After a hot summer, it was finally cold in Telluride. Well, crisp really, but cold enough that smiling festival attendees donned puffy coats, thick sweaters and heavy flannels. Some even pulled winter caps over their ears. I was all cozied up in some semblance of the festival uniform, arm slung over my gal’s shoulder, bopping to twanging guitars, molar-cracking bass lines and foot-stomping drums. Everyone around us swayed and jived to the music. Everyone was happy.
The sun began to dip below the horizon line set by the valley floor, and tangerine brushstrokes smeared the north side of the town’s box canyon. The cold comes in a hurry here in Telluride in September at the Blues and Brews Festival—and so does a little bit of magic. This year’s big draw, Bonnie Raitt, would take the main stage in an hour or so, along with Steve Winwood. Feeling the fest vibe and headliner anticipation, the crowd directly in front of the stage began to swell during Benjamin Booker’s set. When night finally fell, and the star-peppered sky illuminated the dramatic peaks that burst up from town park, and Bonnie was only moments away, the crowd stood shoulder to shoulder. These are the moments that stick with you, that bring you to the Rockies and a festival like Blues and Brews.
Recovering ski bum Steve Gumble knows this scene well. After all, he’s more or less created it for the past 24 years. His path is one that gives hope to ski and snowboard bums everywhere looking for a way to grow up without letting go of the dream.
The founder of Blues and Brews’ mountain-town story is not unique, at least not in how it began. He grew up in Pennsylvania and wanted to attend college near the beach and mountains. The obvious choice: University of New Hampshire. Like many a ski bum before him and many yet to come, he decided to take a year off after graduating and test his mettle in a big ski town. His girlfriend, whom he would later marry, had an in at her sister’s house in Telluride. Gumble filled his post-grad summer piggy bank at a salmon cannery in Alaska and made it to Colorado in the fall. He planned to stay for a season. This winter will be his 30th.
All ski towns do something mysterious to those who find them. They have a way of grabbing your heart. Once secured, they never leave. But Telluride captures more than just your heart, more, even, than your ski-bum dreams. It steers the very direction of your life. It invades your soul and becomes a part of you.
In the winter of 1987, Gumble got a job at nights grooming the slopes of the resort. “I sort of lied my way into the job,” he remembers. “I told them I knew how to drive snow cats but the ones I drove were bigger. Of course, bigger snow cats did not exist.” Following closing day of his first season, Gumble escaped back east before Telluride could truly woo him. He lasted less than six months in Pennsylvania. “I’d fallen in love with the mountains and Telluride,” he says. He became a foreman and drove a cat for three more winters.
In 1991, after promising himself he would do something other than drive a snowcat for the rest of his life, Gumble purchased a local liquor store in 1991. “I was basically spending a mortgage payment every month there so I decided to buy it,” he says. “That was my introduction to craft beers.”
Through his store, Gumble met craft brewer Jeff Lebesch, who’d just started New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins. At first, the pair exchanged beer for ski season couch crashing, but they quickly became friends. Lebesch urged Gumble to expand on the popularity of Telluride’s Wine Fest and create a mirroring beer festival.
Three years later, Gumble started the Telluride Brewers Festival, figuring 500 suds lovers would show up. More than double that attended. “The festival grew in popularity each year and I could sense that, although the town loved an event in our shoulder season, the beer festival was a little too focused on drinking,” says Gumble. “I wouldn’t admit it back then, but it was basically a keg party on Main Street, so in 1997, I asked the town if I could add music. They loved the idea. I changed the name to Telluride Blues and Brews and invited The Funky Meters.”
Each year, Blues and Brews grew in attendance. And each year, Gumble spent all the proceeds on bigger bands. In 2004, Blues and Brews started making enough money to allow Gumble to sell his liquor store. “We went from two Porta Potties, 20 breweries, a tent on Main Street and 1,000 people in 1994 to 125 Porta Potties, 56 breweries with over 150 types of beer and over 9,000 people in Telluride’s town park.” This year’s festival sold out a full two months in advance.
Following the overall success of Blues and Brews, Gumble created SBG Productions, a full-service event and festival production company. Along with Blues and Brews, SBG helps put on The Durango Blues Train and recently took over production of Telluride’s Jazz Festival.
“I love telling my story from ski bum to Blues and Brews,” says Gumble. “I am truly fortunate to be someone who could make his dream come true in the mountains.”
Along with Raitt and Winwood, this year’s Blues and Brews, which took place September 15-17, featured heavy hitters like Anders Osborne, the Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ Band and the Drive-By Truckers. Lesser known but just as head-bob-dance-inducing acts included Samantha Fish, Benjamin Booker and Hamish Anderson—plus, my personal favorite, The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band (Rev and I went to college together. Go Bulldogs!). The three-day fest overflowed with music and corndogs, dumplings, and fried chicken sammies. But Bonnie Raitt’s set was worth it all. Not only did she deliver the soundtrack to sweeping memories of every childhood family road trip, but she also gave me a gift. And I guess, so did Steve Gumble.
Early on during Bonnie’s set, my gal and I said, “I love you” for the first time. I’m not sure what song was playing when we finally admitted our admiration for the other, but the following tune was “Something To Talk About.” It was, well, it was goddamn perfect. I’ve been to more Blues and Brews festivals than I can count with both hands and both feet. I’ve seen some of music’s biggest names in Telluride’s town park, arguably the greatest, most beautiful music venue on this planet, and the same fields where I’ve caught countless pop flies during summertime softball games. I’ve danced my ass off on those fest fields, laughed until my ribs hurt, and smiled so hard that my face was sore for a week. But Bonnie Raitt’s raspy, sultry set this year was far and away one of the best things to ever happen in Telluride.
Ski bumming, as it turns out, has a way of really doing some good. Yeah, I’m a little biased, I guess. Everyone may not fall in love at Blues and Brews. But it’s damn hard not to.
Paddy O’Connell is a freelance creator, focusing on storytelling and multimedia production. Originally from Chicago, PaddyO is a combination of a Midwestern upbringing and an extreme love of the mountains and the passions they hold.