out. "But I'll huckster the book, I'll sell the book, I'll sign it, I'll do anything that I have to do. I'll juggle flaming chainsaws if they need me to. It's great to go back with a friendly feeling from the festival."
Certainly the collector's edition of the book, with only 5,000 available copies hardbound in Spanish leather and with what is described as "an animated lenticular image of Sam Bush debossed into the center" is a terrific reason to connect with the festival again.
Despite the headaches of deadlines and mild shoulda, woulda, coulda misgivings, Sadowsky likes how Forty Years of Festivation turned out and getting the opportunity to collaborate with Matthews ("a tasteful visual artist without peer") and book designer Hans Teensma.
Now if only Pastor Mustard, the pseudonym Sadowsky adopted while walking to his first day on the job at Telluride's KOTO Radio to counteract "fire-breathing, Bible-thumping" personality Brother Al, will make a guest appearance on the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage this week.
Forty-five years after Blind Faith made a run through the United States and Woodstock fulfilled its promise of three days of peace and music, the onstage announcements hopefully will have nothing to do with the quality of the brown acid. But imagine what the vigorous voice of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for 29 years will say if he gets to grab the mic on opening day:
"May I have your attention, fellow Festivarians. Does anyone have a spare mandolin for Mr. Winwood?"
Telluride Bluegrass Photos by Benko Photographics. Book and poster images courtesy of Planet Bluegrass.