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Friday, May 20, 2005

Music in the key of bluegrass

The Daily Times-Call


From left: Sharon Dooley of Boulder on mandolin, Jeff Cowles of Erie on mandolin and Travis Bush of Longmont on guitar jam together at Gizzi’s Coffee Bar, 400 Main St., Longmont. The coffee shop holds a bluegrass jam the first and third Wednesday of each month.
Times-Call/Lewis Geyer

LYONS — A crowded concert hall at 9 p.m. on a Friday is as good a place and time as any to get to know a stranger.

Five hours earlier, Liz Stevens’ fiddle had never made the musical acquaintance of Cheryl Winston’s guitar.

But on this night, as a sold-out crowd at Lyons’ Rogers Hall becomes enchanted by an all-female bluegrass extravaganza, the two instruments are getting along harmoniously.

In fact, Stevens’ fiddle has made nice with a number of other instruments tonight. Earlier, outside the venue, Stevens jumped in on a bluegrass jam with Winston, mandolin player Annie Sirotniak and vocalist/guitarist Mary Huckins.

Now, as the four women bring their informal jam to fruition with a public performance inside the hall, it’s a wonder that the strings on Stevens’ fiddle aren’t smoking.

She finishes an energetic solo with the former strangers. Within minutes, she joins her own band, The St. Vrain Sisters — five members who play old-timey music, a cousin of bluegrass — for a fast-paced instrumental musical blowout.

“It’s got kind of a groove,” says Ellen Klaver, who plays banjo for the group. “It’s a group effort.”

In mid-tune, bassist Pat Tognoni breaks away from her instrument and begins dancing, or clogging, slamming her feet onto the building’s wooden floor.

The crowd claps in time. There’s a “yee ha” there, a “woo hoo” there. The song seems to be coming to an end.

“One more time!” Stevens shouts.


“If you go to a rock ’n’ roll concert, you go as a consumer,” says Nick Forster, a member of the Boulder-based bluegrass sensation Hot Rize and co-host of Boulder’s e-town radio. “But if you go to a bluegrass concert, you go as a participant.”

Bluegrass jams aren’t intended to be primed and polished. The musical gatherings are generally informal, even a bit sloppy.

Beth Cooke, who has attended the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for the past 18 years, says bluegrass lends itself to the kind of community-oriented meet-and-greets found at nationally known festivals such as RockyGrass and MerleFest.

“You just walk around with your instrument and find people to jam with,” says Erin Coats, bass player for the local bluegrass band Hit & Run.

The long-neglected cousin of old-timey and country music, bluegrass has found a respectable niche across the Front Range. Sure, the musical genre has maintained a strong enough following throughout the past 70 years or so. But for many years, it was misidentified in the mainstream.

If bluegrass was slipping off the map, the 2000 hit film “O Brother Where Art Thou?” helped push it back into view. The movie — featuring music from The Stanley Brothers, Alison Krauss and others — put a mainstream voice to a sound that was already widely embraced.

Locally, the bluegrass scene has been thriving for years.

“It’s big here compared to most places,” says Caleb Roberts, member of the bluegrass band Open Road.

Roberts, who has been touring the country with his band for years, says Colorado tends to attract big-name bluegrass artists because of its unparalleled scene.

“I’ve known that at some point in time that Boulder had been No. 1 in sales of bluegrass albums,” Roberts says.

Within the past several decades, Colorado has spawned a bevy of bluegrass and similar-sounding bands, — Hot Rize, Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain Spring Band, the String Cheese Incident, Open Road, and Hit & Run — each of which owes much to the original bluegrass masters.


Like its country cousin, bluegrass sometimes conveys that “I’m lonesome” sound.

Then again, “Sometimes it sounds really happy, but it’s really sad,” Coats says.

According to Forster, true bluegrass incorporates the very ingredients first combined to form Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys in the late 1930s.

“Bluegrass is a direct descendant of Bill Monroe’s band, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys,” Forster says. “And those guys just did it; they came up with a new style. People would line the roads just to see their cars go by.”

Considered by many to be the fathers of bluegrass, the band originated the real bluegrass sound, acquired with a winning combination: a mandolin, fiddle, guitar (whether acoustic or a reso-phonic, Dobro), bass and banjo.

Not just any banjo can be played, according to Forster. If you want to retain the authentic bluegrass sound, you must have a five-string banjo played in the traditional three-finger style made famous by Bluegrass Boys member Earl Scruggs.

For years, other bands emulated that sound and capitalized. Bluegrass artists also transformed country and blues tunes and made them appeal to their audiences.

