Six Dollar String Band is old-time, experimental bluegrass

by DGO Web Administrator

Six Dollar String Band albums are growing to be more than just traditional records.

The Durango band, on paper classified as “old-time” or “bluegrass,” are just that, but they’re also an experimental bunch, chasing and recording natural and ambient sounds for audio collages that act as transitions between songs on their records. The band also digs into the rich history of string band music – the indie rock of late 19th and early 20th century America.

The band’s recording practices include utilizing the notion of sense of place, giving the recordings a strong sense of identity that’s tied to the geographic area where band members post up to write, record, and hang. They also like to experiment with recording ambient sound. Their 2016 EP, “Mayday,” was a mix of music interspersed with audio from the world around where the record was made.

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Six Dollar String Band will record their next record in Mancos, thanks in part to being granted a week-long residency at Willowtail Springs, a space that’s become an artist retreat for projects of this nature. It’s a place to hang your hat for a week, be inspired by the surroundings, and create art.

“Willowtail has partnered up with the Durango Arts Center to basically give free residency to selected artists, so applying is a competitive process,” said Six Dollar String Band fiddler Tony Holmquist. “We applied in February and received notification that we were selected for it. I think they selected two visual artists, and then a band.”

If you’ve hung around the Durango acoustic music scene enough, you’ve likely heard the music of Six Dollar String Band. Members Holmquist and banjo player Brendan Shafer are the historians of the band, both armed with encyclopedic knowledge of the early musicians who were making old-time music, long before it was considered old. Robin Davis plays guitar, and Stephen Sellers plays bass. As of late, the band has plugged in and amplified their sound as well, often adding longtime Durango musician Pat Dressen on drums, which they’ll do for the residency and on the record the band will be putting together at Willowtail. The record will be a mix of acoustic music, their original forte, as well as the plugged-in version of Six Dollar. This will all be done with a DIY mindset, inspired by the bands’ historical interests, audio art, and those pockets of the world that continue to embrace old-time music.

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The band will have a local recording engineer, Scott Smith, loading up his gear to help record the album, too. For a project like this, where you’re trying to capture the feel of a place that isn’t a studio, the recording engineer is just as important as the band.

“Scooter knows a lot of shit,” said Shafer. “It’s our group, but he has a ton of experience. It’s a DIY thing in terms of us being a group, but Scooter is part of that group.”

Add in the notion of ambient sound, and you’ve got a band collecting and creating audio collages that enhance the entire product. It’s like a concept album without an underlying theme or ambiguity, with the natural sound serving as the transition from song to song. It’s capturing not only the music and the feel coming from the space, but the entire audio vibe that exists in that area, whether the red recording light is on or not.

“We’re going to collect sounds from the area,” said Holmquist. “For this one, we’re having it be less of a soundscape thing, and (will) dig deeper into some of the sounds. We’re looking for more evil, darker things, minor key things to incorporate (into) the album.”

“There’s all these different ways to place your microphones to encompass the environment you’re in,” said Shafer. “This is an extension of that idea, how the environment affects the energy of the music, the overall tone, and the feel.”

The record born of the bands’ Mancos residency is set for release later this year.

Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. [email protected].

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