Colorado Music Hall of Fame honors bluegrass legends

The Colorado Music Hall of Fame in Morrison, CO, has announced their 2021 class of inductees, honoring the huge contributions the state has made to bluegrass and jamgrass music.

Selected for induction this year are The String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Hot Rize, plus The Fox Theatre in Boulder. All four of theses groups were formed and based in Colorado, and all have been a huge influence on the development of contemporary bluegrass and jamgrass around the world.

Hot Rize was the first to emerge, hitting the scene in 1978 and dominating the bluegrass scene for two decades, being named the very first Entertainers of the Year by the IBMA in 1990. The original band consisted of Tim O’Brien on mandolin and fiddle, Pete Wernick on banjo, Charles Sawtelle on guitar, and Nick Forster on bass. A big part of their appeal was the inclusion of  mini-set in each show from their alter egos, Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers, a western and traditional country band that toured with them. Spoiler alert… though they dressed differently, played different instruments, and used different names, the elaborate joke was that it was all the same guys.

Leftover Salmon emerged in 1989, doing their first show on New Years Eve in Crested Butte, and ever since, December 31 has been a big night in the jamgrass world. Founding members Drew Emmitt, Vince Herman, and Mark Vann performed together with a number of sidemen until Vann passed away in 2002. Emmitt and Herman reformed the group in 2007 and have been actively touring ever since. The current group includes Herman on guitar, Emmitt on mandolin, Andy Thorn on mandolin, Greg Garrison on bass, and Alwyn Robinson on drums. Prominent former members Noam Pikelny and Bill Payne toured with the group previously.

The String Cheese Incident got their start in 1993, mostly playing in ski resorts around Telluride, and came to national attention with their second album, a live concert project recorded at The Fox Theater in Boulder. The group started with a loosely bluegrass format, but quickly moved into a rock, blues, and jazz-inflected sound built on solid original songs. They continue to tour relentlessly, with loyal fans who describe the shows as “incidents.”

Dave Johnston and Jeff Austin put The Yonder Mountain String Band together in 1998, almost on a whim. When Austin agreed to be part of the group, he didn’t even know how to play an instrument, but as he owned a mandolin, he gave it a go. While living in Nederland, they met bassist Ben Kaufmann and guitarist Adam Aijala, who became the band’s founding lineup. Together they demonstrated the drawing power of a bluegrass group with a jam band mentality, being perhaps the first to filled up large venues playing all-acoustic and original music. Austin left in 2014 to launch his own solo career, and died tragically in 2019. Dave, Adam, and Ben have kept the band together and remain a touring powerhouse.

An induction ceremony and concert, originally set for December, has been postponed until the spring of next year over COVID concerns.

Congratulations one and all!

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.