Mountain Mama

by Dawne Belloise on December 9, 2010

In the spirit of tenacious mountain folk living in the newcomer pioneer days of Telluride’s wild 1970s era, innovation was as essential as duct tape. Helen Forster was one of a handful whose vision and talent helped to create the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and shape the town’s embryonic radio station and community theatre. Today, she, along with her hubby Nick Forster, of Hot Rize fame, brings that can-do experience and attitude to eTown, an enviro- social awareness radio program broadcast to over one million listeners from downtown Boulder.

Helen arrived in the then-glitterati- less streets of Telluride in 1973, when the San Juan mountain hamlet’s steep-and-deep winter culture was becoming legendary and summers were still naptime revolving around July 4th. There wasn’t much in town, let alone in the way of arts, but there was a core group of dreamers who were naïve enough to ignore the complexities of creating the scene that quickly evolved into several of the T-ride’s more-famous cultural phenomena.

“You had to drive to Montrose just to get a spool of thread,” Helen mused about Telluride’s scant resources. “So you had to be conscientious, resourceful and creative when it came to supporting the arts.” The community radio station, KOTO-FM, had just cranked itself into the airwaves.

“There was a coalition that said ‘we need to make a radio station, so let’s make it happen.’ I came in at the tail end of the discussion and as one of the first deejays with my Down Valley Show,” Helen says of her eight-year stint of “soft rock and soft talk.”

In a collective moment to expand the breadth of the entertainment spectrum beyond beer, bars and local bands, Telluride’s thespians kicked it up a notch to form the SRO Theatre Troupe — Standing Room Only — which Helen co-founded, bringing her Minneapolis professional stage experience of musical and performance theater that started in her childhood and continued into adulthood. “It was like Second City. We wrote our own musical and comedy material. It was a raw slate, where you had an opportunity to come together to create original musical comedy theater.” To further broaden the town’s color palette, a more-formal theater company of upstart crows gathered under the L.A. director Paul Fagan to form the Plunge Players. Helen became one of its principal players as well. She also co-authored three children’s musicals with Martha Brady and worked on her skills as a professional vocalist.

But it’s probably the fact that she had a hand in creating one of Colorado’s best-loved annual party of festivarians that inspires raising a glass in admirable salute. Back in the mid-’70s, Helen was one of the original group who pioneered the nowcolossal Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The original concert stemmed innocuously from the town’s 4th of July celebration and evolved out of various people’s interest.

“You’re in your twenties, you get an idea, follow through and make things happen. You want to start a theater? Great, make that happen. Do a music fest? Great, let’s do it,” she says of the common ability for inventive mountain- dwellers to make things happen as though they could wish them into existence.

Looking to transition out of Telluride after 15 years, Helen considered moving to a large city in the real world; however, they all seemed daunting after living in a town with no stoplights. Boulder looked more promising as a community in which to continue a hardworking Bohemian life of theater, writing, performing and teaching. Although she had met Nick at one of the Bluegrass Festivals, they ran into each other in Boulder, where they eventually married in 1991, right after launching eTown.

As Nick’s Grammy-nominated bluegrass band, Hot Rize, was dissolving in 1990, he came up with the idea of eTown while on a State Department-sponsored overseas concert tour with a group that included Sam Bush, John Cowan and Laurie Lewis. He returned wondering how he could encourage people to make a difference in the world by working Helen Forster performs with Keb’ Mo’. Photo by Tim Reese. together, by using music as a focus to stimulate dialogue and awareness of social and environmental issues.

“We were both drawn to radio because it’s proactive,” Helen explains. “You have to use your brain and your mind. You don’t have an image in front of you. So Nick came back talking about creating a radio show, and I said to Nick, ‘let me help you.’”

Nick had also logged airtime as a member of Hot Rize, appearing on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Austin City Limits” and The Grand Old Opry broadcasts. But it was Helen’s festival work and KOTO radio production experience that greased the nuts, bolts and show into life. eTown now broadcasts over 280 stations. Based on variety radio shows of the past, eTown is taped in front of a live audience and features candid conversations about environmental and community, plus a lengthy list of amazing visiting musical artists — from Buddy Guy, Lyle Lovett and Michele Shocked to regional/local favorites Chris Daniels, Big Head Todd and String Cheese. Both Nick and Helen play on the show with the eTones, eTown’s house band, which features Front Range musicians Chris Engleman on bass, Christian Teele on drums, Ron Jolly on piano, with Nick on guitar and mandolin and Helen on vocals.

The duo’s latest project involves converting a funky former church in downtown Boulder for reuse as eTown Hall, with the goal of “making it the greenest building in Boulder, if we can,” smiles Nick. Photovoltaic panels, solar hot-water panels, revamping the electrical systems … the space is getting a complete overhaul in order to generate most of its power locally. Lectures, workshops, master classes, films, community gatherings, a recording and video studio and of course more intimate eTown shows with 200-250 attendees. The Forsters are hoping to have the building finished in time for the show’s twentieth anniversary next year.

“We’re independent media, and there are precious few independents these days,” Helen says. “We look at our role as being a senior voice in sending the message out every week … get informed, get inspired and get involved.”

eTown is a non-profit organization. It is offered in numerous podcast editions available for download from the program website eTown.org

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