Stalking the Next Great Colorado Bluegrass Bands

Colorado string bands have never been shy about having their way with bluegrass. Whether it’s Hot Rize unleashing their honky-tonk alter egos Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, Leftover Salmon throwing ganja-fueled slamgrass hoedowns or the String Cheese Incident fusing glitchy electronica with fiddle runs, Rocky Mountain pickers have never been able to show much restraint when it comes to interpreting Bill Monroe’s high lonesome sound.

“The fans are really open minded to the looseness,” says Mike Chappell, who grew up checking out Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band in high school and now plays mandolin in the up-and-coming Fort Collins-based band, Head for the Hills. “It’s become the Colorado tradition to always take bluegrass somewhere else.”

With a license to explore the outer sphere of a genre many purists back in Appalachia regard as church, it’s no wonder a new crop of High Country renegades is once again reshaping the bluegrass mold.

Elephant Revival

Elephant Revival. Photo: AnneStaveley
Elephant Revival. Photo: Anne Staveley

From the experimental bluegrass breeding ground of Nederland, which birthed Salmon and Yonder Mountain, Elephant Revival has recently emerged with a unique brand of transcendental folk that covers a broad spectrum of the vast acoustic landscape. The band’s live show always delivers a full-fledged gypsy string band carnival with a refreshing mix of male and female vocals. The versatile group switches between dance-friendly fiddle tunes to high-minded newgrass improvisations to new age High Country folk songs to create an eclectic sound that’s all tied together with soaring harmonies that delicately float above the strings.


Through long nights at the Appaloosa Grill in downtown Denver, Oakhurst built a devoted Front Range following that stomps along to the rowdy string band’s rough-around-the-edges brand of Americana that mixes old-school Appalachian-flavored mountain songs with hints of rockabilly and alt-country.

“We don’t necessarily jam out long extended songs, like a lot of the Colorado scene,” says the band’s mandolin player, Max Paley. “We stay true to the bluegrass form, but we like to add elements of rock and outlaw country.”

When they’re not playing at home or satiating their many fans on the ski-town circuit, the group has begun to embark on some successful national tours. The band recently even let a little Nashville infiltrate their sound, when they visited Music City this past summer to record an upcoming album with producer Joe Pisapia (Guster, K.D. Lang).

“Some of the new material is in the vein of Mumford and Sons,” Paley adds. “We’re not afraid to mix bluegrass with some pop sensibilities.”

Spring Creek

Spring Creek
Spring Creek

Rare bird alert. Spring Creek is a Colorado bluegrass band that largely plays it straight. The young crew taps into the soul of the traditional sounds of genre legends like Monroe and Del McCoury with polished picking and tight, ascending harmonies that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The group gained quick statewide cred in 2007 after winning the band competitions at both the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Rockygrass. The band’s hard-driving, front-porch sound has helped foster a continually growing bluegrass scene in their Lyons hometown, especially at the Oskar Blues Brewery — where they play regularly.

Whitewater Ramble

If you catch a Whitewater Ramble show, don’t be surprised if the self-dubbed “high-octane Rocky Mountain dance grass band” makes you forget they’re playing acoustic instruments. With the pulsing backbeat of Luke Emig’s drums, the band takes a limitless approach to their acoustic strings, often exploding from a bluegrass base into psychedelic rock jams that touch on disco, funk, reggae and even house grooves.

On the band’s latest album, “All Night Drive,” they recruited keyboardist Steve Molitz of trance fusion outfit Particle and saxophonist Pete Wall to add even more layers to the multi-dimensional fiddle sawing of Adam Galblum and the effects-laden mando picking of Patrick Sites.

As a side note, if venue structure permits, watch out for upright bassist Howard Montgomery to play hanging upside down from the ceiling rafters.

Head for the Hills

Head for the Hills
Head for the Hills

With a simple formula of guitar, fiddle, mandolin and stand-up bass, Head for the Hills covers a lot of sonic ground. The young string crew formed back in 2004 as students at Colorado State University and has since grown from playing local dive bars to headlining the Poudre Canyon’s legendary Mishawaka Amphitheatre. A jamgrass outfit in line with successful predecessors like Yonder Mountain, the group is equally adept at picking a straight traditional like “Uncle Pen” or stretching the limits of an off-the-wall cover like Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.”

“We’re open to doing as much as possible on acoustic instruments,” says Chappell. “We tend to call it progressive bluegrass. We love the greats like Tony Rice and Sam Bush, but we also do an Iron Maiden song. It makes it a little hard to define.”

The group has received support and mentorship from Colorado bluegrass predecessors, as their recent self-titled album was produced by Salmon’s Drew Emmitt at the home studio of String Cheese’s Bill Nershi.

Jedd Ferris is the senior editor of Mountain Gazette’s sister publication, Blue Ridge Outdoors, for which he often pens music stories. He lives in Charlottesville VA.  

Sing for Your Supper

Busking in a mountain town
Busking on Elk Avenue in Crested Butte. Photo by Dawne Belloise

Like an anxious little puppy waiting for its treat, the busker’s hat sits in anticipation on the sidewalk, enticing, luring, siren-like but never begging, because the musician behind it is offering up his or her soul in twangy plunking, picking, bowing earnest for all who pass by. He’ll have an audience for about 30 seconds, sometimes a minute. Sometimes people will throw money into the hat. Sometimes people will sneak money out of the hat. Sometimes they’ll take the hat. But the wandering minstrel endures and has the benefit of praise and hopefully gifts … if he or she has a smidgen of talent. Of course, with a short-term audience, all the busker really has to do is learn three or four songs and learn them really well, since no one ever stays around long enough to hear more than that. Troubadours can go into a continuous loop and no one would know the difference. “Wow, that guy covers Neil Young perfectly!” Well, yeah, it’s the only song he knows.

