Sam Bush at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2000.

(Photo: Courtesy of Benko Photographics)
The 41st Telluride Bluegrass Festival kicks off Thursday, June 19. Thousands of "festivarians" will descend on the tiny mountain town, population 2,000, for four days of performances by Nickel Creek, Leftover Salmon, Bela Fleck with the Colorado Symphony, Steve Winwood and many others.

The "King of Telluride," mandolinist Sam Bush, will also be there for his 40th consecutive appearance.

Bush wrote the foreword to a new book about the event called "Telluride Bluegrass Festival: The First Forty Years," by G. Brown, director of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. Brown says the festival is an important part of Colorado music history.

Brown chronicles the year-by-year history of the festival starting with a modest, one-day event in 1974 featuring several bluegrass bands including a group called Fall Creek. Band member Fred Shellman was the driving force. He ran the festival until it was sold to Lyons-based Planet Bluegrass in 1989.

"They threw a party, basically, that first year, 1974," Brown says. "The town gave them permission to use Town Park, which at that time was nothing but a bunch of dirt and rocks, and various locals played - And it was just a party: barbecue, frisbee and Fall Creek playing at the very end."

Sam Bush and his innovative band the New Grass Revival were invited to headline the second festival, in 1975. Bush was just 23 years old.

"We’d never been the big cheese hardly anywhere before," Bush says.

In fact, many bluegrass traditionalists didn’t know what to make of a band that used some electric instruments and played songs by non-bluegrass performers like the Beatles, Bob Marley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

"We were long-haired hippie guys trying to play our special brand of music," Bush writes in the book. "At other bluegrass festivals, promoters threw us up on stage at one o’clock in the morning and the older folks in lawn chairs would pack up when we came on. But Telluride was different. I don’t recall ever being treated so warmly.”

Bush writes: "There may have been just over 1,000 people in the crowd, who let us know how much they liked our kind of weird. The weirder we were, the more they danced and cheered. Telluride seemed up for anything."

This year at Telluride, Bush will perform with his own band and as a member of the legendary Telluride House Band, featuring Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, Bryan Sutton and Stuart Duncan.

Brown says the boundary-breaking New Grass Revival set the musical tone for the festival, which despite its name has always been about more than just bluegrass music. Leon Russell, Bonnie Raitt, CAKE, Ryan Adams, James Taylor and Elvis Costello have all performed at Telluride, alongside bluegrass legends including Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs and Del McCoury.

Brown says the festival represents the “best in acoustic music."