Industry Profile: Telluride’s Craig Ferguson Pushes the Envelope of Bluegrass and Sustainability

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By Brian F. Johnson

You almost couldn’t tell now, by looking at the success of his festivals, but there was a time, not too long ago, when Craig Ferguson spent countless sleepless nights wondering how his festivals would survive, or at the very least, if the checks for the talent would clear.

Ferguson, the president of Telluride Bluegrass, Inc. — the umbrella company which runs Rockygrass, Rocky Mountain Folks Festival and, of course, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, among other events — was supposed to be an attorney. But after graduating from law school, he headed to the desert of Arizona, sleeping out under the stars for two years and working with his cousin as the business manager of the Roberto-Venn School of Lutherie. During his time in Arizona, he traveled to Telluride to check out the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and the trip ended up being life changing for him, as well as for the hundreds of thousands of festivarians who have attended his festivals since.

After his first trip to Telluride, Ferguson moved with his cousin, Big Jon Eaton, to Colorado, where they purchased a small music store, renaming it H.B. Woodsongs, after Ferguson’s grandfather H.B. Olson, and he became involved in the festival on a cursory level, managing the shop’s booth. The festival was poorly managed in those days, financially, and Ferguson began to put together a team of investors to help rescue it, never intending to take over booking.

But sure enough, a snowball effect occurred and before he knew it, the festival was his. Now, almost two decades later, all of Ferguson’s festivals are some of the most sought-after tickets of the season, and they’re the must-play gig of the summer for a growing base of who’s who in music.

Marquee: What was the first concert you ever attended?
Ferguson: John Denver at Red Rocks in 1970, but before that my mother used to take me to the symphony every week in a suit.

Marquee: What was the first album you ever owned?
Ferguson: George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.

Marquee: You didn’t start the Telluride Bluegrass Festival but it’s been yours since 1991. How did that happen?
Ferguson: We took over Telluride in 1991. The former director just wasn’t taking care of the finances and the Town was getting fed up with it. I was just trying to put together a group of investors to try to help out the troubled festival. The last thing I anticipated was actually booking the music.

Marquee: But you were supposed to be a lawyer. Did your family and friends think you were crazy when you took it on?
Ferguson: Yeah. But I think they were already prepared. The real shock to them was my time in the desert. You know, I had just graduated from law school with a broken heart and I figured if I don’t get down to the desert or do something strange, I’m going to end up in a suit and tie everyday as a partner in some damn law firm. What a miserable existence?

Marquee: It’s hard to imagine these festivals as start-ups struggling to survive, but there was definitely a time when they weren’t certain sell-outs, right?
Ferguson: The first Rockygrass, we were wondering if we could afford Norman (Blake) and Tony (Rice). Now, looking back, it looks like we were really thinking ahead, but I didn’t sleep for a year. I had sold my house and moved over here (to the Planet Bluegrass Ranch in Lyons) into a trailer backstage with my wife and six-month-old daughter. That might be why she’s referred to as my “ex” wife. She grew up in D.C. and the next thing she knows she’s got a six-month old baby in a trailer in the woods with no running water. I should give her some kudos.

Marquee: When did you know it was gong to work?
Ferguson: When we got James Taylor for Telluride. I’ve been sworn to secrecy as to how inexpensively he played for us, but it was a joke of a price and the next year we had 16,000 people and pow, the plane took off. In two years time we went boom, boom and just really got lucky.

Marquee: You always push the envelope with your Telluride headliners and few are considered bluegrass musicians. Why do you still call it Telluride Bluegrass?
Ferguson: The Telluride lineup is kind of a known thing and people know that there’s going to be curve balls, and that’s our responsibility to do that, even if they don’t go over the plate. But Telluride is not your traditional bluegrass festival, like Rockygrass is. If you come to Telluride and look at the lineup before you buy your ticket and think you’re going to hear nothing but banjos all day, you’re not paying attention. And, I’ve never once, even for 30 seconds, considered changing the name of a 35-year-old, historically respected festival.

Marquee: You’ve been very progressive in terms of making your festivals green. Tell me about your approach to that.
Ferguson: Becoming a better festival has always been our goal. It’s like the music. We feel like we’re doing the right thing. About eight years ago it became clear that we had to be responsible about our trash. Getting a hand on recycling was a mess, but we finally got a system and then things grew from there. There were so many things we addressed and we made incremental steps each year. One of the big ones was forcing our vendors to use compostable materials (i.e no plastic forks). Now we’re at the point where we’re not selling water in bottles. It’s stupid and bad for the environment. The water in Telluride is good and we’ll give it to you for free. We’re not going to sell it for $5 a bottle. Last year we took the big step, after looking at all of our emissions, and we committed to carbon offsets to make the festival completely carbon neutral, and with very sophisticated analysis we calculated the travel of everyone coming to the festival and we offset that travel. So we’re the first carbon neutral festival in the country and it wasn’t that hard. And when you think about it, we’ve offset the audience’s travel and when they’re here they’re not driving, or using their air conditioners or opening their refrigerator five times a day. You know, the rock stars aren’t sitting at home with their a/c cranked. They’re in the Mountain Village with their windows open. When you think about all those things, having the festival is better for the environment than if we didn’t have it at all.

Marquee: Beyond that, what are you most proud of, in regards to the festivals?
Ferguson: That we’ve really transitioned from me and some people answering the phones to a pretty well rounded and performing team. This used to be the time of year where we’re pulling our hair out. I think this is Telluride’s best lineup yet and it’s the one that I’m least personally responsible for.

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