CARBONDALE - Nick Dunbar has a vision for the ideal music experience. It starts with informality - more a bunch of people swapping songs with everyone encouraged to join in than a proper performance with a divide between artist and audience. The instruments aren't plugged in, the better to pass the mandolins and guitars around. The tunes are simple. There's beer.
"I love being able to call up a couple buddies and just play," Dunbar said. "For me, the best songs are the ones you can sing around a campfire, that people can sing along to as soon as you start. It's cool to be with five or six guys you know, or don't know, and you say, 'OK, we're picking,' and everybody knows what it means. You can sit around and play all night and, at the end, sound like a band."
As it happens, this is pretty much exactly how Dunbar became a member of Mountain Standard Time. The acoustic-oriented group had been together for a year and was earning a buzz in the Boulder area when, in 2010, its mandolinist, a family guy who was older than his mates, decided to bow out. Dunbar, who had been studying music at Boulder's Naropa University and playing at "picks" - the acoustic version of a jam session - got an invite to hang out with the rest of the Mountain Standard Time gang at its home base in Nederland, bring his mandolin and see what happened.
"It wasn't a tryout," the 28-year-old Dunbar said, adding that he still arrived for the gathering with a nervous edge. "They invited me to come out, jam, check it out. I went up there, drank a bunch of beers, vibed out. Everyone was all smiles. I felt like I was back in high school with my best friends, just going off on stuff we'd never done before but diving in and having faith it would go well. I was sold right then."
The next thing he knew, Dunbar was spending days with Stan Sutton, the band's lead singer and guitarist, learning material as quickly as possible.
"It wasn't even charts - just the chords," Dunbar said. "It was, 'OK, you play guitar on these songs, mandolin on these songs. Good luck.' That's a good lesson in ear training."
Within a week, Dunbar was playing his debut gig as a member of Mountain Standard Time, at Connor O'Neills in Boulder. A line had formed around the block. The next day, Dunbar and his mates drove to Crested Butte for the Chili and Beer Festival. Drew Emmitt, from the prominent Colorado band Leftover Salmon, sat in for Mountain Standard Time's entire set.
"I went from a raging show to having one of my heroes sit in for the whole show," Dunbar said. "I bowed out of my other projects soon after."
Mountain Standard Time, which has played the Wakarusa and 10,000 Lakes festivals and headlined the Boulder Theater and Belly Up Aspen, plays tonight at PAC3 in Carbondale. The band is coming off a short break in which it broke in two new members, keyboardist Ryan Ebarb and bassist Otis Landy.
Growing up in Southern California, Dunbar had little background as an acoustic player. An electric guitarist, he got some passing familiarity with bluegrass through the jam-band scene: the occasional bluegrass-inspired bursts played by Phish; String Cheese Incident, which was based partly in string-band music; and Old and in the Way, an acoustic group that included the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia on banjo. After two years studying music at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Dunbar went to Belize. A guitar was too big to bring, so he traveled with a beat-up mandolin and learned the simple pleasures of unplugged music.
Dunbar says Colorado's mountain towns, such as Nederland, are perfect breeding grounds for string bands.
"Four or five times a week, there'd be a pick at the bar, in someone's house," said Dunbar, who recently moved to Boulder. "Everyone plays. When you hang out, you don't put on music and drink beer - you pull out instruments and drink beer."
Colorado is also a welcoming place, Dunbar said, for bands such as Mountain Standard Time, which features drums and keyboards.
"You go to the South, where this music came from, and people say, 'That's not bluegrass, blah, blah, blah,'" he said. "In this area, people love bluegrass but also Americana, rock 'n' roll, all of it. We're smack-dab in the middle of the country, and we get people coming in from everywhere. There aren't too many people here pointing fingers, saying, 'That's not traditional bluegrass.' We have that freedom to evolve into our own sound."