With roots in old-world folk music and mid-20th-century Appalachia, bluegrass stands with the blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll as one of America’s most treasured musical traditions. The genre has come a long way since Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, formed his seminal string band, The Blue Grass Boys, in 1939. In fact, it could be easily argued that bluegrass is more popular today than ever before. That’s due in large part to a new generation of artists who have taken up the bluegrass mantle and breathed new life into the music—artists like Kitchen Dwellers, Billy Strings, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, and Sierra Hull, all of whom consistently draw large crowds of predominantly younger fans no matter where they play.
The modern resurgence of bluegrass is not the first of its kind by any means. Artists like Béla Fleck, Keller Williams, Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, and others heralded the rise of “newgrass” some 30 years ago. By letting go of some of the trappings of traditional bluegrass in favor of spontaneous improvisation and stylistic eclecticism, these groups exposed the jam band-loving counterculture to the magic of string bands, helping to lay the groundwork for the jamgrass scene that today thrives on an international scale.
On January 13th, Bozeman-born “galaxy grass” quartet Kitchen Dwellers will join Yonder Mountain String Band, Maggie Rose, and other bluegrass and folk artists at Denver’s Mission Ballroom for Denver Comes Alive, a two-day bluegrass and funk festival presented by Live For Live Music in partnership with AEG Rocky Mountains [get tickets].
We caught up with Kitchen Dwellers banjoist Torrin Daniels ahead of Denver Comes Alive to discuss the evolution of bluegrass and find out how a group of four Millennials from Montana became one of its biggest exponents.
“I was born in Wyoming and grew up on a ranch in Wyoming and then in Montana,” Daniels told Live For Live Music. Though Montana has become something of a stronghold for bluegrass, he said it wasn’t something he was exposed to as a child. “I was raised with a lot of country music and cowboy music, but not necessarily bluegrass music, which is definitely a different world. … [Bluegrass] was definitely something that we all kind of found. I actually started out playing drums in school and stuff. And then I played a lot of heavier, more aggressive music, like metal and punk rock and stuff like that.”
It wasn’t until he discovered bands from the first wave of jamgrass that Daniels honed in on the bluegrass sound and turned his focus to the banjo.
“I really just found bluegrass through the jam band scene. I got into Phish in high school and Widespread Panic and stuff like that. And then, through that scene, I discovered Yonder Mountain String Band. That was actually initially what drew me to bluegrass. I didn’t really play bluegrass in any capacity until going to college and purchasing a banjo. I became the banjo player by default just because I owned a banjo. I definitely knew how to play guitar and mandolin better at the time.”
Related: Yonder Mountain String Band’s Ben Kaufmann Talks Grammys, Changing Band Lineups, & Denver Comes Alive [Interview]
After acquiring a banjo, Daniels figured out how to play it through a long process of trial and error. “I just taught myself, and I probably learned the wrong way if I’m being honest. Because I had played guitar and mandolin previously, I didn’t know how to do the three-finger [Earl] Scruggs style of bluegrass banjo. I just kind of tried to play it with a pick like I’d seen in punk bands like Dropkick Murphys or like Dave [Simonett] from Trampled by Turtles, and I tried to make that style work for me.”
“Then after playing it for a while, I just decided to try the three-finger style and found that I could do it after a little practice,” he continued. “But really I just learned from videos on the internet and tablature and from listening to the music; I have never really taken a lesson from anyone, which I think has probably helped me develop my own style in some ways and maybe held me back in other ways.”
The rest of Kitchen Dwellers likewise found their way to bluegrass by indirect means, each member coming from their own musical world.
“We all kind of came from different backgrounds, both geographically and musically. Shawn [Swain], our mandolin player, grew up in Telluride. His parents were Deadheads and hippies and ski bums, and they moved there in the ’70s, so he kind of grew up knowing the Grateful Dead and hippie scene and artists like Neil Young and The Beatles and stuff like that. But he also grew up going to Telluride Bluegrass Festival every year and was familiar with Sam Bush and all these fantastic traditional players like Jerry Douglas and [Béla] Fleck and people like that. So he grew up in that scene, but he also played metal growing up and didn’t really appreciate or dive into bluegrass until he was in high school or college—kind of the same as me.
