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.
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.”
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.
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
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.