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Tuning in to the early history of Telluride Bluegrass

After 51 years, Marikay Shellman recalls early years of festival
“It just wasn’t about money, it was about playing music,” said Marikay Shellman, recalling the early days of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which she helped her late ex-husband, Fred Shellman, found in 1973. (Wyatt Richards/Special to the Herald)

BAYFIELD – Marikay Shellman still revels in her recollections of the early days of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

“It just wasn’t about money, it was about playing music,” she said, sitting at the dining room table in her Bayfield ranch home, gazing at photos from the festival’s scrappy start. “It was just on the dirt ground and I’m nine months pregnant and show up and there’s no water, there’s nothing to drink, there’s no food.”

The Telluride Bluegrass Festival was founded in 1973 by Marikay’s late ex-husband, Fred Shellman. The 51st annual festival begins Thursday and will draw a daily influx of 12,000 sun-kissed Festivarians to the box canyon. It infuses over $12 million into the local economy, according to the Telluride Tourism Board.

Shellman’s great-grandmother’s banjo hangs in a room in her home, alongside framed posters from the Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s early years. (Wyatt Richards/Special to the Herald)

Fred died in 1990, but his legacy – the festival he was determined to create and the triumph of his passion over reason – lives on.

Now 74, Marikay is quick to recall Fred’s storied dedication to the event. However, she has largely underplayed her own involvement.

In December 1971, the young couple moved to Ophir. Fred taught skiing at Telluride Ski Resort, just a fledgling destination at the time, and formed a band called the Fall Creek Boys.

By all accounts, he was a visionary dreamer with a drive unbound by the fiscal or regulatory realities of holding a bluegrass festival in downtown Telluride. His zest fueled the first few festivals, which started as a Fall Creek Boys performance in Town Park over the Fourth of July.

But behind the scenes, it was Marikay who maintained some of the critical infrastructure that kept the festival going each year.

“I was pregnant, nursing, pregnant, nursing or pregnant nursing for all those early years,” she said with a chuckle.

She was, most visibly, the food provider. She cooked most of what performers and volunteers ate from scratch and worked to serve it around the venue.

Without much in the way of amenities, Marikay would serve sandwiches, lemonade and sun tea to her husband and the people he had recruited to help put on the festival. It was a “huge improvement” when the festival got a tent over the food area, she said.

She would take a break whenever New Grass Revival took the stage.

The band headlined the second bluegrass festival in 1974 and its bouncing, mandolin-strumming frontman, Sam Bush, was at some point crowned the King of Telluride Bluegrass. Bush has not missed the event since and will play his 50th Telluride Bluegrass Festival this weekend.

Telluride Bluegrass Festival founder Fred Shellman. The visionary behind the event died in 1990, and the Town Park stage was named after him the next year. (Courtesy of Marikay Shellman)

Fred worked year-round to promote the festival. It was “his everything,” Marikay said.

However, her ex-husband was a charismatic and driven organizer, but not a businessman.

At first blush, Marikay chalks up her contributions as provisions supplied by a dedicated wife.

But after overhearing her 14-year-old granddaughter make the point, Marikay decided to set modesty aside and come clean about the scope of her contributions.

“After it got started and the Fall Creek band pretty much pulled out, it was just Fred and myself and I was funding it all,” she said. “I was just paying for it because he was kind of the genius behind it.”

Vendors would call the couple’s home and Marikay, using some inheritance from her father, would pay the bills. Within a few years, the Shellmans were the festival’s only backers aside from whoever Fred might have convinced to pitch in some money.

“I knew this was his dream, and it was even though I had three kids, it was always his baby,” she said. “I just supported him in it as long as I could.”

Marikay Shellman thumbs through “40 years of Festivation,” the book about Telluride Bluegrass written by Dan Sadowsky, which includes writing from various organizers and performers over the years. (Wyatt Richards/Special to the Herald)

The couple split in 1983 as Fred’s music-centric lifestyle grew into a source of conflict. But, when speaking of him now, Marikay still taps into the same well of adoration that drove her support in the festival’s early years.

“I was so in love with Fred. … I totally believed he could do anything he wanted,” she said.

In 1989, Planet Bluegrass had taken control of the festival as a result of a series of events that are unclear to some and would rather not be discussed by others.

The Shellmans had never considered the longevity of Telluride Bluegrass.

“I don’t know that you think about that in your 20s,” she said. “… There was always going to be next year. Always. But (we) didn’t think about it being 50 years.”

Today, the festival is a family reunion of sorts for Marikay. Her kids have had iconic moments there with the likes of Rosanne Cash and Doc Watson.

She comes home with CDs from new bands each year, but it’s the greats – the bluegrass legends whose multidecade careers have been punctuated by repeated appearances on the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage – that quiet her thoughts.

“I’m grateful and in awe and that I can just go and listen to every single note of Sam Bush up close and personal, and listen to Peter Rowan’s voice – still – echo off those canyon walls, and all the different, different musicians that Béla (Fleck) has brought with him,” she said, adding, “I’m just always in comfort of hearing Tim O’Brien.”


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