Album Review by Kevin Slick
“Jeff Scroggins & Colorado is what I call a band that’s firing on all cylinders. I’m not talking about a nice quiet Mercedes—I mean a Pontiac GTO that gets up and goes, and takes you on a ride you won’t forget.” That’s the word from Mark Schatz, producer and bass player on the new album from Jeff Scroggins & Colorado.
Having seen the band a few times this past year at RockyGrass and at IBMA, I agree completely.
Playing for the sea of fans spread out over Planet Bluegrass or at a packed club in Raleigh with people literally sitting at the feet of the band, the sound and the experience is the same. They are not only roaring down a highway as Mr. Schatz observed but are also engaged in a high wire act, rolling and tumbling on the tightrope, soloists leaping out into mid air with the invisible and yet powerful support of the rest of the band.
Jerry Garcia once described bluegrass as music where the instruments “talk to each other.” Dialogue like that requires both listening and space, both of which are a powerful part of the sound of Jeff Scroggins & Colorado.
It may be strange to think of the group as a Colorado band given that none of the members lives within the Rocky Mountain state at present. They are, in fact, spread about as far as possible while remaining on the continent. There is, however, a good case to be made for calling them “Colorado Bluegrass” beyond their early days as residents of the state and of course the name of the band itself.
Just what makes “Colorado Bluegrass” can be debated, but I think the best definition comes from the song Western Skies by our friends Hot Rize in the lyric, “When I’m free, that’s where I’ll be.” Colorado Bluegrass is free. It is informed by, but not constrained by tradition.
The title track “Over The Line” is a perfect example of how this freedom is put to good use. The track, written by Molly Tuttle and Steve Poltz, rips along at a righteous pace that showcases the talents of all the pickers and is likely to please any fan of the more traditional side of bluegrass. The chord structure, though, is more modern, the bridge when Ellie Hakanson takes over from Greg Blake on lead vocals is definitely a departure from the normally rigid rules of traditional bluegrass song structure and of course it works perfectly.
Fans of the band are well acquainted with the instrumental talents of Scroggins, Scroggins and Blake, and those are represented in abundance on the new album. Ellie Hakanson has won acclaim for her fiddling, including a RockyGrass championship but one of the most pleasant surprises is her vocals featured throughout this recording. Hakanson sings with a power and authenticity that belies her age. When she sings “A Few Old Memories” you could easily believe you’ve found an old Kitty Wells or Patsy Cline recording.
One thing I appreciated listening to the album was the inclusion of many tracks that reveal a more sensitive side of the band. We know they can play fast and fierce and so it’s especially nice to hear songs like “Darcy Farrow,” an excellent vehicle for Greg Blake’s soulful vocals. The album also features a couple of instrumentals: “Zig Zag” shows off Jeff Scroggins’ intricate banjo work nicely, and “Boardwalk,” a tune from Tristan Scroggins and Mark Schatz, features not only the sort of instrumental dexterity you expect but also a memorable melody that is strong enough to stick in your mind, and accessible enough to make you want to learn it for the next jam session.
The band are indeed roaring down the highway as producer Mark Schatz described, literally in many ways as a matter of fact with over 300 gigs a year and logging more than 20,000 miles traveled in this past July alone. That kind of schedule will either kill you or forge something powerful. From what I’ve seen in the past few gigs, it’s the latter. Let’s hope that continues.
Jeff Scroggins & Colorado are a dynamic band that are just beginning to reach their potential. Over the Line is a wonderful document of the band and their journey.