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Bass hit with Oakhurst

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Will ByingtonDenver quintet Oakhurst performs Sunday, April 17 at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN – Despite a sour experience in fifth grade, when Johnny James Qualley was kicked out of band – “I didn’t like the program. I rebelled at a young age,” he said – Qualley found himself, as a young man, improbably immersed in music. He wasn’t playing it – the skills tend to lag after a grade-school drop-out – but in most other ways, his life was tied to music.Living in Las Vegas, he worked in record stores and did promotions for concerts, and even super-cool stuff like buying cognac for rapper Ice T, erecting scaffolding for Grateful Dead shows, and pulling the cloak off the gargoyle used by metal band, Danzig.”But I realized the only way to really have fun was to be on-stage, playing,” the 40-year-old said while walking around downtown Denver, his home for the last 15 years. “At 20-21, I realized I was surrounded by it, seeing all these great people on-stage. Something inside of me wanted to be those people, and I acted on it. It’s fun to be a fan, but it’s really fun to be a musician.”In Vegas, Qualley became a musician, though not the kind that was likely to appear on a stage. He jumped from one instrument and one style to the next, jammed with all sorts of people, worked on “some experimental, improvised soundtrack-type stuff,” as he put it. “I was just wetting my feet, trying to figure out how to do this,” he said.Among his more pointless activities at the time was taking a friend’s Flying V bass guitar, drilling a hole in it, and sticking it on the base of a fan. The resulting instrument, which they called Bass on a Stick, was mostly for laughs: “It was a ridiculous instrument,” Qualley said. But it was also a reminder of his deep affection for the jazz bassists Charles Mingus and Ron Carter.And it eventually led him to his current position, as bassist for the Denver quintet Oakhurst. The band, which has been a full-time touring outfit for six years and is working on its fifth album, plays a free show on Sunday, April 17, at Belly Up Aspen.More significant than the Bass on a Stick in Qualley’s development as a bassist was the item he bought in a Las Vegas pawn shop. The instrument was an upright bass, but the shop owners – like many others since – mistook it for a cello. Because of the misidentification, it was bargain priced at $400. (A cello, apparently, goes for less than a bass.)The bass doesn’t seem to have been a prized possession. When Qualley moved to Denver in the mid-’90s, he left the bass behind in the interests of space. But not long after, he returned to Vegas to retrieve the instrument. Upon arriving back in Colorado, he celebrated being reunited with the bass by arranging a jam session. Among the participants was Adam Patrick Hill. A Tennessee native, Hill was a singer and songwriter who goes by the initials A.P. – just like the early folk icon, Alvin Pleasant Carter – and who was one of the musicians Qualley had hooked up with in Denver. Between Hill, Qualley and the bass, there was enough chemistry to form something that resembled a band.”It was when I started on bass that I figured out what my calling was. That’s where I got my focus,” Qualley said. “[The bass] makes your hands sore, gives you blisters. It’s awkward. But Adam was real patient and cool, helping me learn the songs he’d written and a few cover songs. We’d practice every night, and that’s when we started to sound like a band.”Left up in the air is just what kind of band they started to sound like. In the years since Oakhurst formed, the players who have accompanied Qualley and Hill have changed often, and the style of music has been fluid as a result. Having listened only to their most recent album, 2008’s “Jump in the Getdown,” I put them in the category of progressive bluegrass – a string band with drums added to push the beat, a breed commonly found in Colorado.But Qualley said “Jump in the Getdown” was only a representation of Oakhurst at that moment, when banjoist Zach Daniels was still part of the group. The band’s first recording, an EP titled “Loose & Prosperous,” had “nothing bluegrass about it,” according to Qualley. “It was short songs, based on acoustic guitar.” The second EP, “Greenhorn,” added mandolin, which added a bluegrass element, but also piano, which did not. “Greenhorn,” said Qualley, “was a little stompier.”Oakhurst has been nominated for the title of best band in Denver six years in a row – in five different categories, a source of both pride and puzzlement to Qualley. They have been nominated in rock, Americana, roots and bluegrass; their one win came in the bluegrass category, beating out one of their idols, banjoist Pete Wernick. “There’s no way we’re better than Pete Wernick at bluegrass,” Qualley confessed.The nominations in various categories aren’t simply a matter of people unsure how to describe Oakhurst’s sound. “If you listen to the first album and then the more recent stuff, the divergence is pretty substantial,” he added.The current Oakhurst lineup – mandolinist and electric guitarist Max Paley, drummer Chris Budin and dobroist and slide guitarist Daniel Lawrence Walker, plus Qualley and Hill – has been at work on a new album, recording in Denver and Nashville.Qualley is eager to see how the new album turns out. For the first time, the band is working with a notable producer – Joe Pisapia, a member of the rock band Guster, and currently part of k.d. lang’s new Siss Boom Bang band. “He’ll be making the thing sparkle, without being totally, 100 percent Nashville,” Qualley said.But Qualley isn’t just anticipating how good the new album will be; he can’t wait to see just what Oakhurst sounds like in its latest form. Substituting slide guitar for banjo – “the slidey sound instead of the rolling sound,” Qualley said – is a big shift. And Hill, the primary songwriter, moves constantly through influences, from folk to Phish, Jack White to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.”Now it’s much more roots-rock Americana,” Qualley said. “There’s not much bluegrass about us if you don’t have the banjo going. The stuff we’re doing now is the most important thing. And it’s all kind of new right now.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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