“The Road To ARISE” is a series of conversations writer Brian Turk will be having with ARISE Festival Artists. It is presented by ARISE Music Festival, Oskar Blues Brewery, Listen Up Denver, The Marquee Magazine and Harmony Yoga.
The Road To ARISE – Part 1- The Infamous Stringdusters
For the first time I will be attending a music Festival in Colorado as a “visitor”. I chose that word carefully, because I am far from a tourist. Having lived in Denver for 10 years, its music community became my family. I left Denver last November for what was to be a short trip to New Orleans, but I connected to the Crescent City immediately, and I never got on my return flight to the Mile High. I have been busy soaking in all New Orleans has to offer…the architecture, the music, the food, the fun-loving lifestyle, but I still manage to miss Colorado every day… at least once. Why? Because Denver is where I became me. Where I found the friends and the music I had always been looking for. The great craft beer was a bonus. The following interview with Andy Hall is the first installment of a series of interviews called “The Road to ARISE”, where I will interview ARISE artists during the month leading up to the festival.
Andy Hall, dobro player with the Grammy Nominated band The Infamous Stringdusters, is one of the many people that got pulled to Colorado, and upon arrival, realized just how well he fit. Colorado did the same for me, and there is a good chance you have a similar story as well. The fact is, Colorado is easy to love, and so is its amazing music scene, especially when it’s festival season.
The ARISE Festival will be held in Loveland August 8, 9 and 10, and The Infamous Stringdusters will be one of the many acts performing over the 3 days. The Stringdusters are a force on the bluegrass scene, not only in Colorado, but across the country. Originally formed in 2007, the band has seen some lineup changes, including the addition of Andy Hall in 2011. Known for their fiery live performance and the attention to detail in every note, the Stringdusters are masters of their craft. Here is my conversation with Andy Hall, which may give you some insight on just how much this man and his band loves bluegrass, Colorado, and Oskar Blues.
BT: How long ago did you move to Colorado from Nashville?
AH: It’s been two years now.
BT: What made you decide to make the move?
AH: Well, career and music wise, I actually thought that I could never leave Nashville. I really liked it there, as well. Once I got touring on the road a lot with The Stringdusters, I had a shift in my thinking. The band was touring a lot, there was plenty going on that I traveled to do, and when I got home I was looking for peaceful and quiet times. We had toured in Colorado so much that I grew very familiar with the state, but it always seemed like a place I never could live. It was always just a beautiful place you could visit. I was always envious of the people who lived there. My decision to move from Nashville to Colorado was a quality of life choice, really. I just wanted a beautiful place in the mountains I could spend my time of the road. Besides the beauty, the music scene really drew me to Denver, as well. I had the chance of meeting Governor Hickenlooper at one of our shows, and he told us that Denver has the most music venues per capita of almost any city in the country. The music scene was a huge factor. A lot of the people I meet in Colorado aren’t from there, and when you talk them it’s like they are winking at you acknowledging the fact, I made it, too.
BT: Kinda’ like, “Welcome home. We’ve been waiting for ya.”
AH: Exactly. Welcome home. We both made it.
BT: When you mentioned you didn’t think you could ever leave Nashville, I assume because the music scene is so established there. You moving here says something for our scene. People are starting to catch on, but not everyone knows just how much music is made in Colorado.
AH: If I just looked at it career wise, aside from Nashville, there is really no other place I could live as a bluegrass musician. Colorado has one of the most established acoustic music scenes. It’s pretty impressive. Before the Stringdusters I did a lot of session work, and Nashville was important for that, but in Colorado, the live music scene is more robust. Colorado’s music scene is just as vibrant, if not more, than Nashville’s. When you go out to play for people here, there are big crowds. Where in Nashville, you might be playing with the best musicians on the planet, but there are only 40 people. In Colorado, it’s like anything you do, on any night of the week, there is a big crowd of people ready to listen. The level of music appreciation, and the appreciation of good times, just to be involved in the scene, is pretty remarkable.
BT: Especially when it comes to bluegrass. Colorado has been an incubator, and allowed bluegrass to take a whole other step. And it’s been going on for a while. How does Colorado foster Bluegrass, and how does bluegrass fit so well here?
AH: Bluegrass music has been in Colorado for a very long time, even though it seems to have reached a pinnacle here lately. Bands like Hot Rize in the 70’s formed an “alternative” bluegrass scene here in Colorado. You can see the roots of what is happening now in the songs back then. They were playing stuff that was more progressive, and outside the main hub of traditional bluegrass coming from the South East, but also, I think there is a connection between the authenticity of acoustic music, bluegrass especially, and the outdoors. Being in the mountains is a real, authentic experience, and so is bluegrass. It isn’t any surprise that people who enjoy being outdoors also love bluegrass music. There is just something about the mountains and bluegrass music. I don’t know exactly what it is. But there’s something.