“Our guitarist, Max [Davies], grew up outside of Chicago, and he was sort of raised in a musical family. His dad especially collects vinyl and is a huge fan of all different types of music, but he was definitely raised on just sort of American pop music from the ’70s and ’80s, like James Taylor and then Rolling Stones, The Beatles—any sort of rock ‘n’ roll, standard music. And then he found Phish going into high school and college. He didn’t really ever play bluegrass either until he played in one bluegrass band before he joined our band years ago in college. That was kind of the only acoustic guitar he ever played until he joined our band. He grew up as more of an electric guitar player playing rock ‘n’ roll.
“And then our bassist, Joe [Funk] is from Juneau, Alaska, and he sort of grew up being classically trained on the standup bass in school. I don’t think he really played a ton of music outside school growing up. He grew up mostly playing in concert bands. Then he sort of played in some folk groups in Alaska later in high school, but his real love of live music is in the electronic scene. He is super into and well-versed in Pretty Lights and that part of the electronic scene. So that’s kind of what he brings to the table just as far as how he plays the bass and the sounds he makes and how he approaches the instrument. It’s more from an electro-hip-hop standpoint. So we kind of all came from very, very different backgrounds, which I think is really sort of reflected in our music nowadays because we play a lot of different things.”
The four band members joined forces at Montana State University in Bozeman, where they found a nascent bluegrass scene ready to accept them.
“When we started, I think it was becoming more well known on a nationwide and worldwide basis. When we were first becoming a band, that was when ‘Wagon Wheel’ by Old Crow Medicine Show was being played very heavily in every bar [laughs], and Mumford & Sons were one of the biggest touring acts in the indie scene. I think those kind of bands helped bluegrass to gain momentum, or at least helped people discover it. Those band might have been bluegrass-adjacent, but they were definitely an introduction for a lot of people.”
Combining their disparate musical backgrounds to pursue their bluegrass ambitions, Kitchen Dwellers quickly developed a loyal following as a local college band. Like the newgrass and jamgrass innovators who inspired them with their radical reinterpretations of traditional bluegrass, the band’s eclectic style appealed to fans who appreciated their willingness to experiment with different genres.
“Our audience grew relatively quickly,” Daniels reflected, “and I don’t even know why. I think maybe it was because we were weird [laughs] or just different from a lot of other bands.”
Though not necessarily on purpose, Kitchen Dwellers pandered to their burgeoning audience with covers of Millennial favorites meticulously arranged for string band instrumentation. From grunge, metal, and alternative rock to hip-hop, EDM, and pop, nothing was off limits—not even traditional bluegrass. To date, the band’s repertoire of covers, per Dish Pit, includes nearly 500 songs.
“Since we’re all from different musical backgrounds, whenever anyone brings a cover to the table, the genre of the cover is not really what anyone cares about. Usually, it’s just a matter of if we like the song and if we enjoy playing it. That’s pretty much all that matters. A lot of the times they’re kind of deep cuts. We kind of take a page out of the Umphrey’s McGee playbook and just play whatever cover we might be feeling at the time. A lot of the times we’ll learn something that is applicable to where we are. You know, it might be a topical cover or something funny. I think that’s part of [our appeal], too.”
In addition to eclectic covers, Kitchen Dwellers and Daniels in particular have developed a unique sound by applying psychedelic effects to their instruments. “I think maybe from the moment that I first put a pickup into a banjo, I had thought about affecting it,” Daniels said, “not because it was something that I needed, but because it was something that I wanted to experiment with, and we definitely went down a deep rabbit hole for years figuring out what effects to use and what not to use, and trying things out and failing, and not having them sound good, or not being able to achieve the sound that we wanted. Now, I feel like all that is maybe finally coming to fruition in a certain way. I feel like it’s all sort of evening out and approaching the sounds that we’ve been searching for.”
