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Giving Thanks to the Local Music Community
Grooview / By Mark Steele
Over the past year our little valley has given birth to CDs containing performances from over 60 local musicians. When you think about our limited population, that’s quite an impressive figure. Telluride Row, a collection of 27 original performances by songwriters of the San Juan Mountains alone consists of nearly 50 musicians with roots in our mountains. The roster includes: Dave Lamb, Nelson Lamb, T.R. Richards , Nancy Richards, Walter St. Clair, DJ Harry, Katharina Ullman, Chris Thomas, Sara Hendrix, Michael Flanagan, Patrick Vega, Ali Crocket , Martin Thomas, Pat Barber, Rosemerry, Donna, Uli, Judy and the other women of Heartbeat, Bubba Lee, Bob Beer, James Paterson, Steven Ingraham, Johannes Beere, R.C. Gartrell, Kelly Hearn, Christina Callicott, Doug Allee, Andrew Wynne, Cody Lyon, Eamon Alger, Melanie Kent, Steve Snelling, David Dick, Jack Sherman, Scot Harlow, Doug Clary, Adam Krett, Jenny Sher, John Barfield, Andrew Wynne, and Alison James. Add on top of that the folks who worked on Sara Hendrix’s new CD Thanks But No Thanks: Bruce Hayes, Calen McCracken, Chris Clark, Danny DeSantis, David Homer, Doug Rowden, Duncan Niederer, Jamie Haats, Hendi, Mark Galbo, John Fitzgerald, Leslie Barber, Marc Costas, Matt Alger, Michael Bolotin, Michael Flanagan, Mike Pale, Shawn Donohue, Todd Creel, Valerie Levy-Franceze and Tom Mann. Yes, although you don’t see these folks every day, it is clear that the hills are alive with you know what.
Making music can be either a beautiful and rewarding or ugly and frustrating profession. You do what you love to do and you dream of making millions of dollars like the .05 percent of musicians who make it big. With new technology, the age of big record companies and mega stars is giving way to the revolution of independent, self-produced and small label musicians. It is definitely much easier now to put out a CD and distribute it around the world. Still, this doesn’t mean it isn’t a major task financially and logistically.
Telluride Row 27 Original Performances
by Songwriters of the San Juan Mountains
Produced by Pat Barber
This is a great idea that actually got manifested. And that is a beautiful story in itself.
For at least a dozen local musicians, it has meant their first chance at getting their music on CD and distributed throughout the country. For another dozen, it has meant extending the distribution of their recorded music and being heard by a lot more ears. And for Telluride, it is an eye-opener that shows what talent lurks beneath the peaks, sometimes hidden in closets and shacks throughout our town. We might not have proper venues for them all, but we have a lot of talented musicians here.
Telluride Row is the brainchild of Pat Barber, who produced the CD. When Barber heard about the grants that TCAH was rewarding to local artists, he had an idea – to get a little bit of money towards recording a few locals in town for a CD. He was awarded the grant and set about recording. After releasing a few of the tracks to KOTO, he got a call from Telski asking to be part of the project. The ski company was interested in sending out a Telluride music compilation with their marketing material. They agreed to buy 3,500 copies of the finished CD in advance. With this boon of a budget, the disc became bigger in scope. Barber wanted to include everyone he could. So he did not stop there. He approached local business and drummed up support from sponsors who each agreed to buy 15 copies at full price. That was some creative footwork from Barber and it created a win-win situation for the local businesses, the town’s musicians and himself for the legwork.
Barber, a native Coloradan from the Roaring Fork Valley, made the pilgrimage to Telluride often. He competed in the Troubadour Contest at the Bluegrass Festival in 1990, but lost out to a bunch of chicks from Dixie, who, either through a lack of creativity or a gut confidence that they could handle the name, called themselves the Dixie Chicks. As if lured by these sirens, Barber moved to Nashville where he spent most of a decade doing the singer-songwriter thing. This included writing some songs for a recording artist named Karen Flynn, who might not set any bells a ringin’ in your mind, but scored Barber some royalties from hits she had in Europe. Barber has been eager to use the experience he gained in the capitol of the musical world to help local musicians be heard.
Now with added sponsorship, the CD grew to 27 original performances. The idea was to bring the open mic concept to CD; thus, most of the recordings were made at local coffeeshop and pub venues where the musicians performed their own songs live in front of an audience, ensuring a small-town local feel. It also meant no overdubbing or Back Street Boys vocal enhancements, so the CD can sound a little rough. Then again, this is just the flipside. It is raw, personal and revealing, as it was meant to be.
Many of the performers struggle a little with their voices. But that’s the nature of live performance. Some have songwriting talents that outweigh their vocal abilities. Many, however, have mysterious, intriguing or uniquely personal voices that, with the help of slick recording techniques, confidence or simply time, could be very powerful. We’ve all been to an open mic night that made us cringe or hide behind tall pints of microbrew. Telluride Row is by no means that kind of show. But its main vulnerability comes from the tentativeness of the performers, who sometimes sound like they are holding back due to a lack of confidence that tells them to be careful and not interrupt those people talking over lattés in the back of the room. This is a shame, because many of the performers can belt it out with much more passion than they do here. Chris Thomas, for example, has one of the stronger pieces on the CD, with his clever and catchy song about the mountain spirit called “Rocky Mountain Hot Fudge Sunday.” He comes closest to belting it out. But still, I’ve heard him go bigger and stronger with more conviction and know he can blow away an audience more than his cut does.