BT: I have a very metaphysical theory on that thought. Let me see if I can explain it. Being a musician who plays acoustic instruments, you probably have a reverence for wood. I was a woodworker for a long time, so I do, as well. Wood is responsive. Wood absorbs. Wood releases. Wood is porous. It changes sound. The sounds played on an instrument are reflects the nature of the wood it is made of. The wood has soul. Each tree that stands in the hills where music is played absorb sounds being played now, and release sounds they have absorbed from the past, creating a melding of tradition and authenticity with musical progressiveness and exploration. That’s why it’s inspirational for musicians to play in hills and on mountains. They are soaking up the soul, and giving some of their own to replenish what they have received. Stone does the same thing. A high density of tress and stone is like a sponge that sucks up soul and sound, and releases it at the appropriate times. Bluegrass sounds better outdoors because it relies on its surroundings to interact with it……Sorry, I got so deep there.
AH: I totally agree. I also think the style of singing, that high, lonesome style filled with high notes, actually carries and echoes here in the mountains. You can hear in those early Bill Monroe recording from the 60’s where they put a lot of reverb on his voice. They did that so he sounded like he was in the mountains. Because that’s where bluegrass sounds the best. Those recordings almost sound like the mountains. And at festivals, when music comes out of the speakers and flows through a canyon, or past the trees, that’s when it sounds most natural.
BT: There is a lot of tradition, and a lot of spirit in bluegrass. As a bluegrass musician, how do you respect tradition, but forge towards the future and break new ground.
AH: A couple of the things I have always loved about bluegrass is the attention to one’s instrument and the level of musicianship it takes to play it well. You can go out and buy a cheap guitar and within in a week know some simple bluegrass songs, but the sky is the limit from there. I came to bluegrass as a rock and heavy metal guitarist in high school. I used to play shred guitar. Like a Joe Satriani kinda’ vibe. Soaring solos. Then I heard Bill Monroe basically doing the same thing on a mandolin. Most people wouldn’t equate the two, but that was my experience. Hearing Monroe was like this raw, more authentic version of a shredder, on this real, acoustic instrument. The energy of it really related to me. So, I think it’s the sound of the acoustic instruments that keeps the tradition in bluegrass. Playing a banjo or dobro is inherently traditional. The sound brings something up in people. Just the act of playing bluegrass instruments is one element of that tradition. The other thing that keeps tradition in bluegrass is the attention to the language of bluegrass, which can be used in all types of music. It’s a real language, and it’s a real school. If you take the time to learn that language, and that school of playing, it’s a great foundation to play anything. All the best acoustic bluegrass musicians started playing traditional bluegrass. Whether it’s Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas or Tony Rice…they are masters. They mastered the art and the language of bluegrass music and use it as a musical foundational to play whatever they want. Hopefully, if we are lucky, the Stringdusters can do the same. That’s how we do it. How we keep tradition and exploration together. It’s the instruments, spending time to learn the language of bluegrass, and using that as a foundation to play almost anything. If you learn that language, there are a lot of beautiful nuances to bluegrass music that will always stay with you.
BT: A big part of the Strindusters authentic yet explorative sound is your playing on the dobro. Why did you choose the dobro? Why not guitar or banjo? It always interests me how musicians pick their instruments.
AH: Strangely enough, it was a bit of fate. I was playing electric guitar, which brought me to Berklee College of Music when I was 18. I was mainly playing rock electric guitar, but had started playing some slide, and I really enjoyed it. After my first year at Berklee, and because of maybe having bad technique, I got really bad tendonitis. I had chronic pain in my left hand.
BT: So, that’s your fretting hand? Are you right handed? Just want readers to understand the mechanics of what’s going on.
AH: It was my fretting hand. But I could play slide, which I had started doing a little bit already. I was playing more blues slide at the time. A friend of mine took me to my first bluegrass jam, and this guy that I knew had a lap style dobro. It blew my mind, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Within a couple days, my friend gave me a cassette tape of the band Skip, Hop and Wobble, which was a side project of Jerry Douglas-a trio with Edgar Myer and Russ Barenberg. When I heard that, I realized you could do anything on a slide. I thought slide was limited, but when I heard that record, Jerry Douglas showed me anything could be played with a slide. That, combined with the hand injury, pushed me into the dobro.
BT: Oskar Blues is the official beer of ARISE Festival, and you have a special connection with the esteemed craft Brewery out of Lyons, Colorado. Can you tell me a bit about how you became so close with Oskar Blues?