Over the past several years, Kitchen Dwellers have continued to grow on the road, and the bluegrass scene has grown along with them. “I think it’s becoming more well known, especially in our scene with Billy Strings and people like that,” Daniels said. “I think it’s just becoming more popular, and it’s more heavily followed I think than maybe it’s ever been. I see people wearing bluegrass band merch all the time when we’re traveling across the country just in airports or anywhere when we’re on the road. I don’t think that used to be a thing that you saw very often unless it was someone that was really, really in the scene.”
He continued, “I think it’s really kind of exploding right now. It even kind of felt like that when we started, too, but I feel like everything has sort of matured into this really cool vibrant tapestry of tons of different bands that all play different kinds of sub-genres or music adjacent to bluegrass, and it’s all kind of woven together. It feels like it all just really, really keeps growing.”
Related: Maggie Rose Talks Walking Genre Divides Ahead Of Denver Comes Alive [Interview]
That rapid growth has not come without contention from bluegrass purists who fail to appreciate Kitchen Dwellers’ experimental approach to the genre, but Daniels said the feedback they hear is mostly positive, and the criticism they do receive doesn’t really phase them.
“That type of attitude is generally found in other parts of the country. People in the West, as a general ethos, are sort of down for anything, music or otherwise. They’re just out here to live and have a good time. In other parts of the country where bluegrass has been more established or just been around for longer, I feel like some people may hold tighter to those really traditional values.
“I mean, no matter who you are, I think you just have to be okay with certain people not liking you. It doesn’t bother me as much as I know it bothers other people that are artists. Sometimes it’s really hard to not get wrapped up in the negativity because everything’s on the internet now, so it’s all saved forever, and everyone has a voice and an opinion online, and they’re not always gonna be great. So we do get some negative feedback, but not a lot really that I’ve noticed. Generally it’s all pretty positive, and if someone says they don’t like it, it’s fine. I could give a sh–t less, really. I’m not here to please everybody, you know?”
Earlier this year, Kitchen Dwellers were tapped to join John Mayer and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir for a disaster relief fundraiser at their home venue, Pine Creek Lodge in Livingston, MT. They also recently released a new studio album, Wise River, which was produced by Vulfpeck guitarist Cory Wong, a musician/producer known as a ringer in the world of funk, but not necessarily bluegrass.
Daniels said the process of recording that album with Wong expanded the group’s musical horizons even more: “He presented a lot of ideas that maybe we hadn’t considered before with him being from a funk background, and I think it really sort of inspired or empowered us to be the best musicians in the studio we could be. … He really introduced a lot of cool ideas to our music and it’s definitely stuff that we’ve learned from and taken with us, too, just in terms of new techniques and resources that we maybe didn’t think we had before.”
As the band continues to grow, its members have each matured in their own ways. Joe Funk is set to welcome his first child in March, and Daniels recently left Montana to establish a new home in Portland, OR. Nonetheless, he anticipates a busy future for the group.
“I hope the future holds more growth. I feel like a lot of the musicians that I know and have become friends with in the scene, and a lot of the fans also that I know and have become friends with, are some of the most kind and intelligent and self-aware humans that I’ve ever encountered, so I feel like the only thing that can come from all those people hanging out together all the time is just more growth. I think it only has a chance to get bigger from here.”
The path forward begins with Denver Comes Alive, where Kitchen Dwellers will play alongside some of their Millennial compatriots as well as one of the bands that inspired them, Yonder Mountain String Band: “We’re super excited. We have a lot of friends that are gonna be there—Lindsay Lou, Mimi [Naja] (Fruition), Billy Failing, obviously Yonder—so we’re super stoked to see all of our friends and play with everyone. Then right after that we’re gonna be on a little ski town tour through Colorado, Idaho, and Montana with our friends in High Country Hustle. So it’s gonna be jam-packed January. It’s gonna be awesome.”
Tickets for Denver Comes Alive at Denver, CO’s Mission Ballroom on Friday, January 13th and Saturday, January 14th are available here. For more on Kitchen Dwellers, including a full list of upcoming tour dates and ticketing details, visit the band’s website.
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