WhiteWater Ramble grows its own ‘grass | AspenTimes.com

WhiteWater Ramble grows its own ‘grass

Stewart Oksenhorn
Fort Collins quintet WhiteWater Ramble, with guitarist-singer Brian Coddington, continues the Colorado tradition of putting an eclectic twist on acoustic music. (Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen Times)

Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN In bluegrass lore, there is a “Father” of the music – Bill Monroe – and a “King” – Jimmy Martin. Coloradan Joe Turman happens to be a musician, a fiddler with a passion for bluegrass, but he says that you don’t need a musician’s ears to hear that the patriarch and the monarch of bluegrass were playing different variations on a similar theme.”If you listen to them, you can pick out that they’re different genres,” said Turman about the Kentucky-born Monroe and the Tennessee-bred Martin. “They had the same instrumentation: mandolin, fiddle, banjo. But you hear two different kinds of music there.”WhiteWater Ramble, a Fort Collins quintet that includes Turman, features a lineup of instruments that the Father and the King would recognize: Turman, on fiddle, is flanked by acoustic guitarist Brian Coddington, mandolinist Patrick Sites and upright bassist Howard Montgomery. Monroe and Martin would quibble with the presence of a drummer, Alex Jacobson; when Turman and Sites plug in their instruments, the “Father” and “King” might turn over in their graves. But Turman’s point about Monroe and Martin playing two different styles is that bluegrass is not necessarily bluegrass – nor should it be.”Some people say if you’re not playing their kind of music, you’re not playing nothing,” said Turman, whose band plays tonight at Stubbies in Basalt and Saturday at the Black Nugget in Carbondale. “But I don’t believe it. With our kind of music, I hear comments from people, some say they like the fiddle music, others say they like the Southern rock, some say the B.B. King song.”If WhiteWater Ramble belongs to a genre, it is the same niche that includes fellow Colorado bands String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band, and the disbanded Leftover Salmon. All of them started with a base of acoustic string instruments, but never seemed to feel confined by history or categories. WhiteWater Ramble covers the Grateful Dead, Miles Davis and classic reggae; Sites switches from acoustic to electric mandolin; Turman adds electronic effects to his fiddle.”We’re not a bluegrass band, per se,” said Turman, a 43-year-old Grand Junction native who evacuated a career as a commercial pilot two years ago to focus on music. “We play some bluegrass. But we play blues and jazz. We play Steve Miller Band’s ‘Swingtown.’ We play the Allman Brothers’ ‘Whipping Post.'”

Growing up in western Colorado, then Denver, what Turman wanted to play was bluegrass. But from the age of 12, when he took up the fiddle, he found himself straitjacketed in the classical music realm, playing in school, city and eventually state orchestras, and in a quartet.”I’d always wanted to play bluegrass,” said Turman. “But it just wasn’t available in that time period. As far as I knew, bluegrass just wasn’t a mainstream deal. There wasn’t a bluegrass section in the record store. You either had to go to festivals, or know something about it. I wasn’t really in tune, wasn’t knowledgeable about how to get in touch with people.”Turman’s sole link to bluegrass was a cassette tape, by bluegrass legends Flatt & Scruggs. “But I didn’t even know who Flatt & Scruggs were,” he continued. “I couldn’t even read the lettering on the cassette, just the ‘F’ and ‘S’. But I listened to it till I wore it out.”At 16, he finally made a direct contact to the bluegrass world, when he met Denver fiddler Chuck Onofrio. Onofrio showed Turman the licks to the fiddle standard “Old Joe Clark,” and he was off and running.”That got me off the classical path and trying to figure this stuff out,” he said. “I showed him my tape, and he said, ‘Oh, that’s Flatt & Scruggs.’ I said, ‘Who?’

“I took what I could get, what I could find. It’s not like today, where you can just click and buy it.”Over the years, while working as a pilot, Turman became a luthier. (For the last two years, he has operated the Rocky Mountain Fiddle Shop in Fort Collins. His specialty is teaching classically trained violinists, cellists and bassists how to use effects on their instruments, to open up their professional opportunities.) He also played music, concentrating on bluegrass. Thanks to his occupation as a pilot, he was able to play in a Florida band, where the emphasis was on gospel bluegrass, and to frequent the free, potluck-style festivals in the Alleghany Mountains, in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky, where he learned how revered a figure Jimmy Martin was. And while traveling and picking, he picked up a bit of wisdom that has guided his thinking: “Bluegrass opinions vary,” he said.Despite the use of reverb and chorus effect – which he says work to make his electric fiddle warmer and more natural – Turman considers himself very much a bluegrass player. It is his bandmates, he said, that bring in the other influences. Mandolinist Sites, who founded WhiteWater Ramble three years ago with a far different membership, is heavily influenced by contemporary jam-style players: Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon, Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain String Band. His No. 1 hero is David Grisman, whose quintet famously blended jazz, bluegrass and Brazilian styles for a genre unto itself dubbed Dawg music. “He emulates him whenever he can,” noted Turman. Bassist Montgomery is jazz-trained; drummer Jacobson is a rocker influenced by the jam-band Phish. And guitarist Coddington, said Turman, is “a totally tried and true Deadhead.” Turman has happily allowed all of it to wash over him. “One of my favorite songs to play is [the Dead’s] ‘Franklin’s Tower,'” he said. “That shows how the influences work in this band.”The Dead and other jam bands have had as much an influence on WhiteWater Ramble’s career choices as on their musical ones. The band has one CD, the live recording “Red Alert Live,” and is working on a live DVD, due out next month, from their recent Halloween gig at the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins. But there are no plans for a studio CD yet.”Our forte is our live show,” said Turman. “That’s our main focus. We use the road experience to develop our material. We do that on the fly much better than we could in the studio.”

The biggest factor affecting the musical side was the decision to use a drummer. “We have a theme, or motto, or credo: We like to make people dance at our shows,” said Turman. “So far, we haven’t been disappointed by our ability to do it. Whatever it takes to get people moving, we do. If we see the audience is in tune with something, we do it.”Unfortunately, there are people who don’t allow drummers at their festivals. But having a drummer hasn’t been unfortunate for us.”Having played over 130 shows last year, WhiteWater Ramble has seen its audience expand. In Breckenridge, they played a show at the Salt Creek Saloon, a spot that doesn’t usually feature live music. Word quickly got out to Sherpa & Yeti’s, a more proper venue, and the band was booked there for its next Breckenridge gig. Mahogany Ridge in Steamboat abandoned its standard no-cover charge policy for the band’s show there; they sold out anyway, at $5 a head. WhiteWater Ramble has played at Pickin’ on the Poudre at Mishiwaka Amphitheatre and at Nedfest in Nederland, and are starting to eye the bigger festivals like High Sierra in California and Wakarusa in Kansas. They have shared stages with acoustic acts (the Grisman Quintet, Railroad Earth, and, last summer at Belly Up, Jerry Douglas) and electric (Dark Star Orchestra, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe). Later this month, they embark on their first out-of-state tour, with nine gigs lined up in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.Most people who have come out to see WhiteWater Ramble haven’t been upset that they are not a proper bluegrass act.”I don’t like it when it gets pigeonholed,” said Turman. “People say, ‘That’s not bluegrass.’ I say, ‘Yeah, good.'”I play what I want, what feels good. I want people to get up and dance and feel good. You should make that happen. And we do.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com