This isn’t true of all buskers, of course. Paul McCartney once busked his tune “Yesterday” on a London street unrecognized and only heard the jingle of a few coins. Sting played the pavement with his hat pulled down and made £40 with no one noticing. Bruce Springsteen would show up on a corner with his guitar. Tracy Chapman began her career busking at Harvard Square. Bob Dylan was positively impromptu on 4th Street at SXSW in Austin. Even Benjamin Franklin was a street performer of his own composed songs, poetry and prose. He was the original beatnik, carrying on about current politics and selling printed copies of his work. No one notices buskers, especially in cities, because no one wants to look a busker in the eye for fear of getting his life story or, worse, feel guilted into dropping dollars into the case.

It’s far different in the mountains for street performers, whose music and efforts are usually appreciated and rewarded. Outside of a coffee shop in Crested Butte, three bohemians are playing on a combined 20 strings — two guitars and a mandolin, while down the street on a bench sits Alex Klivecka, with guitar in hand and banjo at the ready. Alex jumped ship from a Silicon Valley job and hit the road busking from San Francisco to Park City, Utah, to the Colorado Rockies. “I don’t play perfect,” he confesses without remorse. “I can come out for half an hour and leave whenever I want. The crowds are more forgiving.”

“Busking in the mountains is much more friendly than the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. Pearl Street is the Fillmore of busking,” says Tyler Lucas, a multi-instrumentalist. “There’s a lot of talent down there. It’s cutthroat.”

Jackson Melnick is still a teenager, but has busked all over the world, and now performs on the streets of Crested Butte. “I think how cultures respond to buskers tells a lot about how they feel about the arts in general. People who support buskers are the people’s patrons,” Jackson adds with a boyish smirk. “It also depends on your skill level.”

Mountain genre leans toward folk music, Americana and bluegrass, and there’s usually someone sitting around playing Grateful Dead songs. The busker will get requests for everything from Pop Goes the Weasel from a four-year-old to a promenading group needing a birthday song. While it’s true your ear will catch mostly popular culture tunes that pay the most, there are the phenomena of young students at classical music camps who will go solo or gather for a sidewalk chamber concert in places like Aspen during their music festival.

The resilient stock on the beat will brave the extreme elements, oftentimes getting the sympathy or respectful rewards. Andrea Lecos and Cory Obert ( have played the pavement of Telluride and Ouray and were set up on a sidewalk in Durango when one of those ominous mountain storms rumbled in, badly bruising the sky to black and purple. “It was a deluge, but we kept going,” says Andrea, who wasn’t about to let the climate come between she, her partner and their prospective audience. “It was pitiful, because the streets cleared out, but we wanted to play. An older gentleman who was listening to us started throwing money in our cases and then said, ‘better yet make it a wrap and I’ll buy you a drink next door.’ Even though we wanted to make more money, it was still fun and we could have cared less … we were singing at the top of our lungs to no one and someone got us drunk.”

Minstrel Greg Pettys, who’s traveled the planet via guitar and horn, thinks Telluride’s great for busking. “People take care of you with money, booze and nuggets. People are psyched on the music. They invite you in and, before you know it, you have food and a place to stay. Music opens the doors. When you’re camping in the summer, you can make some pretty good money in the mountains.” Jackson won’t easily part with his own hard-earned coin unless there’s good reason. “Sometimes if there’s an amazing gypsy jazz trio on the street, I don’t feel obligated to give money because they’re just into playing for people and they have lots of paying gigs. But when it’s a dirtbag hippie like myself and he wants that muffin from the health food store, then I’ll toss a buck in.” However, Tyler feels that twinge of guilt. “Sometimes I feel awkward — those begging eyes and droning Dead songs. You feel like you have to give them a dollar.”

Clever performers know how to capture their audiences, as Michael Ruffalo on guitar and Ted Bosler, wearing the washboard, used to. “We’d get on the Mountain Express shuttle bus with all the tourists going up to the ski area. The more we insulted them, the more they liked us and gave us more money,” says Ted, the frontman, who went through their shtick. “Ladies and gentlemen, you are on the musical bus. In case of the unlikely event of a water landing, please use your seat as a flotation device. You will, at the end, give us most or all of your money.” And in between the guffaws, the duo would play their silly tunes, all related to local businesses and events. “The tourists loved us and the locals would grab a six pack and ride around. At the end of the night, we’d go to the bar and spend it all,” the Crested Buttian proudly proclaims.

Andrea thinks the benefits outweigh the sometimes meager living eked out, so she continues on her troubadour track. “You never know what kind of magic can come out of busking. It’s beyond just playing. It’s beyond the coin in the cup. It’s who you reach out there. People will come up and say ‘thanks for making our day.’ You make them happy. Of course, you might make some crazy. It’s a good gig. You reach a ton of people. It’s very low key and there’s no stress of having to carry around your PA, getting to sound check on time, no stage fright and, if you forget the words to your song, who cares, because people really enjoy it anyway and you still make money.” And she feels one of the big perks of busking on the street is always being able to have your best friend with you. “You can tie your dog up to something while you play, but you could never bring your dog to a real gig … and if you have a really cute dog, you’ll get more tips.”

If there’s too much structure in your world, and you can play three or four chords on any instrument while crooning out a few tunes, you may want to consider chucking it all for a life of busking and a sense of independence. The world will truly be your stage.

Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer and musician who is ready to abandon any remaining semblance of structure and give in to her lack of time management to busk the streets of the world. Until then, she’s a feature writer for the Crested Butte News-Weekly who’s been published in numerous mags and rags around the planet. Contact 

Babes in Bluegrassland

Babes in Bluegrassland
Sol Chase and Bella Hudson let it rip.