In all fairness, though, it is hard to rage in a small coffeeshop setting. This is an open mic concept album, and my criticism, perhaps one of my own pet peeves, is of the weakness of open mics, not of this CD.
The strengths of the CD are the songwriting, the musicians’ depth and diversity, and their honest voices. There are many gems. Katharina Ullman has a slightly soft and smoky smooth voice with its own strong identity. One of the most moving voices – mysterious and warbling like a songbird – comes from the youngest singer, Ali Crocket. Jack Sherman’s matter-of-fact, almost spoken delivery with annunciation similar to Kermit the Frog or Sean Kelly of the Samples, also draws you in. Both main street troubadours Martin Thomas and Christina Callicott have written well-worded, convincing anti-war songs that should be sung across the country by activists and rock stars alike.
There are a few tracks that don’t fit the singer songwriter coffeehouse mold. The CD kicks of with an excellent energetic traditional bluegrass number by the San Miguel Valley Band. “Elephantine,” the title track from Seven Forty Sevens’ up and coming CD is a grungier alt-rock tune that sucks you into its shadows. Another pre-released cut, “Postcards from Diane,” by Steve Snelling off his CD Perfect Strangers, is a contemporary pop, cocktail-lounge piano and voice number that, like so many of the songs on Telluride Row, has interesting lyrics dealing with a personal relationship to the world’s current events. The best guitar sound belongs to David Dick and the best vocal harmonies come from Heartbeat. The most meaningful, heartfelt lyrics belong to Bob Beer, who sings about beating the “Ute Curse” of Telluride by finding his girlfriend in the freebox, “next to that pee-stained mattress of old.”
The two best produced songs, as would be expected, come from studio recordings of Sara Hendrix and DJ Harry. Harry is the sole artist on the Row signed by a major label, and his track in fact is the strongest of the collection, not just because it is well produced. It is also the best song on his new CD (which I’ll review next week) and the only tune of his with vocals. On its own, it is getting substantial airplay around the country, and on the Row it really helps round out the collection bringing it to a higher level. A CD like this runs the risk of being shot down because of two or three songs that a listener thinks are weak. Unfortunately, every single song on a 27-song compilation can’t make every single listener happy. It’s just what you get with a sampler. Some people will love certain songs; others will hate them. And that’s OK. Overall, this is a CD you can listen to many times, each time through hearing a new, interesting song you didn’t think you heard before. When taken for what it is – a songwriting collective – it stands very strongly. In fact, when you look at it this way, this CD from our little town’s very own singer-songwriters has more well written songs than any you will hear on any one main stream album. The artwork for the CD case and sleeve also makes this a classic. Photographer Rob Fullerton put tons of time and creativity into laying out a visual panorama of main street with most of the performers superimposed into the local Telluride landscape. It makes the CD a great collectors item for visitors and incorporates the logos of the sponsors. Unfortunately, though, Fullerton learned an important lesson about print with the project, creating the piece with low resolution. The result is a pixilated print that doesn’t do the project or Fullerton’s imaging justice. But it does do a great job to show the scope of the performers contributing to the album. Rico’s Steve Snelling, who helped produce the CD and did the layout of the cover and booklet, emphasized, “It was really great to see all the people who came out of the woodwork.” This fall he organized the Rico Peace Garden and was able to bring in several of the performers from the Row to make it a “really cool love bomb event.” “There is so much good music in this valley,” marvels Barber. “And nowhere near all of the musicians came out for this project. It is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Barber says he is thinking of ways to keep the project going. One facet he wants to pursue is helping publish the works of Telluride songwriters and shop them out to major labels and recording artists. He feels the honest, heartfelt voices of Telluride have a place in the music business that is much needed.
“Right now in country music, you have all the staff music writers sitting in music rooms asking themselves ‘what does the public want to hear?’ That’s where [the] music [industry] is going. They are trying to give us what they think we want to hear instead of what musicians have to say.”
Another of Barber’s ideas is to take the idea to other towns around the state to help launch local songwriter collection CDs. Grammy winner Tia Sillers, whom he met at the Durango Songwriters Competition, heard the CD, got very excited and now wants to do the same in Estes Park. It really is a great idea. Not necessarily a unique vision, but one that has been carried out. DJ Harry, with much praise for Barber, explains, “There are a lot of good ideas in the business, but not a lot of action. You got to give it to Pat. He ponied up.”
Taking his lead, many of the town’s businesses and Telski also ponied up to help let the project go bigger. Now it is our turn as listeners. You can find the CD around town at most of the businesses that sponsored the CD. (Hmmm … might make a nice stocking stuffer.) Let’s keep this CD growing into a Volume Two and remember to give thanks this turkey day for our strong musical community.
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