Head for the Hills – in Aspen
ASPEN – Matt Loewen, bassist of the Front Range acoustic band Head for the Hills, tells me that the four members met at Colorado State University. I ask if it was in Advanced Bluegrass Studies, and it turns out that my joke is not as far-fetched as I imagined. While CSU has no bluegrass program, East Tennessee State offers a degree in picking: the university, in Johnson City, Tenn., recently started a Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies department.”I’d have to think at this point, probably in the Southeast, other schools are offering degrees in bluegrass,” Loewen said. “Or they should.”Actually, East Tennessee State’s program is unique at the college level. But given the way bluegrass has been elevated in the last decade or so, it wouldn’t be shocking to see mandolinists, fiddlers (and yes, even banjoists) gathering in university classrooms, rather than having their jams relegated to dorm rooms and remote patches of open space. Bluegrass is no longer the rural backwater of the music sphere, looked down on as unsophisticated; thanks to players like Bla Fleck, David Grisman and Chris Thile – and Edgar Meyer, an honored faculty member at the Aspen Music Festival and School – bluegrass seems to have taken its place alongside jazz as an American art form worthy of study, preservation and respect.And, probably even more than jazz at the moment, bluegrass seems a living, thriving entity. Take the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, for instance; a hugely popular gathering, it far outstrips its counterpart, the Telluride Jazz Celebration, in attendance and notoriety. Jazz and classical seem to need institutional support; bluegrass seems to be doing fine at the grassroots level: camping lot gatherings, start-up festivals, and making significant headway into mainstream pop culture. Bluegrass-leaning groups are regularly included at the massive rock-oriented music festivals, and at last year’s Grammy Awards ceremony, bluegrass had a quasi-moment when the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons – two massively popular acts that don’t play bluegrass, exactly, but use bluegrass instruments and ideas – backed Bob Dylan on a wildly entertaining version of “Maggie’s Farm” that had much of the flavor of a parking lot jam.••••Matt Loewen, not unlike his Colorado State schoolmates Adam Kinghorn, Michael Chappell and Joe Lessard, didn’t grow up around bluegrass. Instead, Loewen’s music background consisted of what he called the “usual American model of classic rock, hip-hop and punk,” before he developed an interest in ’70s fusion. Loewen, whose childhood was spent in the Chicago suburb of Batavia, took up clarinet in middle school, then switched to bass for a one-year experiment. When he got to high school, and it came time to start rock bands, he gravitated back toward bass.At Colorado State, Loewen fell in with Kinghorn whose early band, in Golden, played loud punk rock. But before going off to Ft. Collins, Kinghorn had picked up banjo, and started playing acoustic music with his friend, Chappell, a mandolinist. The two led outdoor ed excursions around Jefferson County, and in the cabin, would explore the bluegrass repertoire.In college, Loewen and Kinghorn didn’t have much choice in their musical direction. “We were literally in a dorm room, and you just can’t make that much noise,” Loewen said from his home in Ft. Collins. Kinghorn picked his banjo and gave Loewen instruction in bluegrass-style rhythm guitar. Chappell joined in, as did Lessard, who was born in Tennessee and raised in Boulder, and was learning to play fiddle. When Kinghorn, the ringleader of the loose bunch, learned that Loewen had a background in bass, he put Loewen on bass and took the guitar spot for himself. Then they had to figure out what to do with those instruments.”Bluegrass, and everything that happened that was associated with it, was something new to us, all of us, at the time,” the 26-year-old Loewen said. “Joe had learned some Suzuki program stuff, and you get a little Celtic and fiddle tunes there. The rest of us were new to bluegrass and new to playing acoustic. That model where the parents get their kid the mandolin at age 9 – that’s not us.”Despite the late start, the foursome found that their sound went over reasonably well. So they gave themselves a name, Head for the Hills, and started lining up gigs. One thing they discovered about bluegrass is that it goes over especially well in Colorado.”It’s a music, especially in Colorado and other Western states, where there’s always a following,” said Loewen, who had developed some interest in acoustic-music – mandolinist David Grisman, Tony Rice’s “Manzanita” album – before he began playing it. “Colorado was lucky to birth a few pretty important groups, going back