If there’s an organization called The Colorado Bluegrass Music Society (and there is!) it is fair to ask just what does that title mean? Is this all about bluegrass music that happens to be played in Colorado? Or, is it possible that “Colorado Bluegrass” is something unique? Attendance at festivals in our big square state would indicate that people come from all over to be part of this scene which lends credence to the idea that there’s something special going on in the higher elevation. We posed this question on the CBMS Facebook page and got many responses. Most centered on an idea that we’re free from structures that might confine music in other places, although some did mention the recent legalization of marijuana as having an effect on the music or musicians.
To take a more scholarly approach I also sat down and talked with Pete Wernick aka Dr. Banjo, who has as good a perspective on what might constitute “Colorado Bluegrass” as anyone. We began by agreeing that it would be impossible to play several tracks from albums and identify the bands from Colorado by their sound. Pete highlighted the fact that many musicians have come here from other places, or were part of a band for a time and have since moved on. Pete observed “There’s the Bluegrass Patriots, and they have a Missouri, mid-west feel to some extent because that’s where Ken Seaman is from. There’s the Brad Folk thread, which has something of a Stanley Brothers sound, but he’s an amazing original songwriter with a unique voice, is that a Colorado style?” Even a seminal Colorado band like Hot Rize isn’t strictly a Colorado band “Tim came here from somewhere else and doesn’t live here now, I’m from New York” Pete said. We came around to the idea of parameters or structures on the music, “Colorado has fewer parameters than D.C. or even California because this is a melting pot and most people are from somewhere else and they’re free, and we used that word in the title of our new album – When I’m free, that’s where I’ll be.”
Being a Colorado transplant myself I can attest to the fact that in other areas, particularly in the southeastern part of the country you have to have a certain number of gospel tunes in your set, no question. Here, not so much the case. Pete continued, “If you want to play “new grass” you can do that, you want to play traditional? Sure, you can do that too. That absence of regionalism is an asset and then there’s the jam scene which is amazing.” I can attest to the power of the jam scene myself. When I moved here ten years ago from the New York City area I was used to quite a lot of good music happening in performances and in jam sessions but was astonished by the variety of high quality jam sessions happening every night of the week on the Front Range. Pete pointed out another element of the Colorado scene, “The audiences in the east are much older for bluegrass. There was some talk several years ago that the genre was dying because bands who travelled in the east were seeing the same people at the festivals year after year, all getting older and no new folks coming into the scene. They didn’t know what was going on out in the west where whole families were coming to festivals and you had kids like Chris Thile jamming when he was five years old.”
Our conversation came around to Noam Pikelny’s recent IBMA keynote speech, which also highlighted the freedom and vitality of the Colorado scene. Of course words like “Freedom” can carry a lot of connotations. It could mean wide-open possibilities for creativity and it could mean chaos. Of course one could endlessly debate what is chaos – to some it would be a bluegrass festival with sounds that went from jam grass to serious jazz influenced acoustic music back to traditional mountain sounds. It may well be that as any musical genre ages it becomes more diverse. Look at the history of jazz or rock and roll for example, what originally constituted a specific style has now expanded to cover a myriad of sounds. It may be that Colorado, with it’s musical population coming from so many different places, is the perfect micro-cosmos of the bluegrass universe where bands like Hot Rize, Yonder Mountain, Jeff Scroggins and Colorado, Rapid Grass, Finnders and Youngberg, Steel Pennies and many more musical explorers chart new courses. Sounds like an exciting place.
It has been said that freedom comes with responsibility, and if freedom is one of the keystones of Colorado Bluegrass, I’d be curious to know what any readers feel our responsibility might be to the music.