The American West is a blank canvas.
It is a vault of sky, an infinity of light, a sun-blanched stage bounded by horizon stretching wide enough to show the earth’s curve. Crossing the great empty middle of the country, your first glimpse of the mountains is more hallucination than hard fact, a haze of gray rock and snow hovering over the shimmer of prairie. You drive for hours at a numbing speed, and the hallucination slowly hardens, the mountains exploding upward from the edge of the plains.
Like generations before you, pulled here by promise or pushed here from too much pain back east, you come to the West to dream that most American of dreams: something bigger, hopefully something better, or maybe just something else. The West is where you re-invent yourself, where you mourn your losses in the East, where you escape the oppressions of a life lived in small, crowded, noisy places.
As with so many in those earlier generations, you bring your music to keep you company. Camped alone beneath a sea of stars, you pull out your guitar to chase back the darkness, to fortify the sudden fragility of your flesh and bones against the ache of all that space, and wind, and deathly quiet.
But something strange happens along the way. The exhilarating freedom of abandoning your old life to paint a new one on the blank canvas of the West has its price, as the bright colors of your dreams swirl and mix with the hard grays of loneliness seeping into you from all this vastness. Here in Colorado, in the looming black granite of its mountains, in the deep gashes of its red rock canyons, across the dizzying oceanwaves of prairie, you confront the rounding error that is your time on this earth.
This is why it is so easy to make fast friends in Colorado: everybody who runs away from home to be here in this magnificent, terrifying place is playing out the same drama, and most everybody comes here alone. You meet them over campfires at the music festivals, the same way you met up with your old friends at the festivals back East.
As the bluegrass and the folk musics you learned in the East wove together the melodies of Northern Europe with the blue notes and syncopations of Africa, the acoustic soundtrack of the American West takes that same music and spreads it out. The tight stitching of an ancient fiddle tune, perfected on your guitar in the narrow, smoky hollows of Appalachia, loosens up on the western dreamscape, blasted clean in the wide-open wind.
A friend I played music with in Maryland, driving through Colorado to start his own new life in the West, tells me he can hear it in my right hand: my rhythm, he says, is more relaxed, breathier, with a certain “swinginess” he is sure wasn’t there before.
The other thing you notice is the drums. In the East, the acoustic music was all steel strings and foot-tapping on the old boards of a front porch or barroom floor. Here in Colorado, there is always drumming, and not only the standard kit, but also the congas, and bongos, and big-bellied native drums stretched with animal skins. Drums anchor all the jambands out here – Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident, the Flood Plain Gang, Runaway Truck Ramp – shoring up the bands’ rhythms, and setting its guitarists and mandolin players freer to improvise.
The results are danceable, driving, hippie hybrids that mix up bluegrass and roots country with something simultaneously more primitive and playful. At night in the festival campground, the drumming fills up the sudden blackness and chill of the air, always the THUM-thum, THUM-thum of a circle of brand new friends, mixing with your heartbeat and easing you into unlonely sleep.
The next morning you awaken to a pouring rain. The violent mood swings between drought and downpour that define the weather in the Colorado mountains have turned this year’s Rockygrass Festival – staged in a red rock canyon carved by the snowmelt of the St. Vrain River – into a footbath of deep red mud. The louder and harder the bluegrass bands play, the louder and harder the cold rain screams down into the canyon.
But on Saturday night, the weather breaks, ushering in the aching clarity of the air at altitude, just in time for the musical and emotional climax of the festival: a reunion of the remaining members of Colorado’s greatest contribution to American music, the bluegrass band Hot Rize. The break-up of Hot Rize ended a second golden era of bluegrass, one that bridged the roots music of East and West, mixing the airtight rhythms of the Appalachians with a soaring, crystalline melodic joy opened up in the foothills of the Rockies.
They have come together to play a memorial tribute for their guitarist Charles Sawtelle, who battled cancer on and off for years, hanging on through another round of chemotherapy for the promise of the next reunion gig six months down the road. Hot Rize’s surviving members, Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick and Nick Forster, gather around a single microphone, opening their tribute to Sawtelle with Hazel Dickens’ sweet gospel lament, “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me.” The palpable presence of the absence of Sawtelle’s familiar guitar is the pained celebration of a fallen friend.
We stand with a hundred dancers off to the right side of the stage, our bare feet fixed in the mud, swaying to the perfect three-part harmony, weeping. After the song, Peter Rowan joins in on guitar, note-perfect to Sawtelle’s recorded parts, right down to each bluesy bend and sneaky run, as the band breaks out into a string of now classic Hot Rize tunes. We dance, but silently, in mindful deference to the music but for the squish-squish-squish-squish of two hundred feet in perfect time to the band.
As Hot Rize was a swinging, hipper re-invention of Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers, so too the bands playing the festivals and bars and better ski lodges of Colorado are a swinging, hipper re-invention of Hot Rize. Way up in Gold Hill, a raw-boned mining ghost town of tumbledown log buildings turned hippie hideaway 9,000 feet above sea level, we dance to the pulsating roots rhythms of jambands schooled in equal parts Hot Rize, Asleep at the Wheel, and the Grateful Dead.
