Interview & Gondola Session: Meet 2017 Telluride Blues Challenge Winner Russ Chapman

Each year, the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival’s Telluride Blues Challenge invites undiscovered and unsigned solo blues talent to test their skills against a field of blues musicians. Artists from all over the country submit recordings for a chance to be selected as one of six finalists, earning them an invitation to compete for glory in front of a crowd and a panel of judges at the Telluride Blues Challenge Finals at the Festival’s Blues For Breakfast. The winner receives a premium Martin guitar provided by Telluride Music Company, a 20 minute set to perform on the Main Stage at the current year’s Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, a full 60 minute set on the Blues Stage at the next year’s Festival, a two night performance on the Durango Blues Train the following year, recorded video sessions with Gondola Sessions and a $300 cash prize.

The 2017 Telluride Blues Challenge winner is Russ Chapman! Russ is a decidedly creative bluesman, pulling inspiration from traditional blues and the deep tradition of Americana. With each performance, Russ delivers a sense of melody with unique lyrical wit. Following his winning set at the Blues Challenge, Russ was able to film with Gondola Sessions on the scenic Telluride/Mountain Village gondola and chat with us. View the sessions and read the interview below.


Hi Russ, congrats on winning the 2017 Telluride Blues Challenge! How did it come to be? How did you hear about the competition? Did you think you would make the finals and win it when you first entered? How did it feel to win?

Thanks! I’m not sure when I first heard about the challenge, but it had been on my radar for a while. You made it so easy to enter, I figured why not? I sent in a couple of tunes that I recorded on my phone…and here we are!

Now, if you told me when I was a kid, that in the future I would compete in the 2017 Telluride Blues Challenge, I would have pictured myself flying in a space suit, maneuvering around holograms of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and BB King. Funny thing? That’s exactly what winning the Blues Challenge felt like! I sing my own shade of the blues, so I honestly had no idea how it would be received. Thanks to everyone who saw what I do as being a part of the tradition. I have to give a big shout out to the judges, the other great musicians, the festival and the Telluride Music Company.

Where are you from? How long have you been playing the blues for?

I grew up in the backwaters of the Erie Canal, not far from the mist and roar of Niagara Falls. Thankfully, fate carried me to my spiritual home of Paonia, Colorado, but apparently fate wasn’t cold enough, so now I’m in Montana.

The Blues were a part of my blue-collar childhood. I used to sing Howlin’ Wolf tunes under my hat while I played left field in Little League. It helped to pass the time…OoohhhWhoooo.

How was your festival experience? From the competition, to your Main Stage performance, to the Gondola Session, to just hanging at the festival? Did you have any favorite "standout" moments?

The festival was amazing. The people were SO friendly, the music was outstanding, the vendors were tasty and Telluride was Telluride! Picking one highlight would be difficult. That said, watching Samantha Fish steer her TechniColor Showboat into the mountains was incredible. Of course, Sunday morning with the Blind Boys of Alabama absolutely transformed me! Tears of joy….hallelujah!

My personal musical experience was varied. The Gondola Session was so much fun! It’s the kind of room that really works for me (suspended on a cable hundreds of feet in the air with a captive audience!). The competition was a little nervy, and I always feel weird about those kinds of things. The main stage had a big build-up and it was a total thrill …and the crowd was right there with me!

We look forward to having you at next year's festival and on our Durango Blues Train this spring! Have you ever played anywhere unique like an historic train from the early 1900s?

Goodness! I’m looking forward to playing both the Durango Blues Train and the 2018 Telluride Blues & Brew Festival- these are such great gigs for me, and I plan on bringing my best songs. Funny that you should mention trains. I once played the Rio Grande Scenic Railway up to the top of La Veta pass. We had a good-ol’ time, singing songs, telling stories about spilled barley and drunk bears, and noodling for trout at the top of the pass. The blues and old trains- it doesn’t get any better than that!

Do you have any advice for musicians who are thinking about entering the Telluride Blues Challenge this year?

My advice to anyone, including those seeking to compete in the Blues Challenge is to just be yourself. Nobody does it better!


Watch Russ perform aboard Colorado’s best moving musical experience on the spring Durango Blues Train on June 1 & 2, 2018. You can also catch him at the 2018 Telluride Blues & Brews Festival on September 14-16 on the Blues Stage.

Think you have what it takes to compete in the Telluride Blues Challenge? Entries for the 2018 Challenge open Wednesday, April 11, 2018.

Steve Gumble2017