Water’s risin’ for the Hell Roaring String Band | AspenTimes.com
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Water’s risin’ for the Hell Roaring String Band

Local bluegrass quintet the Hell Roaring String Band celebrates its first recording, "Hell or High Water," with a CD Release Party tonight at Steve's Guitars in Carbondale. (Melissa Sumera)
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Steve’s Guitars has always felt like a second home for the Hell Roaring String Band. Shannon Meyer, fiddler for the Carbondale-based quintet, estimates that the band has played some 15 shows at its hometown listening room. Even in the group’s earliest days seven years ago – “when we were … uhh … not all that great,” confesses Meyer – Steve Standiford, owner of the venue, was supportive.The members of Hell Roaring String Band weren’t thinking so much of the comfort level afforded by Steve’s when they set out to record their first CD. They were thinking with their wallets. The band comprises four teachers – banjoist Kayo Ogilby and bassist Andrew Gardner, science and English teachers, respectively, at Colorado Rocky Mountain School; guitarist Mark Sumera, science teacher at Aspen Country Day School; and mandolinist Ted Frisbie, seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at the Carbondale Community School – and Meyer, who is married to a teacher (Dave Meyer, history teacher, CRMS) and lives on the school’s Carbondale campus. When the band tallied up its recording budget, it came to $500, clearly not enough to record multiple takes and overdubs in even the cheapest studio. So the band loaded into Steve’s one Tuesday evening last February, and recorded cheap and fast.Meyer believes the resulting CD, “Hell or High Water,” was not a compromised effort.”We just love the sound in there, with all the guitars hanging down, and the sound we get off of them,” said the 36-year-old Meyer, who is the associate director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust and a mother of two young children. “We had $500 to spend, and figured, OK, what can we do with this? So we practiced real hard, got the songs down best we could, and did them in no more than two takes.”Our best side is live shows, and we wanted that feel. Not overly polished, sounding real.”Hell Roaring String Band celebrates the release of “Hell or High Water” with a CD Release Party at – where else? – Steve’s. The gig is tonight, May 26.

Sumera and Ogilby met each other as students at Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Wash., and found themselves, in the late ’90s, as colleagues on the faculty at CRMS. Frisbie was dating another CRMS teacher. Meyer joined up a year later, and the group found they needed an excuse to avoid grading papers and preparing lessons while they picked acoustic music. Hence, the Bluegrass Committee.”That was a joke on ourselves,” said Meyer. “We were all teachers, and we joked that we needed to form a committee to justify the time we spent playing music.”When it came time, a few years ago, to settle on a real name, they borrowed it from the Hell Roaring Ranch, on the Hell Roaring Creek near Redstone, owned by Ogilby’s family.

The members were all musicians, but not all bluegrass players. Sumera and Frisbie had played together in a rock band – “to get their rock ‘n’ roll ya-yas out,” said Meyer. “They don’t have that band anymore.” Gardner had to buy an upright bass when he joined the band, a year after it was formed. Before that, he had played only electric bass. Meyer had studied classical violin at the Longy School of Music in her native Massachusetts, and played in a traditional folk group, Kitchen Music, while living in Montana, but never played in a true bluegrass band till she joined the Bluegrass Committee. Only Ogilby, as a banjoist, had deep ties to bluegrass.While “Hell or High Water” fits snugly in the traditional bluegrass category, there is a distinctive flavor to their music at times. Meyer’s fiddling, on a cover of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” and on the intro to a take on Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer,” has a precision and tone that stems from her classical training. Not evident on the CD are Gardner’s mid-song, freestyle raps that Meyer says are an entertaining part of the live show.”Mark definitely comes from a rock ‘n’ roll background. And Ted as well,” said Meyer. “They were drawn into bluegrass against their will – and you definitely hear that in Mark’s guitar-playing. He’s got that blues sound that slips in sometimes.”



Meyer says the shared background of being teachers has its advantages and disadvantages for Hell Roaring String Band. On the positive side, their schedules tend to mesh well. On the other hand, having so many teachers, said Meyer “might be what makes us dysfunctional. We have too many leaders.”The overabundance of leaders led the band to impose a democratic process on themselves when it came to selecting which songs to include on the album. Each member wrote down their top 10 picks, and tossed the lists in a hat. The nine tunes that had the most votes made the cut. “Hell and High Water” only features a pair of original tunes – the opener, “I’ll Be Home,” by Gardner and Sumera, and Frisbie’s “Lost Wax” – even though the band has a good-sized repertoire of their own tunes.”In retrospect, we should have put more originals on,” said Meyer.CD in hand, Hell Roaring String Band is about to expand its boundaries farther. Next month, they will compete for the first time in the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass band competition. They are also set to perform in the Carbondale Lobsterfest on June 23. Their appearances in bars (too smoky and too late, especially since Meyer’s first pregnancy) and in Aspen (too far) are few and far between, though they did have a fairly steady après-ski gig this past winter at the Cirque in Snowmass.So they are thankful to have Steve’s.”It’s one of the best places for our family and friends,” said Meyer. You have the couches to sit on. It’s small enough that you can talk to the audience and have that rapport.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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