There was a moment during the summer of 2003 when thousands of bluegrass fans who were gathered in a canyon along the St. Vrain River of Lyons, Colorado, collectively drew in their breath and realized that they were witnessing greatness. It was the Rockygrass Band Contest finals, and Travis Book had just sung the first verse of In the Pines.
“The longest train I ever saw, went down that Georgia line…”
This wasn’t the lonesome tenor of Bill Monroe, nor was it the angst growl of Kurt Cobain (who’s acoustic Nirvana version gave the song new life to a younger audience). What that morning audience heard on that July day was a smooth and elegant presentation of an old-time song, with lead vocals of true tone and blended harmonies perfectly backed by instrumentation of high caliber. Producing these sounds were young men, hair unbrushed, faces unshaven, clad in tie-dye, shorts, bare feet, Chaco sandals… Their appearance meant nothing to the crowd with drawn breath. It was a collective moment of understanding that there was a new band on the scene – new musicians who would be reckoned with in bluegrass music for decades to come. The Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band was on stage and every ear was tuned to Travis Book, Anders Beck, Andy Thorn, Robin Davis, (and for the summer of 2003 and the Rockygrass Band Contest), Rick Hauchman.
Some who did not witness this complete crowd awareness may question such a pivotal moment, but all one must do is look at the years to follow, and on to the modern-day, to see that prediction come to fruition. But before the here and now of today’s most successful touring bands in bluegrass music, there’s of course a back story, one of coincidence – perhaps fate of the highest calling – no simple twist.
As banjo player Andy Thorn describes the first meeting of musical minds, “My buddies Rick Hauchman, Jed Willis, and I drove straight from Chapel Hill to Durango to visit a friend who promised us ski passes at Purgatory. 32 hours in the car! First thing we did when we got to town was go to Canyon Music Woodworks and start jamming on some instruments. The guy working there thought we were pretty good and said we should hang out while we were in town and jam with him and his bass player buddy. Turned out to be Anders and Travis. We hung out with those guys and Robin too the whole time we were in town jamming and skiing.”
It was Anders who was an employee of the now late great Durango epicenter of bluegrass, Canyon Music Woodworks. Opened by Boulder, Colorado transplants who were heavily involved in that town’s storied bluegrass history, for many years on 2nd Avenue in Durango, it was a place where locals and travelers alike would gather to pick, promote shows, and chat. As Anders adds to meeting Andy, “The first pick I had with Andy was in Canyon Music Woodworks. He and Rick walked in while they were on a ski vacation and proceeded to start shredding the way that 20-year-olds from North Carolina can do. It was amazing. They were the real thing! We went to Robin’s house that night and had a jam. That was the beginning of Broke Mountain.”
Andy continues, “Then we had to drive back to North Carolina. I couldn’t stop thinking about how fun the Colorado life was, and how much I had in common with those guys, so it wasn’t hard for Anders to convince me to come spend the summer out there and enter the RockyGrass Band Contest.”
With the utmost respect to guitarist, Rick Hauchman, who won the RockyGrass Band Contest with them and was significant in building the foundation of what would come, there was still a missing piece to the Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band puzzle. The only piece that could fit such a beautiful design was Jon Stickley.
Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band banjo player, Andy Thorn, goes way back with guitarist, Jon Stickley, to their earliest days as musicians in their home state of North Carolina. Andy looks back on meeting Jon with the clarity and fondness found in rare cases when talent and personalities come together in a lasting friendship: “I was taking banjo lessons from the same teacher that the Stickley brothers were taking guitar from in Durham. This must have been early high school. The teacher, Michael Pope, got Jeff [Stickley] and I playing together to practice the songs we’d been working on in a group setting, and we started playing at an open mic night. I also messed with mandolin at the time. Jon was mostly drumming in a punk band called Strunken White. One day we said, ‘Hey Jon, if you learn to play mandolin, we can have a little bluegrass band.’ So, I left my mandolin and the tab book from David Grisman’s Tone Poems at his house. A week later the dude was just ripping Grisman licks! So, we started playing as a trio at the Skylight Exchange open mic night every week. Later on, Jon got the Tony Rice guitar tab book from Tone Poems. When he started playing Rice style guitar it was crazy how fast he got good at it, and he ran with that.”
When time came for Andy to make the move to Durango, he invited Jon to join him in this life venture. For Jon, the move was deep, “Before joining Broke Mountain, I had never been out west. The people of Colorado taught me that it was ok to have fun, enjoy life, and be yourself. In a way I feel like I’m still learning that lesson, but it has stuck with me and had a profound effect on my music and my life.”
With the two high school friends united out west, the Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band was solidified and ready to take on the opportunities that were presenting themselves after the RockyGrass Band Contest win. It was evident to the band that each pick and each song was building a powerful chemistry. It was time to take their sound on the road.
And take on the west they did – for one glorious year! Like any good farm team, the pros came calling. After 2004, the years that followed found a core group of Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band still playing festivals with Chad Love on banjo, Andy Thorn having left to join Larry Keel and Natural Bridge (on what would be a path toward the blossoming power that is Leftover Salmon today). The final dissolve of Broke Mountain found the formation of Wayword Sons, with Travis, Robin, and Anders joined by songwriting phenom, Benny “Burle” Galloway, along with keyboardist, Greg Andrulis. It was Anders’ time with Wayword Sons that instilled melody and original songwriting into his musical psyche, which lead to a smooth transition when touring cohorts, Greensky Bluegrass, brought him on to complete their quintet.
