By Brian F. Johnson
When a band uses the modifier “Colorado” to describe their style of bluegrass, it immediately conjures a laid-back, loose and jammy sub-genre, far to the left of traditional bluegrass. Sure, the state is home to RockyGrass and is responsible for birthing conventional bluegrassers like High Plains Tradition and Bluegrass Patriots. But to many, “Colorado bluegrass” means bands like Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band and The Infamous Stringdusters.
So when a band from Nederland, Colo. — especially one from Ned — says that it plays “Appalachia and Colorado bluegrass,” it’s not absurd to assume that they’d be heavy on the Colorado side of things.
But Caribou Mountain Collective, a band that in 2012 grew out of the open bluegrass picks in Ned., has made it seem almost effortless to keep one foot on the traditional side of the fence, and the other dirty bare foot in the grassy hills of the high country.
“This album is kind of more Americana bluegrassy,” said Caribou Mountain Collective guitarist Miles Perry in a recent interview with The Marquee. “We still have feet in traditional and jammy sides and we kind of come out somewhere in the middle. We have a lot of parts that we have set, but there is still room for improvisation for Etienne and Allen.”
“Etienne” is Berklee College of Music trained fiddler Etienne Cremieux, and “Allen” is former RockyGrass dobro champion Allen Cooke, who along with bassist Curly Collins, round out the quartet. While they began like most bluegrass bands, playing in picks and local bars and clubs, this year in particular, has seen the group take some large leaps forward. They started off 2015 with some high profile opening slots for The Jeff Austin Band and The Wood Brothers, they played multiple sets at this year’s WinterWonder Grass in February, and are on a deluge of festivals this summer, two of which, RockyGrass and Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in New York, they just checked off their collective bucket list last month.
Last month also brought with it the release of that more “Americana bluegrassy” album Perry had spoken of. Went Down with the Sun was recorded in Boulder at Coupe Studios, and the band had some help along the way with a man who is no stranger to having his foot on both sides of the bluegrass fence, eTown host and Hot Rize’s Nick Forster.
“I first heard these guys at a party in a friend’s backyard, and I was impressed by their approach – good singing, respect for tradition but with original songs and good instrumental skills,” said Forster in a separate conversation. “I agreed to work with them on a couple of songs for their new cd, and we spent most of our time working on the songs themselves, knowing that it all starts there. They were responsive to my ideas, willing to embrace new approaches and the results were strong. When the record came out, I heard the rest of their songs, and they impressed me even more. They’re off to a great start.”
Perry, who explained that his role as chief songwriter in Caribou is the first writing gig of his career, said that working with Forster was a great learning experience, and one that particularly helped a few songs. “We were trying to think of some other people to help produce the sound we were looking for, so after we met Nick we had some people reach out and get the ball rolling and it went from there,” Perry said. “It was definitely a little intimidating at first but once we got the creative juices flowing it seemed really natural and felt really good. There were two tunes that I hadn’t quite finished and we just worked with him on them. He was so helpful, just kind of giving us the direction we were looking for. There was one tune where he kind of changed the perspective of the whole song and re-wrote a bunch of lyrics and it’s way better. He’s such a pro, it’s crazy.”
With the new album and some of the higher profile festivals the band has spit-polished not only their sound, but also their look. A video of “Long Gone,” the first single from the album, which preceded its release, not only shows the quartet playing in top form, but also shows three of the members wearing ties.
“ I’ve never been one to dress up at all,” said Perry, “but yeah, we kind of started to buckle down on that, and on everything overall, really. We don’t dress up for every show, but we’ve been trying to dress a little nicer. We still wear t-shirts, but we try to do things right for special occasions. A few of the festivals we’ve been playing have been more traditional bluegrass festivals so we’ve been trying to cater to that crowd a bit more.”
That single more than almost any track on the album helps to summarize Caribou’s blend of Appalachia and Colorado bluegrass — tight enough to sound Appalachian-born, and loose enough to sound like it’s from Colorado. But Perry also said that some of the musical improvements for Went Down With The Sun came from simply having more time then they had on their debut Til The Sun Gives Us A Day. “There’s some differences, but it’s along the lines of our first album, as well,” he said. “I would say it’s a little bit tighter and we have a lot more arrangements on this one, and we had the chance to get all the parts worked out a lot better than on our first album. Our first album came up really fast and the recording time was presented to us about a week before we went into the studio, so we just kind of played what we had. But for this one we had ample time to plan out everything exactly how we wanted, except for the few tunes we had Nick work on.”
Half of the new album’s songs have been kicking around Caribou’s live repertoire for some time while some others are just now being unveiled since the record was released. But Perry explained that the new songs will get their own leg soon enough, because no matter how traditional or jammy the tune, Caribou Mountain Collective certainly works on music with a Colorado state of mind. “So I write songs, usually at my house,” he said, “and then I try to give them to everybody with a totally open mind to say let’s make this a Caribou song and they just, well, yeah…”
Caribou Mountain Collective
Go If You Dig:
- Infamous Stringdusters
- Front Country
- The Steel Drivers