AH: We have been doing a lot of work with Oskar Blues and their Cand’aid Foundation, which they set up to aid with the flood relief in Lyons. I can’t believe it’s less than a year ago the floods happened. It feels like a lot has happened since then. When I moved to Colorado four years ago, I moved to Lyons, which is home of Oskar Blues. Lyons also received some of the worst flood damage, so I was there during the floods. I was stranded in my house. I mean, my closest neighbor’s house was completely sheared in half. The day of the flood, he woke me up by banging on a pot. I ran down to the raging river that used to be a dry creek bed, and there he was, standing in his kitchen. His house was sheared in half, so it was like a cross-section of his house. He was there standing on the edge of what was left of his kitchen floor, banging on a pot, trying to get someone’s attention so he could get help. They are older, and his wife is not well, so they were in a real bad position. I mean that kinda’ stuff was happening all around Lyonsand all around me. Going through that experience with the town of Lyons really brought me closer to my community and those around me.
Oskar Blues started in Lyons, and it is a big part of the community there. Their business model very much jives with the Stringdusters. Do the work you love. Give back. Live life sustainably. And music is very important to Oskar Blues, especially bluegrass. They always have bluegrass at their venues in Lyons and Longmont. I am not sure how we made the initial connection with Oskar Blues. I think we were hunting around for a way to give back. We got in touch with Oskar Blues, and we decided to work with them. They had just started their Can’d Aid Foundation, and we saw Oskar Blues and their support and love of music, as the perfect avenue to give back, so we had a couple tours where money from tickets sold went to Can’d Aid. We also did a song I wrote called “Road To Boulder”, which I had written about Colorado before I moved there, which Bruce Hornsby played on. All the musicians donated their time, including Bruce, and all the engineers including David Glasser, who is a great mastering engineer from Colorado. All the money from downloads of the song went to Oskar Blues’ Can’d Aid Foundation. Our relationship has developed very naturally, and it has been just amazing. Oskar Blues put a hard copy of our CD in like 60,000 of our twelve packs of Dales Pale Ale and Mamma’s Little Pills, which go out all over the country. So we have this great working relationship. Oskar Blues is not a “huge” company, just like we aren’t a “huge” band, and our mentality really jives.
BT: Oskar Blues represents the Colorado lifestyle really well. They represent the life style you and I live. The lifestyle any music lover in Colorado lives.
AH: They sure do. They are even connected to the outdoor life. They have a mountain bike company called REEB, and they have just opened a new brewery on a beautiful piece of property in the hills of Brevard, North Carolina. I asked Dale, the owner of Oskar Blues, “Why Brevard? Why not a bigger town, like Ashville?” He said they wanted to be near farms, where they could get fresh ingredients, and have an outdoor space. I see a lot of music happening on that land in Brevard. I can’t tell you how much we love working with them. Their amazing beer and good music seem to be very much related. Chances are if you are at a show or festival, especially a Stringdusters show, you are drinking Oskar Blues beer, and vice versa.
BT: I think it’s a direct correlation. I don’t think the two events can happen independently.
AH: That’s probably so. (laughs)
BT: ARISE Festival, like Oskar Blues, really represents Colorado well. It’s a sustainable festival. The line-up is diverse and representative of the Colorado music scene as a whole, I believe only Oskar Blues beer is being served there, and there is yoga involved. I mean, that’s about as Colorado as it can get right?
AH: It sure is.
BT: The Stringdusters haven’t played ARISE before, but you are a bluegrass musician who has lived in Colorado for a few years, so you have experienced the magic that happens at music festivals in Colorado. What does the Colorado festival scene mean to you?
AH: To me, a Colorado music festival, like ARISE, is the quintecential festival experience. Because of the natural environment, the appreciation of acoustic music, all the things we have talked about. Arise brings in yoga, the right beer, the right music, and there is thought put into it. All the pieces are put together. You will never just see a tent with Bud Light, you are going to see good, craft beer, like Oskar Blues. It’s a quality experience. Everything people love about Colorado is brought right to you. And I already said it, but the natural beauty of the landscape just can’t be beat. The festival scene In Colorado is so lively. Music fans come in droves. I have played festivals in other parts of the country, where The Stringdusters were the only, or one of the few, bluegrass bands on the bill. In other parts of the country, people aren’t exactly sure what to do when we are playing. They don’t know if they should sit, they should dance, or if they should just stare at us. In Colorado, they know what to do; they have experience. They know the sound, and they know what they want to do when the music plays. They know they want to dance. Everyone knows what they are doing. The band. The audience. The people who bring the beer, especially if it’s Oskar Blues. The people who bring the food. The folks who work the festivals, everyone. Everyone knows what’s going on. They know the vibe; everybody just plugs right in, and it’s amazing.
BT: People who travel to ARISE get to live like a Coloradan for 3 days and see what we get to experience every damn day.
AH: Exactly. They get to experience the mountains, the fresh air, the beer, the music. It’s like us showing them what we do every weekend. People can come and experience all of that in the microcosm of Colorado, at a festival like ARISE.