They grew up with rhythm thumping around their little heads, learned to dance before they could even crawl and were dragged off to many music festivals by parents. They live in a high-altitude paradise with the sounds of birdsong, rivers, wind in the aspens and communal jams, so it’s no wonder mountain children are predisposed to music. They may be mere babes in the wilds of the industry, but they’ve proven themselves to be very old souls in the world of picking, songwriting and performance. They are the next generation, the new breed of singer/songwriters, and they’re unafraid of expression, full of vim, creativity and a sassy grasp of their possibilities.

Sol Chase blew into Crested Butte on a gypsy wind when he was only six years old in August 2004. “I was traveling around 13 different countries with my dad, living a communal-centered, nature-rific alternative lifestyle,” the well-articulated 13-year-old says, painting a vision of a nomadic spirit most kids could only dream of. “My dad and a friend taught me guitar at the age of three. We were busking for many years, playing a lot of music on the streets of Europe. From age five, I could follow along on the songs and sometimes put out my own guitar case and for a couple hours I’d make 20 to 30 Euros. We’d set up on the streets and play whenever we went into town. From town to town, we’d camp somewhere and go into town once a week to buy groceries and play music. We’d busk to get enough money to get to the next town. It was a gypsy life and it was definitely fun. It exposed me to a lot of different cultures. I’ve got more of an open mind to other things, and I feel I’m a more well-rounded person.”

By age six, Sol had switched to mandolin as his main instrument because of the smaller size and he enjoyed the sound. Sol and his dad Merrick also switched mountain towns and uprooted themselves to Telluride, where there were more musical opportunities. “When my dad and I came to America, one of our first stops was at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I loved the music, I loved the atmosphere, the openness and friendliness. I actually got to play on the main stage that year,” Sol remembers, fearlessly plotting a course for the limelight. “I wanted to play, but it seemed unobtainable, it seemed super important, but I kinda thought it was possible right after Yonder Mountain String Band played.” Sol told his father he wanted to get up on stage and play immediately. “Like NOW, so my dad lifted me over the back stage fence. I had my guitar and dad was on bongos and I played three songs. I played one of my originals (“Last Train to Berlin”) and then played two old-time gypsy songs (“Raggle Tangle Gypsies” and “Go Move Shift”). People still remember it today. It was pretty awesome. I don’t think I quite realized the enormity of it, but my dad was freaking out. I was just playing to play,” he chuckles.

Sol’s influences draw from a tight genre: Yonder Mountain, Jeff Austin, Chris Thile and Drew Emmitt, the latter of whom Sol has played with several times. “I’m definitely bluegrass; it’s my thing,” he says. You can hear Emmitt’s influential style in Sol’s picking. Adept and lightning fast, his fingers know their way around a mandolin with surprisingly tasteful riffs for one so shy in years. “I haven’t really met anyone who started as young as I did,” Sol admits. “Some of the now-famous musicians started young. At this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June, I played with a guitarist named Bella Hudson. She’s 12 and lives in Evergreen. I met her last year at the kids’ tent at the Bluegrass Festival.”

“I had a feeling that I had to write songs and play music because I wanted to express myself in music,” says the 12-year-old Bella Hudson, a singer-songwriter who picked up a guitar a mere four years ago — but as a matter of perspective, it’s a third of her life. “I’ve written 20 songs and recorded 12. Growing up in the mountains with the views, a song will hit me when I’m looking out the window, and they’re my best songs.”

Telluride Bluegrass Festival has a history of being really supportive of kids in music, and kids get the benefit of serendipitously and spontaneously connecting. “I met Sol and we were jamming at the Festival,” Bella says of the 2010 Telluride event. She was asked to play on the main stage that year and came home super charged and inspired, having performed in front of thousands of people. “This spring, Sol and I recorded three songs together at Immersive Studios in Boulder, one of mine called ‘Cowgirl Prom’.” Bella and Sol worked on each other’s music for this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival and performed a mini set to about 12,000 people in a Saturday morning slot. “I wasn’t scared. I was really excited!” she enthusiastically giggles about the fabulous reception both she and Sol were given for their originals.

Although Sol loves to play and create, he has a clear vision of at least his immediate future. “People ask me if I see music as a career. I don’t really think I want to take it to a pro level as a career. I already have an EP on iTunes, and I’m working on a full album. My interests are more in math and sciences. This fall, I’ll be attending my first year of high school at Phillip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.”

Although he’s taking his mandolin and guitar along to school, “There are so many academic areas I’m interested in that I won’t have much time to take the music courses offered.”

His talent isn’t going to fade away anytime soon, though, and music has a way of permanently attaching itself to one’s future.

Bella admits with well-earned, smug joy, “I’ve sacrificed soccer and swimming for my music. I practice every day, so it takes time from my homework and any sports I could have done. But since I’ve been in music, it’s been everything to me, and I don’t miss anything that I’ve had to give up. It’s what I want to do with my life.” Rock on little sister …

Check out Bella online at and on Facebook. You can catch Sol at, as well as on Facebook.

Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer, traveler and musician living in Crested Butte. A feature writer for the Crested Butte News-Weekly, her musings and photography have been published in numerous blogs, mags and rags. Contact

Life on the Road: Run-ins with Peace Officers and Real Mountain Cops

Not everyone can pull off “Fire on the Mountain,” be it in sound or action. Peace Officer learned its lesson from real mountain cops.

Not long after the hip-hop/reggae/dub crew formed in 2007, the artists stretched beyond their socially conscious vocab by playing with fire.

After a gig in Estes Park with a guest trumpet player, the Fort Collins-based crew proceeded to its comped resort suite. Around 3 a.m., they noticed the trumpet player and his young, loud pal had disappeared, something that relieved more than worried them — until the fire alarm went off.

