I’ve recently returned from Durango, Colorado, where I found the 20th Anniversary of the Durango Bluegrass Meltdown to have the intimacy, talent, and entertaining times that attendees have come to know and trust.
In regard to intimacy, the festival hosts shows through three venues, each of which having a capacity of around 250. That’s right, Blue Highway performing in a historic Victorian theater in front of 250 astounded bluegrass revelers.
With talent, I’ve just hinted at what the weekend offered by namedropping Blue Highway. Along with those stalwarts of the genre (celebrating their 20th Anniversary alongside of the Meltdown festival) were the likes of Town Mountain, The Earl Brothers, Jeff Scroggins and Colorado, The Ruined Nation Boys (consisting of a who’s who of Colorado bluegrass greats), and songwriter Benny “Burle” Galloway. This list is truly short within a substantial list of bands.
Finally, as far as entertaining times go, they were constant, honest, humorous, nostalgic, enlightening, and – at times – questionable.
Over many years of involvement with the Durango Bluegrass Meltdown, I’ve come to completely immerse myself in the music and antics of the festival to the fullest. So, for the sake of not writing a book about my weekend’s experiences, I’d like to focus this account on three specific musical happenings that I witnessed: the Western North Carolina phenomenon, Town Mountain, the toneful truth of Jeff Scroggins and Colorado, and the words and ways of Benny “Burle” Galloway.
A bold and debatable thought came to me while taking in the sights and sounds of Town Mountain – and if not within a public forum bluegrass blog – then where else should such thoughts be shared? This is: Town Mountain is the Del McCoury Band of the modern-day. Now this is crazy talk on a few levels, most notably the fact that the Del McCoury Band is still playing. Also, Del’s the man. He was a Blue Grass Boy. But… no other band in my ears today is bringing original songwriting to bluegrass music with the grit, drive, honesty, and integrity of Town Mountain.
Think back to when you first heard Del McCoury Band’s Del and the Boys and It’s Just the Night (which astonishingly both came out more than ten years ago); now go listen to Town Mountain’s Steady Operator and Leave the Bottle in their entirety. You’ll hear originality in lyrics, blues tinged notes, and voices that could hang with Monroe, with Jimmy Martin, with Red Allen, with Carter Stanley… Town Mountain is the Del McCoury Band of the modern-day because they’re carrying on the traditions of real-deal, honky-tonk bluegrass, but with songwriting and storytelling at the forefront. And they’re doing it with the professionalism and presence not of dim-lit bar venue band, but with the boldness of contributors to any festival’s main stage.
Above I refer to Jeff Scroggins and Colorado as having a “Toneful truth” because they’re worthy of a descriptive word not found in the dictionary. Tone is so key to this band, whether it’s through dazzling solos from the likes of Jeff on banjo (a National Champion), or his son, Tristan on mandolin; or whether it’s through their singing, with harmonies sung at volumes that can only be accomplished through confidence and emotion.
This was Jeff Scroggins 10th year performing in some fashion at the Meltdown and the Colorado band’s 3rd consecutive year. They are a Colorado state treasure and the Meltdown has been better for having them. Interestingly with this band, they have a rightful leader in Jeff Scroggins, but any member of the group could be the front man, or woman. Greg Blake on guitar and vocals is as natural an emcee and bluegrass performer as you will see. On bass is a musician who is no stranger to the bluegrass and old time scenes, K.C. Groves (performing at the 2014 Rockygrass festival with a reunited Uncle Earl). Greg and K.C. perform on the side of the Colorado full band as, Blake and Groves. While this stripped down, Carter Family style doesn’t capture the power of Annie Savage on fiddle along with the rest of the group, I was able to film the two performing a wonderful rendition of, Bury Me Beneath the Willow.
Benny “Burle” Galloway is in a good place. That was a common theme throughout the Meltdown weekend. Burle used to live in Durango for many years. He’s lived in Boulder and toured throughout Colorado. He was surrounded by friends, family, and fans that know him well. I felt it several times myself as a friend and heard it several times from others: Burle is in a good place.
This may allude to a time when the man was not in a good place. What musician, what songwriter, what artist has not had the bad to measure against the good – or the highs that were hard to distinguish from being a low? This story isn’t about trials and tribulations; this is a tale of joyful tears coming to strangers’ eyes through the voice of a song.
During one of Burle’s sets – where he was joined by mandolinist, Jordan Ramsey and guitarist, Robin Davis – he played a new song simply called, Durango. I believe he introduced it by saying he tried to write something as sweet and dirty as possible. Indeed it was. As the verses came forth, it was easy to recognize the out-of-towners in the audience from the locals. As tourists chuckled at puns and wordplay, the locals wept openly at the knowledgeable insights of life in a small mountain town. As it was the Durango Bluegrass Meltdown, where locals abound, there were few dry eyes in the room. It was a good place for us all.
Here Burle performs, Poor Boy’s Delight with Robin Davis (guitar) and Jordan Ramsey (mandolin)…
… and then Burle, Robin, and Jordan are joined by Dave Richey (dobro) and Jeff Hibshman (bass) for, Nuthin’ To It.
The Durango Bluegrass Meltdown is a wealth of bluegrass experiences. You’ll find old timers picking songs they learned on their farms just outside of town. There is a square dance revival taking place with young men and women passing around jigs and waltzes ‘til 4:00 a.m. Debauchery can be found running through the midnight streets like the unaccountable and unpredictable sage brush on the Four Corners wind. Families frolic in the Southwest sun as a dobro finds a melody on a neighboring sidewalk. The evening brings out the elements of jamgrass within the genre, much to the delight of those who have been sitting patiently throughout the days listening to the traditional sounds. All in all it’s those traditional sounds that have held true over the last 20 years.
With lineups that have held the likes of James King, David Davis, Danny Paisley, Junior Sisk, Audie Blaylock, Larry Gillis, Open Road, and Town Mountain – one can always count on hearing the high and lonesome in Durango. Perhaps that’s a rarity in Colorado. Perhaps it’s just the sound of a rural mountain town.
Photos and video courtesy of Dave Harrison, Stephanie Dressen, Jonas Grushkin, and David Smith.