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New Frontiers: How the Jamgrass Genre Originated

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After originating in such places as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, jamgrass music has blazed a storied path through Colorado and beyond. Since the early days, when the free-flowing spirit of rock first intertwined with the traditional tones of the hills, a wide variety of artists have worked the bluegrass- and improvisation-rooted genre into unforeseen shapes. The following acts, which are all tied to the Centennial State, indelibly carved their names on the flourishing tree of the genre and continue to inspire emerging generations of pickers, grinners and sonic adventurers. Their impact is especially relevant this month, as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a lineup that included Robert Plant and Alison Krauss in addition to its long-running stable of favorites.

Dive into the state’s jamgrass roots with these ten bands, organized chronologically:

Chris Daniels
Denver resident and bandleader Chris Daniels, of Chris Daniels & the Kings, has long had a foot in jam and acoustic music, going back to the heady days when the Telluride Bluegrass Festival was in its infancy. His early-’70s group, Magic Music, is often described as Colorado’s original jam band, with Daniels singing and picking on multiple instruments, including banjo, mandolin and guitar. In the early ’80s, he began hosting all-star after-hours jams at the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride, giving birth to what became the well-appreciated Nightgrass series at the Telluride festival. Daniels has also performed and recorded with David Bromberg, a pioneer of the acoustic-meets-rock sound that evolved into what is now commonly referred to as jamgrass.

Hot Rize
With a progressive flair, the members of Hot Rize were architects of new acoustic music, laying the groundwork for what would emerge in Colorado over the following decades. Coming together on the Front Range in the ’70s, they nodded toward tradition, wearing suits and crafting a sound that dipped into the old-time well of mountain music, all while expanding on the traditional form. Among other things, their neckties were brightly colored, they simultaneously fielded an alter-ego Western swing band called Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers, they included an electric bass guitar (considered heretical by bluegrass purists), and their banjo player ran his plucks through a phase shifter effects pedal. Some bluegrass elders gasped, while other enthusiasts applauded and took notes for the future.  

Leftover Salmon
Regularly citing Hot Rize, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Seldom Scene and David Bromberg as some of its key influences, Leftover Salmon represents the spirit of jamgrass like few others. It could even be argued that the band is a living manifestation of the genre in Colorado. Leftover Salmon formed in late 1989, after fusing mandolin player Drew Emmitt’s Left Hand String Band and singer/guitarist Vince Herman’s zydeco-inspired Salmon Heads. Cleverly dubbing its sound “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass,” Leftover Salmon brings a much-appreciated speed, attitude and variety to the tradition. The bandmates’ primal cry of “Fessteevaaal” ringing from the stage lets audiences know that communal joy is at hand, along with the instrumental prowess and authenticity that underscore the sensation of taking in live roots music under the Colorado sky.

String Cheese Incident
Taking inspiration from such bands as Leftover Salmon, the Grateful Dead and even Talking Heads, String Cheese Incident seamlessly combines elements of bluegrass with a variety of influences, including rock, world music and electronica. An enterprising and self-determined outfit, Cheese started its own record label (SCI Fidelity) in Boulder in the late ’90s, shortly after moving to the Front Range from Crested Butte. Similar to Salmon, the band forged its popularity by hitting the road nationally, spreading the jamgrass sound far and wide by tour bus and bringing the Colorado hippie music-festival vibe to venues across the land. Live Cheese sets range from the acoustic leanings of Flatt & Scruggs to electronic, keyboard-inflected explorations and then back to the campfire tunes. The band is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year, and will play its fiftieth Red Rocks show during its traditional run July 14-16.

Yonder Mountain String Band
Grabbing the baton from Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident while plowing the same trail down the foothills, Yonder Mountain String Band locked into the sweet spot between technological advances in acoustic amplification and the authenticity of the bluegrass sound. Starting in the late ’90s in Nederland, the late Jeff Austin helped the group take the music of the hills to a more rock-influenced space, extending the group’s jams and infusing them with a harder edge when the mood hit. The band still plays on, having become a highly acclaimed and widely appreciated Colorado outfit that represents what can be achieved when the right elements coalesce under the right conditions, in the right place and at the right time.

Greensky Bluegrass
While several of its members hail from Michigan, Greensky Bluegrass considers the Centennial State its home base these days. The band, which added the acclaimed dobroist and former Colorado resident Anders Beck in 2007, describes its music as its “own version of bluegrass.” Greensky plays popular two- and three-night runs at Red Rocks annually, with its live shows incorporating electric effects and dazzling light shows. Unlike Salmon and Cheese, Greensky is a drumless outfit, but still brings the no-holds-barred, rock-and-roll vibe to its pluck — deftly covering artists such as Pink Floyd and Traffic while creating heaps of its own compelling material.

The Infamous Stringdusters
The Dusters cut their teeth learning to play traditional bluegrass around Nashville, but now consider Colorado home, regularly performing on the Rocks and at eminent Colorado festivals such as Telluride Bluegrass and RockyGrass after first recording music in 2006. The band’s banjo picker, Denver resident Chris “Panda” Pandolfi, is a jamgrass enthusiast, regularly writing and blogging about the genre and its origins, as well as an accomplished traditional-style banjo picker with a reverence for Earl Scruggs. The Grammy-winning Stringdusters bring the heat to covers by artists as disparate as the Cure and Phish, while being able to throw down hardscrabble bluegrass and country-influenced jams at the drop of a thumb-pick.

Elephant Revival
Calling its music “transcendental folk,” Elephant Revival is a prime example of how the spirit of jamgrass and progressive bluegrass has impacted a subsequent generation of players in Colorado. The Nederland-based outfit, which originally took shape in Oklahoma and has played alongside many big names in the jam and roots-music world, nods to styles from Celtic fiddling to indie rock. While Elephant Revival went on hiatus a few years back, it returned for a handful of shows in 2022 and will perform at RockyGrass in August. The band was founded in 2006 by multi-instrumentalist Bonnie Paine on the washboard and musical saw, among other implements; vocalist/fiddle player Bridget Law, who had left the band, has also returned to its lineup.

Trout Steak Revival
Trout Steak formed in the Mile High City in 2009, when its members came together at a regular weekend jam session. Since then, the group has created a folk, pop and bluegrass-grounded feel that resonates with fans of multiple genres, as evidenced by its winning the prestigious Telluride Band Competition in 2014. The group’s banjo player, Travis McNamara, recently released a solo record that pushes the boundaries of his traditional roots to incorporate indie rock-flavored songs and electronic tones. TSR is yet another example of Colorado’s draw for musicians who seek to express their creativity while embracing the well-established precedent for what might be done when acoustic music is made amid the setting of the Rocky Mountains.

Big Richard
Shattering the grass ceiling one gig at a time, Big Richard is an all-women jamgrass-adjacent band that delivers the sonic goods in buckets, winning a 2023 Best of Denver award for Best Bluegrass Band. With its acoustic four-piece lineup, the group pushes the boundaries of the bluegrass and old-time mindset to entirely new places. Embracing both progressive and traditional influences, Big Richard applies fiery instrumental solos while also creating delicate spaces as a whole, weaving compelling harmonies with Celtic influences and classical notes. The group’s singer and mandolin player, Bonnie Sims, counts Sam Bush and New Grass Revival among her early influences, though the band goes as far afield as playing covers of songs by alternative groups, including Radiohead. Big Richard will also be at RockyGrass this summer.

Read more about the Colorado jamgrass scene in Nick Hutchinson’s book High on a Mountain: An Oral History of Jamgrass in Colorado.



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