“The player and his friend ran into our room with terrified looks on their faces, which were also covered in a gray powder,” said MC, guitarist and self-proclaimed nice guy Andy Kromarek.

Seems they set off the fire extinguisher, not thinking it would trigger an alarm (and apparently not considering consequences of the thick powder that would cover the entire hallway, either).

“Not a good scene,” nice-and-innocent guy said. “It looked like smoke in the air, and with the alarm going off and it being 3:30 or so, the other guests in the place were starting to freak out.”

What exactly does a cozy mountain retreat scene gone bad look like?

One scared-out-of-his-wits, fire-extinguisher-curious pal who erupts into tears and admits he’s only 17, so please, no one tell his mother — to which the Peace Officers replied, “We won’t, if you won’t tell her where you got the beer”.

One pissed-off mom of said 17-year-old in her pajamas (that’s all the description you want on this one) screaming she’s suing the resort because she tweaked her ankle in the mad rush to fresh mountain air,

One Honda with a trumpet in the back, squealing outta Estes as fast as it could, and

Just about every cop in Estes on site. (They may not have seen this much action since Stephen King insisted the second and more true-to-his book version of “The Shining” be filmed at the Stanley Hotel).

“At this point, things looked dire for the band, and with a few policemen striding toward us, we didn’t know what to expect,” Kromarek said. “Turns out they were amused by the whole thing — I guess Estes Park is generally a pretty boring place for a cop.” Still, the stickler cops wanted the name of the trumpet player. When the musicians claimed they didn’t know (“it was 4 a.m., and we were drunk, so that seemed like a good idea,” the MC said), the cops threatened them with paying for every guests’ hotel room — as well as the by-now-decidedly broken ankle in PJs. So they ratted their horn player out (once, not twice, for the Mountain Gazette world to read).

It seems cops come pre-cut with the urge to always get the last word in before letting young people loose; they are the smart-ass sages of safety. For me, it started at age 16 when I raced my neighbor-boy home (launching my parent’s Oldsmobile over a huge bump in the middle of a bridge, which resulted in a very large dent in the bottom of the gas tank). The cop who pulled me over left me with the resounding words: “Remember, a car is not a toy.” About a decade later, a Dillon, Colo., police officer pulled me over after I rolled through a stop sign (after, uh, speeding). When I told him I didn’t have my driver’s license on me because I was going skiing, he said, “Do you have your ski pass?” — to which I enthusiastically replied affirmatively and whipped it out, hoping it would give him the necessary clue he needed to confirm my nice-girl identity.

“You need a ski pass to ski, right?” he asked, looking me deeply in the eyes. I nodded. “Well, you need a driver’s license to drive.”

Needless to say, I missed that powder morning.

So what did the Estes Park cops leave the Peace Officers with?

“You know, you guys aren’t Led Zeppelin. You probably shouldn’t go around trashing hotels just yet.”

Though Westword magazine just nominated the crew the best hip-hop in Denver and Peace Officer is playing larger festivals like Soul Rebel Festival in Denver and venues like Boulder’s Fox Theater these days, they’re not singing, or playing with, Fire on the Mountain.

To catch Peace Officers, sans alarms, in the next two months, check out Star Bar in Park City, Utah Aug. 18 or Snake River Saloon in Keystone, Colo., Sept. 9-10. 

Kimberly Nicoletti is the entertainment editor for the Summit Daily News. She lives in Silverthorne, Colo. 

Rednecks Everywhere

These guys speak fluent redneck — the Honey Island Swamp Band.

Honey Island Swamp Band claims its Bayou Americana makes you smarter, thinner and better looking — but frontman Aaron Wilkinson also admits to being a fifth-generation North Florida redneck.

The musicians have traveled from their home base in New Orleans throughout the West to play in such fine establishments as The Goat Soup & Whiskey in Keystone and Whiskey Jacques in Ketchum, Idaho; this Fourth of July, the band, voted Best Roots Rock Artist in OffBeat’s 2010 Best of the Beat Awards, hits the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Ore.

Wilkinson wasn’t sure what to expect when the band began touring Colorado’s mountain towns, even though now, after years of traveling, they’re all beginning to blur together, he said.

“First time I’d ever really seen mountains, so I was all wide-eyed and full of wonder,” Wilkinson said. “Guess I kind of had an idealistic vision of what it would be like, nature and all.”

About six years ago, he and his crew followed a Telluride-area local to “secret” hot springs back in the hills.

“The city slickers in the band were huffing pretty heavy,” he said about the hike, which was a piece a cake for the locals. “You’re not prepared for that thin air, and we don’t exactly lead the healthiest lifestyles anyway. But after about an hour and a half of stopping every 50 yards so that my 55-year-old emphysemic drummer didn’t keel over and die, we come upon the spot.”

Situated at the bottom of a rocky bluff, it was gorgeous, just as advertised. Only problem: It wasn’t so secret; a rather portly man soaked in the pool with his cluster of kids — and at least a case of empty, crushed Busch cans beside him.

“He had on this bright red bandanna and a pair of those heinous reflective Oakley Blades,” Wilkinson said. “He’s all, ‘Come on in and join us,’ and we probably would have, given what we went through to get there.”

Just as the band was about to join the pool party, a train appeared on the ridge across the river, and the 6’6” man stood up, hollering and flipping off the train.

“Turns out, he’s butt-ass naked,” Wilkinson said. “Proud of it too. With his kids right there in the pool with him. Giving that train all he’s got and all God ever gave him.

“Needless to say, we didn’t join him, but then and there I realized something: Florida, Louisiana, Colorado — there are rednecks everywhere in this world, God bless ’em.”

Kimberly Nicoletti is the entertainment editor for the Summit Daily News. She lives in Silverthorne, Colo.

