Bluegrass lovers jam in Carbondale |

Bluegrass lovers jam in Carbondale

Marilyn Gleason
Carbondale correspondent
Jam organizer Kayo Ogilby, left on banjo, with Dos Gringos Burritos owner Nelson Oldham and another picker who dropped by on a Sunday evening. (Jane Bachrach/Valley Journal)

Aspen, CO Colorado

CARBONDALE ” By 6 p.m. on a recent Sunday evening, Dos Gringos had a pretty good crowd, lured by more than the burritos.

A pile of instruments accumulated near the entrance. Ron Dropcho brought his standup bass all the way from Gilpin to join the weekly bluegrass jam at the Carbondale eatery/coffeehouse.

After a seemly period of socializing and greetings, a circle of chairs quickly materialized in a cranny between the espresso counter and the front window and filled with 10 musicians bearing instruments plucked from the pile. Two mandolins, a banjo, a Dobro, a fiddle, the big bass and a bunch of guitars vibrated tentatively to life, then fell into synchronicity as the music began.

Discernible voices of many strings wove together in descending and ascending patterns, layered with human voices.

Lionel Fillis, at 62, is the elder member of the ensemble on this particular Sunday. Fillis is a gospel singer who lives in Glenwood Springs. He said he’s been playing the guitar “since the flood.”

“I love this. I live for this,” he said of the bluegrass jam.

“Not all towns have jams,” said Nina Schnipper, host of the popular Saturday morning bluegrass program, “Smokin’ Grass” on Carbondale’s KDNK, and girlfriend to Dropcho.

Carbondale hasn’t had one for long, either. Just this fall, posters appeared on local bulletin boards exhorting readers to, “Ask your doctor if bluegrass is right for you.” Dos Gringos hosted its first Sunday night bluegrass jam on Sept. 10.

The restaurant’s proprietor, Nelson Oldham, hasn’t quit his day job yet, but on the side he plays guitar and sings for local acoustic folk/bluegrass band Midlife Crisis.

Oldham wants to see the audience grow for spontaneous bluegrass music in Carbondale, but he said it doesn’t need to be huge and he isn’t in it for the money. He even has a mission statement: “No cover – no agenda.”

“That just means we’re just trying to do something with a big space that’s fun,” said Oldham.

Noting that few establishments offer free, live music, Oldham speaks of a larger vision of bending his business to serve partly as a community center where neighbors can meet for fun activities. The bluegrass jam is one tack on his course to fulfilling that dream.

“I’m hoping it turns more into a family night with kids,” said Oldham. “My feeling is if you’re going to go out and eat anyway, you might as well go where there’s music.”

Dan Johnson drove from Snowmass Village, where he works about half the month, and brought his wife, Kathy, to hear the music after he saw a notice in an Aspen newspaper. Johnson lives in Winfield, Kansas, well known to bluegrass lovers as home to the Walnut Valley Festival.

Johnson plays a tuba, but he didn’t bring it to the jam. He said he comes out to see live bluegrass at every opportunity. “I think it’s wonderful,” he said after the music began.

Banjo player Kayo Ogilby nudged the bluegrass jam into existence and sustains it with regular infusions of his energy. A member of the local Hell Roaring String Band, Ogilby has a day job teaching science at Colorado Rocky Mountain School.

Two years ago, Ogilby took a sabbatical in New York City, where he studied under bluegrass master Tony Trishka. He’s taken it upon himself to add a modicum of structure to the bluegrass jam. He created a packet with two CDs and 23 songs to assist aspiring bluegrass players. Each month he selects a classic bluegrass song for all the musicians to learn and practice. Past and present songs-of-the-month are played every Sunday. Said Ogilby, “It helps build the repertoire,” and the confidence of the group as those songs, continually reworked by many fingers, take on a high polish.

On this night, two of Ogilby’s former students dropped in to play music, balancing out the demographics with their youth. Chris Kelly’s mother, Laura, came from Basalt to watch her son join in. She said Chris has pursued music since he studied it at CRMS by playing drums and guitar.

These days he’s thinking of going into music eduction, she said, possibly to return to CRMS as a teacher. For now, he’s honing his skills alongside professional musicians in an atmosphere that is part performance and part play in the supportive cocoon of the weekly bluegrass jam.

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