About four decades after Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys brought the innovative sound to the masses, Forster’s band, Hot Rize, used the formula when composing its own music.

Beyond the continuous “rolls” of traditional bluegrass banjo playing, Hot Rize infused their music with the formalized harmonies that distinguish the sound.

“With all modesty ... I think that Hot Rize had a certain influence because we were the first touring (bluegrass) band to come out of Colorado,” Forester says.


It’s taken Julie Cutler about four weeks to build up the courage to enter the bluegrass jam circle at Gizzi’s Coffee Bar, 400 Main St. in Longmont.

The jam, from 7 to 9 p.m. on the first and third Wednesday of each month, is one of the few publicly advertised Longmont bluegrass jams.

When the jam first started up, Cutler, a Longmont vocalist and guitarist, stood on the sidelines and watched as Travis Bush and Jeff Cowles — the jam’s coordinators — played guitar and mandolin, respectively, in the coffee house. From time to time, someone in the shop would join in.

In April, Sharon Dooley — a shy, petite woman from Boulder — put her inhibitions aside, grabbed her mandolin and joined the men in an improvised bluegrass jam session.

“It’s way scary to go up there,” Dooley says.

But Bush insists the experience isn’t bad at all. In fact, he and Cowles encourage as many people as possible to drop in and join the jam.

That’s how the two former East Coast residents like to spend their time. After moving to Boulder, where they roomed together, they would go out several nights a week in search of a bluegrass jam.

If the two couldn’t find a jam, they would pick their instruments in their back yard. Sometimes, a banjo-playing neighbor would stop by.

But since moving — Cowles lives in Erie, while Bush resides in Longmont — the two have had less time to devote to their musical passion. A few months ago, they decided to remedy that problem by starting the jam.

On this particular night, both men are happy to see Dooley and Cutler participating. As is the tradition, Cutler — who has brought her songbook and boyfriend, Jeff Kopina, along — chooses in which key the musicians will play the song “The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn.”

Cowles begins plucking the strings of his mandolin; Dooley watches and mimics his finger placement on her own instrument. Bush strums his guitar while Cutler sings the mellow, solemn tune.

Meanwhile, a few toe-tapping coffee shop patrons watch.

“I’d rather have people play (than watch),” Cowles says. “We’re just doing it for fun — and love for the music.”


The incomparable Joan Wernick has temporarily misplaced her tuner.

The woman with the haunting voice of bluegrass is standing in front of Rogers Hall’s sold-out crowd, preparing to sing and play, when the small instrument slips down her blouse.

“Oops, I have my tuner in my bra,” Wernick says, inspiring laughter in the packed room and a crimson-colored face from a small boy in the front row.

It’s an appropriate statement considering that this is a celebration of women’s contribution to bluegrass.

This is a treat for those familiar with local music scene: There are 28 female bluegrass artists, from Grammy winner and Lyons-based singer and Dobro player Sally Van Meter to the vocally gifted KC Groves and Mollie O’Brien.

Coats and vocalist Rebecca Hoggan join fiddle player Jean Ballhorn to put a country spin on the Loretta Lynn hit “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man” and the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody.”

There’s more: Helen Forster brings her husband, Nick, on stage to perform a beautiful rendition of the Front Range tune “Where The Wild River Rolls”; two youthful singers and musicians, Bonnie Paine and Bridget Law, perform their own soft, sweet originals.

Master of ceremonies Nichole Elmore likes to refer to this as a gathering of the sexy side of bluegrass. But there was time when women played a significantly different role within the musical genre.

Consider a verse from the bluegrass song “Banks of the Ohio”: “Was walking home ’tween 12 and 1, thinkin’ of what I had done. I killed a girl, my love you see, because she would not marry me.”

Coats calls the tunes “murder ballads.” Still, the lyrics should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, bluegrass has historically opened its arms to female artists of varying musical backgrounds, including Maria Muldaur, Gillian Welch and Krauss.

That list grows as many of Colorado’s women of bluegrass converge at the front of Rogers Hall to play and sing the song “More Pretty Girls Than One.”

“One of the great things about bluegrass music is that it’s inclusive,” Nick Forster says.

Longmont’s latest bluegrass jam happens from 7 to 9 p.m. on the first and third Wednesday of each month at Gizzi’s Coffee Bar, 400 Main St., Longmont. Call Gizzi’s at 303-682-5120 to confirm.

For more information about upcoming bluegrass events, check out the following:







Valerie Singleton can be reached at 303-684-5319, or by e-mail at