The Wild Side of Life: Roadhouses, Honky-Tonks and Dives

The Almont Resort, between Gunnison and Crested Butte. Photo: Dawne Belloise

You’re sitting on a stool in some mountain dive bar where the music is beyond the aural spectrum your ears can handle, which is OK, because the melodic nuances were lost at the bottom of that fifth pint and shot you ordered. In this scenario, it’s not likely that you’d be musing about the origin of your historic watering hole and the various music genres that have bounced around the dance floor, but it’s staggering in more ways than the obvious to visualize what may have come before. Tap into the collective wildness of its previous incarnations and perhaps in your elevated consciousness ask yourself, “Where am I?”

… a roadhouse, honky-tonk or just a dive?

According to Dr. Chani Marchiselli, a Colorado mountain native and now a Professor of Communications at New England College, “Roadhouses developed outside of municipalities that had been subject to zoning and regulatory acts put forward by Progressive Reformers who were interested in saving cities and towns from the scourge of noisy, drunken dance halls and their attendant business and prostitution. Roadhouses developed in the teens and 1920s when they wouldn’t allow dance halls and sometimes alcohol consumption so houses moved outside (of town and city limits) to avoid regulations. They were made possible by the invention of the autos.” Although given an understandably bad rap, Dr. Marchiselli explains that teetotalers shouldn’t be bashed since their main thrust was to curtail the exploitation of women. “They were interested in banning alcohol in cities because husbands would work in dank, dirty factories, get drunk and then beat the shit out of their wives. So a lot of the Progressive Social Reformers were concerned about how wives were treated.”

Honky-tonks came later, as did the music so associated with those venues that it eventually came to bear the name. Jazz came out of the brothels of New Orleans and the nastiest honky-tonks of the West. Dr. Marchiselli adds that honky-tonks get “blamed” for some of the raunchy influence on American music, mostly ragtime and jazz. “Roadhouses were out of town; honky-tonks were basically filthy folk-music saloons and, like roadhouses, were associated with prostitution and suspension of social order. Honky-tonks were usually associated with out West and a particular kind of music and they were really rowdy … and mountain honky-tonks were way off the maps (as far as unruliness). Hymnals actually influenced country and blues.” Country music didn’t show up in honky-tonks until the 1930s.

Craig McManus, a popular KBUT radio (, Crested Butte) country music DJ and bass player in rock-and-roll bands for a couple of decades, thinks the true honky-tonk is either dying or just plain dead and, if nothing else, on its last breath in the mountains. “The road house is usually in between two small towns, like the Almont Resort between Crested Butte and Gunnison or The Sleepy Cat between Meeker and Buford,” both of which McManus has frequented. Although The Sleepy Cat was turned into a private residence by new owners, long-time owners of the original roadhouse, the Wix family, plan to eventually build another close by to appease the pleas from area locals who miss the joint’s good times. The Almont Resort, with some of its cabins dating back to the late-1800s, is still a place for a raucous evening of drinks, live music and dancing.

Between Bond and Wolcott, State Bridge was another off-the-beaten-path roadhouse with all the fixins’ of music, dance and rowdiness that unfortunately burned to the ground in 2007 when a vexed burglar doused the resistant ATM machine with gasoline and set it ablaze. Scott Stoughton, the current Social Chairman of the newly rebuilt Eagle County lodge, says it was once a haven for trappers, traders, miners and cowboys. “Before the fire, since the early days, it was a little hotel, a brothel, a trading post and later a speakeasy during Prohibition. It rebounded with rafting and music throughout the 1980s and ’90s for bikers, rafters, fisherman and hippies. It was rocking until the fire.” Its grand reopening last month (June 2011) included concerts and music on the newly rebuilt stages.

McManus observed that there weren’t really any rules for roadhouses and honky-tonks unless patrons went past the unwritten allowable, and you could get away with even more after midnight. “These were venues where the people living out in the rural mountain areas could meet, listen to live bands, drink and not worry about the laws and the rules. On most occasions, you could find a crap game or two going on in the bar.” Music that was played in more-isolated honky-tonks tended to be good-time country bands. “I talked to somebody who played rock-and-roll in a country bar and every time they played that type of song it would rain beer bottles. They had been hired by mistake because of a misunderstood name the band had. But if you’re musically inappropriate in a place like this, the audience will let you know physically that you’re in the wrong place. I have played behind a caged stage to protect bands from flying burgers and beer bottles.”

McManus feels the death of honky-tonks is because of several reasons, “One reason is the DUI, but that’s one of the reasons they had their own cabins. Secondly, country music — true country music — has lost most of its venues and there are less country bands regionally. People aren’t going out as much anymore, either. I remember the honky-tonks’ hardwood floor with sawdust, a lot of dancing and drinking and you wouldn’t dare ask for a martini because it was a shot-and-beer place … American beers, thank you. And you better not talk to any pretty girls unless you know who their boyfriend is or was because he may still be there and it doesn’t matter if he ain’t seeing her anymore — you ain’t.” McManus describes the basic difference between a roadhouse honky-tonk and a dive as, “The number of Harleys out front. If it’s a honky-tonk, there would be pickup trucks in the parking lot. If you see one SUV, move on … it’s been turned.”

Although true mountain roadhouses and honky-tonks have either transformed or disappeared into the setting sun, saloons with their odoriferous air of fermentation, dance floors and music are still alive and well at high-altitude locales and worth much exploration … which surely means a future Mountain Music story of its own.

Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer, traveler and musician living in a tiny cottage with a ginormous cat on an alley at the end of the road in Crested Butte’s paradise. A feature writer for the Crested Butte News-Weekly, her musings and photography have been published in numerous mags and rags around the planet. Contact

Hip-Hop Grandma Doles Out Sex Advice

Being the road-traveling warrior he is, MURS, who’s played Breckenridge and other mountain towns this season, thought he had seen it all — until he met Denver’s hip-hop mom a few years ago.


