Runaway Truck Ramp can’t slow down
Newgrass music – a form that blends traditional bluegrass with everything from rock and funk to Latin and jazz – may never make the big splash that, say, grunge made a few years back. But this can be said about newgrass: It has already outlasted the short-lived grunge fad.And in addition to its apparent endurance over the long haul, newgrass has grown in significant part from roots laid down in Colorado. From the founding of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival 26 years ago, to the rise of more mainstream bluegrass supergroup Hot Rize on the Front Range in the late ’70s, newgrass has been nourished by players and events in Colorado.Over the last few weeks, Aspen has experienced a mini-explosion of newgrass music, with much of it coming from Colorado’s Front Range. The Boulder-based Tony Furtado Band, led by banjoist and acoustic guitarist Furtado, and whose newgrass involves a mix of bluegrass and folk-blues, put on a great display of instrumental virtuosity at the Howling Wolf. Making its Aspen debut at the Wolf last week was Colorado’s Floodplain Gang, which won the Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition last year and will play the main stage in Telluride this summer. (On a related note, Greg Brown and Kelly Joe Phelps, whose sounds lean closer to acoustic blues than bluegrass but both of whom would not be out of place on a newgrass bill, played a benefit for Carbondale public radio station KDNK at the Wheeler Opera House last week.)The newgrass sounds continue in the upper valley this week. Runaway Truck Ramp, a Front Range band that adds rock, country and folk flavors to its bluegrass base, finishes up a two-night stand at the Howling Wolf with a gig tonight (Friday, March 26). Nashville’s Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, the reigning kings of the newgrass world, make a return visit to Aspen with a concert at the Wheeler on Tuesday, March 30. And the valley’s own Flying Dog Bluegrass Band continues its run of Wednesday night gigs at the Flying Dog Brew Pub this week. # # # For Runaway Truck Ramp, being part of a Boulder-area music scene that has sent such bands as Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident to national attention has been a mixed bag.”It’s a little overwhelming being in the middle of that,” said Greg Schochet, who plays mandolin and sings in Runaway Truck Ramp. “There’s a lot of competition, for one thing.”But it’s also exciting seeing it become a genre, something we’re creating that’s recognizable. It makes sense here, with the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and the legacy of Hot Rize. When I moved here, there were so many people playing bluegrass, there were a lot of people to learn from. It was really easy to get into it.”One way that Schochet believes Runaway Truck Ramp will distinguish itself is with its focus on singing and songwriting. Most of the more noteworthy newgrass outfits – Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident, Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, the Tony Furtado Band and the granddaddy of all newgrass bands, New Grass Revival – put the biggest emphasis on instrumental composition and jamming. On “Yellow,” the debut CD by Runaway Truck Ramp, four of the five members – singer-guitarists Peter Fiori and Lee Johnson, bassist Brian McDougall and Schochet – all contribute original tunes; only drummer Jay Elliott is left without a songwriting credit. And the compositions are actual songs, crafted with lyrics and verses, rather than loose ideas around which to build jams.”You hope you do sound unique. You don’t want to be thought of as just another one of those bands,” said Schochet. “What we’re doing is, I think, pretty original. We have four songwriters; we write our own songs.”For all the originality Schochet hopes his band puts in the music, he and most of his bandmates come from the same place as most newgrass musicians.”A lot of us are coming from similar places, where we fell in love with bluegrass but didn’t start out playing bluegrass,” said Schochet, who lives in Nederland, a neighbor of Leftover Salmon front man Vince Herman. “And bluegrass is very much a culture, where the people who were making it grew up in the places where it was first made. So you have to absorb that culture.”Schochet, a native of Long Island, started playing guitar in eighth grade. He caught the bluegrass bug when he moved to Boulder in 1987, to attend college at the University of Colorado-Boulder; he quickly switched instruments to mandolin after seeing New Grass Revival, with mandolinist and newgrass groundbreaker Sam Bush.”They were playing rock ‘n’ roll on bluegrass instruments,” said Schochet. “That was really something to me.” While at college, Schochet met Fiori and Johnson who, like Schochet, were transplants who fell in love with bluegrass when they moved to Colorado. Fiori and Schochet formed a band, Doublestop, that focused on traditional bluegrass. But both wanted to bring in the influences beyond bluegrass that they had grown up with and started out playing.”In the bluegrass thing, we were confined to the acoustic instruments,” said Schochet. “We were eager to stretch beyond the traditional bluegrass stuff and go a little more electric.”The two drafted Johnson, who had been a classic rock fan and who plays primarily electric guitar, and drummer Elliott, who brought in, of all things, a hard-rock background. The last piece of Runaway Truck Ramp was bassist McDougall, the only native Coloradan and the only trained musician of the group.The group has been touring Colorado since forming nearly two years ago, and has been picking up steam of late. “Yellow” was released in November, and Runaway Truck Ramp is making its first long-distance road trip, from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta, in May. And along the way, they’ve been trying to spread the newgrass style, just as they got hit with it.”Bluegrass is just one of those things that are there and it just grabs people,” said Schochet. “People who get into bluegrass really get into it.”
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