Some people say there’s too much bluegrass in this town. Others will say not enough.
It’s a healthy debate, with staunch supporters and opposition as bullheaded as politicos on the far left and right. The supporters could probably stand to listen to some metal once in a while, and the opposition is missing out on a genre that, when true to the originators, contains fast tempos and lyrical exploration celebrating jealousy, addiction, anger and other pure acts of personal wrongdoing, retold in beautiful song.
Bluegrass from La Plata and Montezuma counties will be showcased this weekend, with a double bill of Durango’s Badly Bent and Dolores’s Last Nickel playing Friday at the Henry Strater Theatre, and again on Saturday at the Sunflower Theatre in Cortez.
The Badly Bent remains a beloved local band, hitting a new stride since picking up two new players last spring – Fred Hoeffler (vocals mandolin) and Jim Stanley (vocals, bass) – joining Cindi Trautmann (vocals, fiddle), Patrick Dressen (vocals, guitar) and Mark Epstein (vocals, banjo).
Last Nickel’s current lineup (Bobby Wintringham, mandolin; Nikki Sargent, bass fiddle; Chris Bouton, lead guitar; John Chmelir, rhythm guitar; and Andy Hutchinson, banjo) came together in 2013, with their sets digging into the well of traditional bluegrass, original compositions and covers that could be anything from Springsteen to The Flaming Lips.
Bluegrass continues to have an enduring relationship with its players and fans nationwide, perhaps because of its social appeal and accessibility.
“You can be any place at any time and play it,” said Mark Epstein, banjo player from The Badly Bent. “You don’t have to be plugged in someplace, and you don’t have to have a whole lot of equipment to play it.”
That’s not the only reason. Curiosity toward bluegrass will open a door to lifetime pursuit of sounds that will enhance your record collection and the way you listen to music. Bands like The Sadies were reared on bluegrass. The Flying Burrito Brothers, Elvis Presley and Split Lip Rayfield have all been touched by the genre. Fans of technical guitar playing should bow down to Doc Watson and Tony Rice, and fans of musical history need to recognize Bill Monroe as an important of a musical figure as Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson or Chuck Berry. Monroe’s name, like the aforementioned, is singularly tied to a genre of music with worldwide influence and recognition.
Forget the hippie-dippy stuff that gives people a reason to hate bluegrass, because at its core is solid musicianship and lyrical angst growing out of the fertile soil of American and music history.
There’s also the social aspect; it’s safe to say that after Guns N’ Roses reunites and plays a mediocre set to a bunch of disinterested, selfie-taking and social media whores at Coachella, Slash won’t be wandering through the parking lot looking to play more music at 2 a.m. Bluegrass appeals because the music is constant; mainstage performers end up right beside you playing songs and drinking your beer into the wee hours of the morning whether at a festival or a concert in downtown Durango.
“People at the top of their game are also part of the crowd,” Epstein said. “The music is so in touch, it’s so communicable. The people into it are all part of the same thing.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. [email protected].