The headliner at this Memorial Day festival is Tony Furtado. As his band drops into a funky acoustic groove, Furtado turns the sparkle and drive of his banjo sideways inside out, mingling jazzy newgrass and single-string fiddle tune runs into something else entirely, something that cannot quite be understood let alone defined, at least not in air this short of oxygen. But it works, and everybody dances.
And then it starts snowing. On this first day of Colorado summer, most of us are wearing shorts, and so we dance harder, smiling at the fat snowflakes falling into our sloshing beer cups.
After the snow passes and the bands are all packed up, a circle of drummers squat in the empty festival grounds. A handful of shivering stragglers, pulled tight into a cloud of body warmth and potsmoke, moves over to gather around the drummers, dancing to the THUM-thum, THUM-thum.
The snowcloud skitters off over the next mountain ridge, and the sun reaches down to warm us, and you suddenly understand not only these drums and these dancers, but the millennia of drummers and dancers who came before them: that steady, insistent drumbeat is the plea of living human hearts caught between the vagaries of the infinite western sky and the cold, hard western ground.
After the last of the snow and the rain, toward the end of another sun-bleached Colorado summer, we head up to Nederland. “Ned” is a ramshackle mountain town for people who love mountains but hate towns, a funky waystation for tourists drunk on the scenery of the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and a leaping off point for mountaineering adventures 20 minutes from hot coffee and cold draft beers. Working out of Ned, you can hike up and snowboard down a glacier in the middle of August, and still get to the Wolf Tongue Brewery in time to catch the early band with your buffalo burger.
The unexpected highlight of this year’s “Nedfest” is Yonder Mountain String Band, Colorado’s heir apparent to Hot Rize. They alternate their renditions of second-golden-era bluegrass classics and originals with a breathless ferocity, driving the beat even harder for the latter-day hippies who came to the festival for the jambands. Near the back of the crowd, you sit on an Indian blanket with your new friends, watching Yonder Mountain thunder out another fiddle tune for the dancers in front of the stage, a swirl of tie-dye, peasant skirts, and dreadlocks.
CRACK! the PA goes out, but the band keeps playing. The dancers hesitate, wobbling in place, and the mandolin player waves them in as the band moves to the edge of the stage and plays on acoustically.
With the music barely audible from back here, you notice for the first time the cloud of dust rising from the dancers, how it mixes with the joyous chaos of their bright colors, and how quickly it dissipates against the jagged mountains rimming the festival grounds. You realize that, consciously or not, we dance this furiously here for the same reason the native peoples of the West always did. The stomping of buckskinned feet against a sprawl of earth is part celebration and part prayer, a defiant burst of energy sent upward into the infinity of sky that says, “I – am – alive!”
This is why your guitar will never sound the same again, once you have lived out here a few short years. You brought your old music, but you play it now with a new simplicity and focus, an openness and “swinginess” that reveals the new inner math conjured up by living on the super-enlarged scale of the West. And you just as suddenly realize that this is why you came west in the first place: your life is but a waking dream; all your frustrations and hurts are nothing compared to the greatness of all this earth and sky and music; and in the brief moment of time you have on this earth, you can live life big, now.
That night, long after the music has faded beneath the THUM-thum, THUM-thum of the drummers at the next campsite, after the drummers themselves have finally gone to bed, the modal change in one of Yonder Mountain’s old fiddle tunes triggers a dream of back East…
…you are driving on an empty Vermont road as it passes by hills rounded and stooped, old soldiers at the end of a million years’ war, draining the last of their canteens into glass-puddle lakes. The mountains in your dream are not the adolescent swagger and brawn of the Rockies, a youthful geology’s arrogant challenge to gravity; rather, they are the fading memory of a fully eroded mountain range, cloaked in the serenity of a history come and gone, a place stripped of ribbons won during a struggle long since turned to fairytale for schoolchildren after the nation took its prizes west…
You wake up to the bang of a coffeepot and the swinging rhythms of a cowboy guitar on one side of you, and the soft, steady beat of a native drum on the other.
As you crawl into the amber glare and deep chill of high altitude morning, you struggle to remember the colors of your own lost ribbons. There was the summer in Vermont you learned to flatpick, in a country house full of friends long since lost to the streetswarm of New York, the frantic energy of Washington, the glass boxes ringing Atlanta. There was that song you made up with other friends after hours at a bluegrass bar on the edge of the suburban sprawl of Maryland. You played it at a house party in another crowded city, the one where the only woman you ever really loved told you she was still in love with, and going back to patch it up with, the other guy. You stayed up all night, drinking and playing Bill Monroe and Robert Johnson records with a close friend, the one who died a year later of cancer in a grubby Baltimore hospital while dreaming of red rock canyons out west.
The chill lifts from the campground as the sun climbs into an electric blue Colorado sky. All around you, the mountains are bursting like wide-eyed children waiting for you to make up new songs from the fragments of your old ones.
Like those generations before, you moved out here to the terrifying open spaces and dizzying mountains ranges because it is the perfect place to start over.
This semi-autobiographical meditation is the first thing I ever wrote about the American West, way back in 2000, but its core ideas and images were the seeds for what would grow into Dudeville 16 years later. It was composed as a follow-up to my “Letter from Maryland,” which was published in Acoustic Guitar in 1989.