He showed up for a gig, only to hear minutes later, “MURS — Your mom’s here, and she brought food.” He ignored it, sayin’ his mama was in South Central, but the announcements continued. “Someone’s mom is here.” Finally, the band checked it out, only to find a short, white, middle-aged grandmother who had stormed onto the tour bus, homemade pecan pie in hand.

“I’m the hip-hop mom,” she proclaimed. “I just thought I’d bring you some food, made with fresh herbs I cut from my garden.”

“I was so nervous to eat the food — I was thinking, ‘Who are you? Who does this? Are you gonna poison us?’ but I was so hungry, and it was so good,” MURS said.

And the encounter didn’t end with an innocent piece of pie. A few months later, she barged backstage at the Fillmore to lecture MURS, De La Soul and a couple other hip-hop artists on some different pieces of pie.

“I know you guys have no idea how to [have sex] — you think just because you have big penises you know how to [have sex],” she said.

After clearly getting the boys’ attention, she hit ’em with a freestyle rap.

“It just flowed out of her,” MURS said. “She just emasculated the black male.”

Apparently, she was just revving up.

“It went over the top; there was some descriptions,” MURS said. “But she said she was only trying to help the women of Colorado we’re gonna sleep with.”

Taking a turn into detainment

After touring Western mountain towns, MURS headed back east, but took a wrong turn into Canada, by way of a Niagara Falls detour. MURS had invited a friend on the road trip and let him drive, with a firm instruction: “Do not cross the border. I have horror stories about crossing the border.” Despite the warning, his friend accidentally took the bridge of no return. As he made a U-turn, America’s finest Border Patrol stood, waiting to greet them. Patrol didn’t care about the band getting lost; they immediately pulled all eight people out of the van, pairing them up with one armed guard per person.

Apparently, responding to the request to fill out required paperwork with, “I don’t have to fill out shit because I didn’t go anywhere” doesn’t go a long way with border cops. They detained the men for three hours. Actually, the guys may have gotten away with the smart-ass remark, if the cops hadn’t found a ski mask and fake gun when they started searching the van. Seems the DJ thought the props made a funny skit on stage — but not so much on the border. From there, it got worse:

“One of the guys on the road with us was a felon, so he wasn’t allowed to cross into Canada. (The patrol) searched the van and asked if there’s weed in there,” MURS said, “And he said, ‘Of course there’s weed, and I’m the felon with the weed.’”

As MURS tells it, the cops finally let them go, saying, “Just get the fuck out of here.” Luckily, patrol never discovered the machete stashed near the side of the van; they probably wouldn’t have bought the story that MURS was just trying to be a good citizen. But, it’s true: During a break at their previous gig, they found a machete next to a beer in the back alley.

“We threw the beer out, but we didn’t think it was smart to let a guy who was drinking go around with a machete,” MURS said.

Naw, it’s a much more solid plan to transport the machete across the border.

Kimberly Nicoletti is the entertainment editor for the Summit Daily News. She lives in Silverthorne, Colo.

The Damned DUI Factor

Rock-and-roll musicians have always been associated with survival, tagged as scrappers and road warriors who party all night after eating copious plates of food at wedding and corporate gigs, washing it all down with the host’s top-shelf liquor and still able to charm the garters off bridesmaids for a scandalous evening. Back in the day, it was a well-earned badge as your equipment-loaded van screamed into a slide of death at 3 a.m. on a recently closed mountain pass in a white-out blizzard. All this just to get to get to that next club gig, which paid a pittance, comped greasy burgers or nachos and if the bartender took a shine to you, free drinks. If you really scored, the club put you up in the band crash pad with the unidentifiable sticky black gunk on the shag carpet, cigarette burns on the couch and the sagging mattresses where half the town’s women spent the night with one or all of the previous weeks’ band members. But hey, they were paying jobs and for most of the musicians who were fortunate to live through the historic cornucopia of mountain gigs twenty and thirty years ago, the times have now changed. It’s an evolution of perspective, economics, aging and staying afloat. No, we’re not growing up, just redefining priorities and transposing the way music is created, performed and sold.

Metalhead. Photo: Dawne Belloise

Music business is conducted in a far different manner than it was a couple of decades ago, primarily due to the internet reinterpreting how audiences all over the world access and listen, as well as how artists promote. Mountain musicians who have had to be especially good at creating market have expanded the parameters of their careers by reaching a limitless online audience.

Once upon a time, when gigs were plentiful, talented musicians could make a decent living playing full time and not have to take second jobs waiting tables or cleaning toilets until discovered by a talent agent. But much of that changed in the mid-’90s, according to Chuck Hughes, who’s been a band leader for forty years in various incarnations of Top 40 to Rockabilly with Chucky & the Cyclones and currently the Colorado-based Hillbilly Hellcats. “The DUI was the downfall of band gigs. That’s not to say that you don’t have several bands at any given time whose popularity will overcome any social or economic condition, like Big Head Todd, The Fray, Leftover Salmon, String Cheese, but DUI affected the fortunes of eighty or ninety percent of the bands.” Chuck attributes his musical longevity to a very basic essentiality. “I had no other marketable skills. I started out in the ’70s playing six nights a week in a Top-40 band and teaching guitar lessons in a store. Back then, for three-nighters, a quartet would be making $100 per person per night at a club and on six-nighters, maybe $80 a night. In the mid-’90s, we’d play mountain gigs where you got a condo, a ski pass and food for a six-night gig.”

