Josh Bergmann of High Lonesome – bluegrass without biceps

Colorado is a state that as many know has a thriving bluegrass scene. From Hot Rize to the Yonder Mountain String Band, many of the genre’s well loved artists originated in that area. One of the newer bands in that scene, High Lonesome has quickly established themselves in the Front Range for their fresh spin on the traditional bluegrass sound. Founded in 2018 by Chuck Sitero, the quintet has consistently made sold out appearances and quickly met their Kickstarter funding goal for their upcoming debut album. One of the band’s key members is mandolinist Josh Bergmann.

Although he now makes his home in Denver, Colorado, Josh grew up in southern California in the town of Ojai. It was there at the age of fifteen he was introduced to bluegrass music by a friend named John Adams. As Bergmann remembers, “we’d meet up with his friends and he’d put a mandolin in my hands to pick along with. It wasn’t until years later when he took me and my brother up to some California Bluegrass Association festivals that I really fell in love with and invested myself in bluegrass.”

As Josh was honing his craft, he had many influences both from recordings and fellow musicians in California. 

“There’s a lot of icons that have influenced me greatly, bluegrass greats like Bill Monroe and Larry Sparks, but also players like Chris Thile and Mike Marshall. However, who has influenced me more than those guys are my friends within the community. For mandolin, Scott Gates and Josh Gooding who I met through the CBA, totally changed the way I approached and attacked the mandolin. They blew me away, just pickin’ in the CBA campgrounds. In Ojai, dear friends like Danny McGaw and Tim Hutton, both very accomplished performers and producers, heavily influenced the way I approach performance and songwriting. I was awe struck by how they could, time and time again, hold a crowd in the palm of their hand, and that’s something I learned a lot from.’

During his college years, music took somewhat of a backseat as Josh poured himself into athletics, something that was a big part of he and his family’s lives. This was particularly the case with his father, Paul Bergmann, who was a professional football player. 

Josh’s athletic career came to an abrupt end when at the age of nineteen he was diagnosed with FSHD, a form of Muscular Dystrophy that has caused him to gradually lose the majority of his upper body muscle groups.

“Muscular Dystrophy (FSHD) has permeated every conceivable aspect of my life, and has affected my music in profound ways. It’s been a long and trying journey against this untreatable progressive disease, and every day is something of a battle. My music stands as at least one victory in the battle!

Almost inexplicably my ability to play has been preserved. That doesn’t mean my playing hasn’t been affected, it’s been affected dramatically. Specifically, without a bicep or tricep on my right arm, I need my arm brace to support my elbow and then play entirely through wrist rotation. I’ve been able to adjust, and I’ll say as humbly as I can, I shred!” 

Through his battle with the disease, Bergmann has developed a tenacity, which he credits inheriting from his father. “That sort of tenacity is an asset in hard driving bluegrass, and it’s an asset for playing bluegrass without biceps!”

Following the diagnosis, Bergmann shifted his focus to music once again. Josh initially formed The Rose Valley Thorns, along with his brother, Jared, and bassist Corey Highberg. During a trip to the listening room, Cervantes, in Denver, Colorado, Josh met Chuck Sitero who had founded High Lonesome just a few years earlier. The two quickly hit it off, and Josh would soon move to Denver and join the band on mandolin and vocals.

High Lonesome is a group that puts strong emphasis on original material. Although Josh has contributed his own songs to the Rose Valley Thorns, he is starting to write pieces that fit High Lonesome’s approach to bluegrass.

“I have been working on contributing more of my songwriting to the group, and there will be at least a couple of my songs on the coming album. It’s been a fun and rewarding challenge for me to write in a style that works for our sound. Chuck has a great repertoire of originals that we’ve been polishing, and I think his originals inspire the entire High Lonesome sound. The rest of us have been making more of a conscious effort to contribute in that way and I know we will all only grow together as we continue to experience each other’s music.”

The band has also been successful in building a strong fan base throughout Colorado and beyond. Their Facebook page alone has well over 120,000 followers, an aspect of their ascendancy which Josh credits to Chuck and his wife, Lily Sitero.

“This is one field where Chuck and Lily have stood above probably every other project I’ve been in. They are amazing at building a community, not only online, but in these venues. The way they share, interact with, and produce tireless quality content for the community is awesome, and something I’ve learned a lot from. It’s been really amazing being embraced by the fan base that High Lonesome already had when I joined the group, as well as being a part of the growth of the music since then. Having folks sell out shows feels great for our live performance, and the Kickstarter really made all the support and love from our community online hit hard.”

Though High Lonesome’s initial Kickstarter goal has been met, the group is now attempting to meet a stretch goal, which will help meet several of the other band needs. Most importantly though, it will help Josh obtain a backup arm brace. This is a vital piece of equipment that Josh needs in order to not only contribute to High Lonesome’s music, but also allow him to continue inspiring others through his journey with FSHD.

“I really want to encourage people that they might be capable of more than they think, and that it’s worth trying. I feel that inspiring people to overcome adversity (or at least to try) through my music is the most important thing I can do on this earth.”

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About the Author

Braeden Paul

Braeden Paul has been involved in various capacities of bluegrass music. A Texas native, Paul has been part of several Dallas-based bands as a mandolinist. He also serves on the board of directors of the Southwest Bluegrass Club in Grapevine, TX. As a writer, Braeden has also contributed numerous music reviews to the Bluegrass Society of America Facebook page, and is the co-author of Texas Bluegrass History: High Lonesome on the High Plains.