Travis Book’s story of departing the fertile bluegrass grounds of Durango is as fateful as Andy walking into Canyon Music Woodworks during Anders’ shift. The details are too many describe here, but they involved a backpack of beer, IBMA in Nashville, and elevator doors opening to what would become the Infamous Stringdusters. Jon Stickley has paved his way to becoming one of the most impressive and innovative acoustic guitar players touring today as the Jon Stickley Trio (as well as a jaunt on e-bass with Town Mountain along the way). Always a man of mystery, Robin Davis can be found with his wife in a barn-turned-cabin up against the towering peaks of Pagosa Springs, Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness. The two bring original songs and Robin’s low lonesome, power chord infused guitar work on the road as the Robin Davis Duo (in his hands a 1937 Gene Autry “Roundup” Supertone).
Take a look at the poster for any major progressive bluegrass festival in the country today, and you will see one of these names, if not multiple, if not all! While not diminishing the unique and highly entertaining sounds of the Jon Stickley Trio and the Robin Davis Duo – Leftover Salmon, Greensky Bluegrass, and the Infamous Stringdusters are the three bands selling out massive venues and headlining festivals on the scene today. This has been true for years running, and it’s the catalyst for a building excitement to witness individual musicians who fans have come to know and love within their powerhouse touring groups, to reconnect at this summer’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival, June 20-23.
The Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band will reunite on a stage that was a pivotal aspect of their growth; it’s a stage where they have all been inspired by their hero bands and musicians; it’s a stage where they’ve returned in the more recent years with their respected individual bands. The anticipation runs high. But before the story ends in promotion of what’s to come, let us remember the roots. This was a band that came together as travelers, as friends, as camping and hiking, pickin’ party, good timey, bluegrass hungry musicians. They were a walking late-night festival campground pick. Literally. In Telluride over the 2003 and 2004 summers, they forded the icy waters of the San Miguel River to join the 3:00 a.m. revelers of the Town Park Campground. When it was time to eat and drink, they busked on Colorado Avenue for dollars to collectively nourish their appetites. In the rare moments when instruments were silent and crowds walked blurry-eyed through town, they put on their own shows, playing for any and all who were in ear shot of Telluride’s Free Box, or Elks Park, or for those waiting in line to enter the festival.
Mandolin player, Robin Davis, sums up the Broke Mountain lifestyle nicely in describing the first pick he ever had with banjoist, Andy Thorn, “It was early 2003 in the desert in Utah somewhere. There was a group of Durango people and some pickers down there just hanging out. I pulled my ‘71 Bronco up to a Volvo station wagon that was full to the ceiling with clothes, camping gear, and instrument cases. Travis and Anders were there under the cottonwoods, picking with this guy who had just moved out to stay with us for the summer and start a band. I got out my mandolin and we started jamming. That was the first meeting with Andy Thorn. We jammed for a few hours and it was immediately apparent what we had, so everyone was excited. That was a fun summer!”
Bluegrass bands come together in the modern-day through many avenues: meeting in class in the learned halls of Boston’s Berkelee School of Music, hired sidemen stepping up to the mic for their well-arranged break, networking at the IBMA Business Conference, or perhaps a songwriter bringing talented players together to partner with their melody and accentuate the lyric. But there’s a slightly more rebellious side to bands forming that arises from small town bar gigs, house party keggers, and all that is the lifestyle of a bluegrass festival. This was the proving ground of Broke Mountain.
The anticipation of the reunion isn’t secluded to the audience. The band members talk of an admiration for each other in a way that builds their enthusiasm for being by one another’s side this summer on the Telluride Bluegrass stage. As Anders says, “Honestly, even after RockyGrass, it was never a gig or a show that solidified us. We were solidified from the beginning. Instant brothers. Driving around Colorado together… playing music and having a blast. Looking back on it, it’s crazy to think about. Maybe I’m getting old, but those days sure felt like youth!”
Both adept guitarists and mandolinists, Jon says of Robin, “Robin Davis is one of my favorite songwriters. I listen to his solo albums all the time, and I just really dig his style. He’s written a lot of new material since Broke Mountain and I hope we work a lot of it up. As a matter of fact, everyone has written great music since then so I’m excited to put the new through the filter of our old band.”
Andy’s praise follows along the same lines, “It’s just gonna be awesome to play all the old material. We developed a lot of cool originals in a short time. Really looking forward to the amazing harmonies Travis and Robin sing together. The way Anders’ soulful dobro fills out the whole sound so nicely. And just jamming with my best man Stickley, who I’ve been playing with since we were 15, and hardly get to see anymore. It’s like a reunion of friends and a gig all at the same time. The joy will be hard to contain.”
As Anders, Travis, Robin, Jon, and Andy look out on the throngs of old friends and fans of Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters, the Robin Davis Duo, the Jon Stickley Trio, and Leftover Salmon, they’ll no doubt cast their eyes beyond the Telluride Bluegrass crowd and out to where the ridge line dips into the box canyon, where Ingram Falls cascades to the forest floor; they’ll cast their eyes to the campgrounds… Their collective mindset will bode the questions: “Where’s the pick? Who is meeting over shared notes and harmony? When we walk off this stage and return to our bands, who will be the next young guns to hit the road, do the time, win the contest, create something that will be talked about, missed, and yearned for to return?” Because when it comes down to it, Broke Mountain represents all that is great about the bluegrass festival experience: camaraderie, travel, learning, entertainment, beauty… The history and upcoming reunion of the Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band epitomizes a lesson that regular bluegrass festival attendees have come to honor: the festival is a time to enjoy yourself to the utmost, while equally encouraging those around you.
The Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band will reunite during Friday’s lineup of the 46th annual Telluride Bluegrass, June 20-23. Tickets and information can be found at: www.bluegrass.com.