Chris Daniels and the Kings formed back in 1984, and they’ve been playing consistently for the past twenty-seven years. “It’s very difficult these days. Bands now have to be incredibly versatile to make a living just playing music. In the old days, we could do a circuit,” he says of the glut of clubs, many which no longer exist as music venues. “You’d play six nights a week and, after six weeks, you’d come through and do the circuit again. Now it’s three or four bands per night at one club. Instead of making a $1,000, you’re making $200.” As far as traveling to mountain-town gigs, Chris says, “We do mostly mountain festivals; summer concert series are what we tend to play now as opposed to the mountain bars. Our crowd is older now. They want to go out with their kids and a basket full of chicken. They don’t want to go out to a bar with twenty-one-year-olds and do Jager shots and throw up.”

Back when there were agents doing much of the promoting and booking, bands didn’t have to hustle as much as they do now. Musicians do their own marketing these days, advertising in specialty magazines on both local and national levels. With a single posting on your band’s Facebook page, your closest one to five thousand friends across the globe get the party going and the club packed out in their town. “Artist management is basically handled by the artist these days as opposed to the old days where the first thing you tried to do was get a manager,” Chris says.

With club venues generally shrinking for live music, bands have taken their sound abroad, especially to the lucrative European market, where audiences are educated about the music itself. Chris, who also teaches music business and both rock-and-roll and jazz music history at the University of Colorado’s Denver campus, believes, “Europeans understand the history of the music that’s being played, whereas most American audiences tend not to know that they’re hearing a blues band or the roots of the music.” Chuck found that Europeans don’t look at your age. “The Europeans are first impressed by the fact that you’re an American band playing American roots music and not the newest commercial flavor of the month. They feel they’re experiencing authentic American roots and they’re much more interested.”

The indie musician licensing business started to kick in through the internet around 2001. Chuck’s band, which had forty songs on, was contacted by “They wanted to license all of our songs for TV and movies. I thought it was typical music biz jive talk but nonetheless I filled out all the paperwork and checks started coming in. By 2005, our income had switched to music licensing, music downloads and live shows.”

Apparently age and experience also initiated a generational paradigm shift in the band collective concerning the continual sex, drugs and party-seeking factor of rock-and-roll. Chuck feels, “When you’re twenty-something, you’ll think nothing of staying up all night and getting wasted if you think you’re gonna get laid, but when you’re older, you ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it?’ And it’s not novel anymore,” he admits in a been-there-done-that tone. Chris agrees that stereotypical endless rock-and-roll recreation is not for his age group. “The days of groupies end when you reach your mid-forties. What becomes important for me is the music, more important than the party, much more important than hanging out with a twenty-year-old who wants to talk about Lady Gaga.”

One thing hasn’t changed and won’t likely anytime in the future — musicians are still paying those hard-earned, steamroller, low-down, whippin’-post dues … but that’s what gives them the rock-ribbed, metamorphic tenacity to carry on.

The Hillbilly Hellcats are on Facebook and

Chris Daniels and the Kings are on Facebook and

Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer, traveler and musician living on an alley at the end of the road in Crested Butte’s paradise. A feature writer for the Crested Butte News-Weekly, her musings and photography have been published in numerous mags and rags around the planet. Contact

The Original Mountain Slamdance

“Conversation didn’t seem necessary when I put the accordion down and swung some young lady around the floor.”
– Lawrence Welk

Pete Dunda performs outside in Crested Butte. Photo by Dawne Belloise

You’re wondering what a dance step ever had to do with dots. Or bubbles. Or what this has to do with mountain music. Maybe you remember how your elderly grandparents carried on about some guy named Welk with a bubble machine and his own orchestra and a TV show. Well, polka is back with a new fervor and it’s not just a geezer three-step anymore. The lively bounce has evolved into the modern equivalent of Slovenian slam dancing, drawing in younger crowds who grew up with mosh-pit ethics. Grab a brewski, a partner and twirl into the sea of musical bumper cars, because anyone who can count to three and is still breathing can polka. The trickiest part of the groove is not to slosh your beer on the downbeat, because the old timers on the floor frown upon wasted brew.

Early Central European immigrants, who came to mountain towns for work in the mines, brought with them musical traditions and culture that involved accordions, concertinas, horns and drums that broke into impromptu home jams and consequently ended up on packed barroom dance floors extending into the streets. You can bet the immigrants knew how to hold on to their drinks and their partners in the heat of the whirling oompah. Every mining town from the late-1800s into the 1900s had its own band composed mostly of the original work-hard/party-harder clan who hailed primarily from Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Germany, Ireland and Italy. After washing off the ore dust, they’d often grab their instruments and the entire family would head to the bar, which was an extension of the living room. Often, a toddler’s first steps were a three-step polka.

The Pete Dunda Band has been playing the polka-dancing circuit since 1976, but Pete’s been on the polka party scene for more than 40 years, taking accordion lessons since the age of seven — six-plus decades ago. Spanning a 23-year Air Force career as laser physicist and jet fighter pilot to being the ultimate polka king, Pete has continuously played various Rocky Mountain holiday events. He remembers earlier times in high-altitude bars. “It was very crowded and very wild in those days,’ he says. “At the early dances, you couldn’t move on Memorial Day … but the Fourth of July was obscene.”

The cultural generation gap was a bit wider then, as the old timers came to polka but the younger and newer locals and visitors would just want to bounce around spilling their beer all over everything and everyone. Pete remembers a quarter-inch of fermented amber liquid engulfing the entire floor and submerging the electrical cords for the band’s equipment just waiting to add even more spark to the already lively steps. “It got to be a drunk-out. Someone was going to get hurt on the dance floor,” he worried, but no one ever did, and the party was carried forward. These days the floors are jammed with all ages of dancers, couples young and old happily smashing into each other while laughing hysterically, like an upright rhythmic game of Twister between good neighbors.

