As Telluride Bluegrass Tunes Up, Here’s A Look At Some Bands Birthed At The Festival

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Stephanie Wolf/CPR News
Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan, from left, formed I'm With Her after singing together at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2018.
Photo: Telluride Bluegrass 2018 Preview Watkins Jarosz O'Donovan 1 (SW)
Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan, from left, formed I'm With Her after singing together at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

On the final day of the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins found themselves singing together in a backstage bathroom at the iconic Sheridan Opera House.

“Bathrooms sound great, everyone knows that,” O’Donovan says.

Good acoustics were not the only reason they rehearsed in there. Telluride’s Sheridan is small. And because the three musicians were the “last-minute impromptu openers,” O’Donovan says they were simply trying to stay out of the way.

O’Donovan, Jarosz and Watkins already had their own established music careers before that night in Telluride. Yet they knew there was something special right away — and this impromptu set was the beginning of their band I’m With Her.

The three are back in Telluride for the 45th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival. It’s the first time they’ll perform on the main stage as I’m With Her. O’Donovan says that after years of playing at the festival under their own names and different bands, it will be “a really special moment” for them.

The bluegrass festival, organized by Lyons-based Planet Bluegrass, has inspired a number of musical collaborations throughout its history. Festival emcee Chris Daniels, who is also the new executive director of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, says it’s the “hey, we can try anything’ spirit of Telluride that puts musicians in a collaborative mindset.

“You’re sitting in probably one of the prettiest valleys that the good Lord put on the Earth and you’re looking out from the stage into this breathtaking sort of vista,” says Daniels, who has witnessed many of these Telluride collaborations, as well as been a part of a few himself. “You got nothing else to do, but music and you’re with, arguably, the best musicians on the planet.”

With just one main stage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, it’s a hallmark of the four-day event that whoever is on that stage is likely to pull other great musicians up with them.

Daniels says he’ll never forget sitting backstage, watching singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, banjo player Bela Fleck and singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin “work out a song together” before taking the stage.

Bands And Collaborations Born In Telluride

Strength in Numbers: Daniels says one of the “most astounding” collaborations he’s ever seen come out of the festival is a band called Strength in Numbers. This group’s roster included five titans of modern bluegrass: banjo player Béla Fleck, dobro player Jerry Douglas, fiddler and guitarist Mark O’Connor, bassist Edgar Meyer, and mandolin player Sam Bush.

These musicians performed at Telluride Bluegrass Festival with different musical groupings for years. And then came together for a 1988 album called “The Telluride Sessions.” They’ve been referred to as the “Telluride All-Star Band.” Bush, who has been a mainstay at the festival since '75, sort of laughs at that description.

“When we were first called the Telluride All-Stars it seemed a bit presumptuous because to me, if you’re on the bill, we’re all the all-stars of Telluride,” Bush says. He goes back to Telluride every year and says he “can’t really describe” the feeling that he gets every time he pulls into town: “you see Bridal Veil falls in the distance... and it just overtakes me.”

Telluride House Band: Four of the Strength in Numbers musicians eventually went on to help start the Telluride House Band, another festival mainstay that comes together only over the course of those four days.

I’m With Her went on a European tour shortly after first singing together at the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. (They also played on A Prairie Home Companion, above). The band’s first album, “See You Around,” came out in February.

Sarah Jarosz of I’m With Her says she first played at the bluegrass festival when she was 16 — almost a decade ago. “I feel like I owe my career to that festival, not to the festival itself, but to the things that have happened there,” Jarosz says.

A side note, the band name has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Sara Watkins says that was the name of their first tour. And they decided to keep it in spite of the Clinton slogan because it suited the group.

“It just kind of makes sense with the way we feel about this band and the support that we all feel for each other,” Watkins says.

Leftover Salmon: The legend goes that singer and guitarist Vince Herman and multi-instrumentalist Drew Emmitt met during a late-night jam session in the Town Park campgrounds during a Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Herman had a band called The Salmon Heads and Emmitt had a band called the Left Hand String Band.

Herman says he had actually met Mark Vann, Leftover Salmon’s banjoist who died in 2002, while doing his band’s “campground, frivolity thing.” It was the “real spark to do this Leftover Salmon kind of thing,” but the two bands, along with members of the Chicken Spankers, came together as the Left Handed Salmon Spankers. And competed under that moniker in the 1989 Telluride Bluegrass Festival band contest.

“Things kind of rolled from there,” Hermans says. They played their first official gig as Leftover Salmon in Crested Butte on New Year’s Eve 1989.

Herman moved to Colorado in part because of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

“It had this reputation as a real mecca for progressive bluegrass,” Herman says, “bluegrass formed by the roots, but is really a little more adventurous, a little more inclusive of rock n’ roll and reggae, and our particularly brand of polyethnic, Cajun slamgrass found a home there.”

The Lonesome Days: Jonny Miller says his desire to compete in the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition motivated him to start the Denver bluegrass band The Lonesome Days. This came after seeing Trout Steak Revival win the band contest in 2014. Miller is friends with some of the band members and camped with them at the festival that year.

“It was a real inspiration to see my close friends be so successful,” Miller told Colorado Matters in 2017.

About a month after seeing Trout Steak Revival win the contest, Miller said he quit his full-time job and started calling friends to form The Lonesome Days. Bandmate Todd Lilienthal said it was a “no brainer” to play to win in Telluride. The group has been runner-up in the competition twice and released its self-titled debut album in 2017.

Dierks Bentley’s “The Mountain”: Performing at the 2017 Telluride Bluegrass Festival inspired country star Dierks Bentley’s latest album, “The Mountain.” He told Entertainment Weekly that “there’s just this intangible magic to” Telluride.

Bentley flew some Nashville songwriters out to Telluride to write the album there, and recorded it at a studio just outside the mountain town. Some Telluride regulars can also be heard on a few of “The Mountain” tracks, including Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas. And songs like, “Goodbye In Telluride,” are an obvious nod to the impression the town and experience left on him.