to Hot Rize, then Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon. That created a backdrop where people liked to come out to shows.”At least part of the appeal of bluegrass is its timelessness, how, in an age of more and more electronics and technology and synthesized sounds, bluegrass remains more or less organic. Head for the Hills is part of the recent wave of bands that includes Punch Brothers, Trampled by Turtles, Greensky Bluegrass and Yonder Mountain that are more purist than earlier groups like Railroad Earth, String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon, who were inspired by bluegrass, but didn’t hesitate to incorporate drums, electric guitars and keyboards. Going fully acoustic seems to be a stand against the world of synthesized pop music – drum machines, voices that get an assist from pitch-adjusting equipment, pre-recorded loops disguised as live performance.”Inevitably there’s some amount of push-back against electronic music,” Loewen said. “People might be so turned back by how assaultive that genre can be, and bluegrass is as far from that as you can get.”Which doesn’t mean that Head for the Hills aims solely to turn back the musical clock. While their sound leans toward the traditional, especially for a Colorado band, they aren’t averse to taking a rock tune – Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill,” Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” – and grassing it up. Their website lists James Thomas, a keyboardist, as an honorary member of the group.”The way we play bluegrass, it’s a broad canvas,” Loewen said. “You can go a lot of directions. In Head for the Hills, we don’t feel too many restrictions. Whether you’re arranging a song of someone else’s, or writing an original song, there’s a challenge: how do you fill in the rhythm of drums and electric bass, how do you get that piece right, without those instruments, with bass and mandolin. As a rhythm player, that’s a challenge; that’s different and cool.”One influence that has been seeping into the sound lately is jazz. Loewen has been listening to a lot of jazz, and Kinghorn has immersed himself in jazz.”We’re going there more often,” Loewen said. “I look at the study of jazz as the be-all, end-all of music education. It’s real musical sophistication married with personal expression.”The approach seems to be working; Head for the Hills is on a steady career climb. They have been voted Denver’s best bluegrass band the last two years at Westword Magazine’s Music Showcase, and have appeared at Delfest, a Maryland bluegrass festival put on by the esteemed Del McCoury Band, and Austin’s South by Southwest Festival. The band is preparing to release its first live album, recorded at several Colorado venues; backed Idaho-born singer-songwriter Jessica Kilroy on a series of recordings; and have written songs for their third studio album, which they expect to record early next spring.Head for the Hills begins a string of shows with a headlining appearance Friday, Nov. 18 at 10 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen; next week, they move on to a two-night stand at Denver’s Ogden Theatre, opening for Leftover Salmon. The night before New Year’s Eve they play Telluride’s Sheridan Opera House, which is a potential step toward what Loewen makes clear is one of the band’s ultimate goals: a slot on the mainstage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. (They played a Nightgrass concert during last summer’s festival.)While Head for the Hills makes its way up the bluegrass ladder, Loewen believes acoustic music as a whole is getting a lift. “In the popular sphere, there’s a total influx of music – Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers – that couldn’t be called bluegrass, but has an Americana touch, banjos,” he said. “I don’t think the 17-year-old girl popping in Mumford & Sons on her way to school is going to have the same reaction listening to our music. But it will open your ears, and make it a little easier for bands like us.”••••It turns out that the members of Head for the Hills, none of whom majored in music, might have benefited from at least one class in bluegrass. Even in Beginning Bluegrass 101, they would have learned, probably on day one, that a bluegrass band needs a banjoist – something Head for the Hills is missing.”We’ve developed our own thing around not having a banjo,” Loewen said, adding that the band occasionally has a banjo player sit in. “Banjo has that roll, that loping, driving feel, and you have to figure out how to do that without a banjo. If we were to somehow get another member in the band, it wouldn’t be a banjoist. I think we enjoy being a bluegrass band without a banjo player.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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