Polka was probably invented by a Bohemian Polish peasant woman named Anna Slezak in a small country town outside of Prague in the early 1830s. It was composed to a folk song entitled, “Strycek Nimra Koupil Simla” (“Uncle Nimra Brought a White Horse”). Anna called the step “Madera” because of its quickness and liveliness, but “pulka” is Czech for “half-step,” which refers to the rapid shift from one foot to the other. The accordion, the backbone of the polka, was patented in 1829 and had only buttons and not the modern piano accordion with keys, which came into vogue around 1885.

After WWII, more German and Slavic immigrants to the United States brought their traditional folk songs and adapted them to polka mode as the craze of the ’50s brought various styles of polkas and the popularization of both the dance and the accordion. Names such as Yankovic, Cantino and Welk all put the dance on the floor and into the mainstream. Polka parties were held at local bars to celebrate the victories, homecoming and family. Jake Spritzer Sr., an old-timer from a mining family in Crested Butte, learned to polka as a young child, as his father played accordion. In those days, the Spritzer family had a band, but they would also play solo. “Nothing was planned,” Jake remembers. “They’d just sit down and do it. They were all very talented and several others around town also had instruments.”

Spritzer recalls how the locals would spill out into the streets dancing because, “The bars were so packed you couldn’t walk in or out. I was little, so I thought every town did this.”

Most mining-town populations in the Rockies did dance and play with abandon whenever they could carve a moment from their harsh real-world lives. Not only a stress relief from being cooped up in dark, dank mines all day, it was a celebration of memories of the old country. The homemade dandelion wine common and abundant in those days helped loose the feet and spirit. Back in the post-WWII days, the Fourth of July and Memorial Day were Jake’s favorites when, “Everyone would get together at each other’s houses and share lots of food. Everyone would stop over here and over there and accordions would be played.” It was a moving feast that ended up in the bars for a polka and a waltz.

It’s important to carry on tradition … being spun in tight circles while knocking back pints of libation in the swelter of a frothing dance floor where all that dizziness perhaps imitates love, invokes a collective memory of the old world and music that certainly makes everyone euphoric. Give in to your inner bohemian and save us a dance …

Check out the Pete Dunda Band at; for more info on the Rocky Mountains’ largest polka fest and club, visit; in Colorado, the Edelweiss Club is a German dance organization with great info at

Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer, traveler and musician living in a tiny cottage with a ginormous cat on an alley at the end of the road in Crested Butte’s paradise. A feature writer for the Crested Butte News-Weekly, her musings and photography have been published in numerous mags and rags around the planet. Contact

Mayor McCheese, and mountain culture, missing

Leftover Salmon sans Mayor McCheese.

Leftover Salmon’s iconic Mayor McCheese has been missing since the new millennium went double digits: The 40-pound, three-foot-tall plastic figure disappeared on New Year’s Eve 2009/10 when Colorado’s self-described “Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass” musicians played at The Ogden in Denver.

Since the early 1990s, LOS toured with the McDonald’s playground figure, originally liberated from a Denver chain in the 1980s and granted custodial care to Leftover Salmon when a friend moved from Crested Butte. Audiences would work the cheeseburger head up to orbital warp speeds as its sesame-seed bun surfed mountain crowds far and wide.

Leftover Salmon fans regularly “stole” the Mayor, then returned it once they had their way with it — and the band had its way with the pranksters.

After one woman posed with the head — riding it naked — the musicians photocopied her picture with the caption, “Have you seen this cheeseburger?” and hung it on every telephone poll within a half-mile radius of their gig. (Luckily, she had the good sense to put a bag over her own head before straddling the infamous noggin).

Another gig gag in Washington led to a ransom note demanding 500 pounds of feed corn for the wide-grinning mascot. The corn worshippers ceremoniously returned the Mayor in full splendor, with a 30-piece marching band ushering him in. Little did the bar owner know that Leftover Salmon members made good on their end by passing out plentiful corn feed to the crowd, who expected the Mayor’s return that night. As the marching band came in, corn began a flyin’.

“It looked like a beehive for the next half hour in the room,” said Leftover Salmon front man Vince Herman. “We never played that venue again. They were a little pissed.”

The Mayor’s latest disappearance is perhaps symbolic of the changes Herman sees in mountain towns altogether: the vanishing of true ski-bum traditions.

“The early 1990s made a festering ski culture in Crested Butte,” Herman says as he recalls a 1990 boisterous gig at the Eldorado. “People were psyched to be on the mountain, the town was fun and cheap, and people slam danced. The faster the bluegrass, people went nuts because of what the ski towns were in the 1990s … they were really connected to each other; club owners were really tight, as the locals were. If we were starting the band today, I don’t think we could have that strong physical response. Now the mountains are populated by a different kind of ski bum. They have to have more jobs, they can’t buy a house — ski corporations are mainstream and not allowing the delicious divergence that once was … there’s a little less personality being brewed out there. We’re all becoming a little more white bread.”

And though Leftover Salmon hasn’t received ransom or any communication from the Mayor McCheese kidnappers, and the musicians “fear the worst” for their cheesy friend, Herman still maintains hope, for both the Mayor and ski town culture.

“I think the rowdiness of ski towns is ready to happen again because of the fall of the real estate market,” he said. “Mountain towns are where young people went to retire, and I think they can be again.”

River rats and ski bums alike can catch Leftover Salmon, most likely sans McCheese, June 12 at State Bridge near Bond, Colo. The band is playing at the Grand Re-opening party of the New State Bridge Amphitheatre (which officially opens May 28), after a fire destroyed the property in 2007.

Kimberly Nicoletti is the entertainment editor for the Summit Daily News. She lives in Silverthorne, CO.