10 of the Best Colorado and Denver Bluegrass Bands

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It’s no secret that the Centennial State is fertile ground for bluegrass-inspired music. The high and lonesome tones that drifted across the pond from the British Isles and found new inspiration in the United States via such artists as Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs have long been at home in the Rocky Mountains. Each new year reveals emerging local talent and further seasons our existing purveyors. While the abundance of acoustic-based groups on the Front Range cannot be contained by ten bands alone, here’s a sampling of some of the best bluegrass-based artists who help the scene thrive:

Big Richard
Shattering the grass ceiling one gig at a time, Big Richard is an all-women group that delivers string-based goodies in buckets, winning a 2023 Best of Denver award for Best Bluegrass Band. As an acoustic four-piece lineup, the group pushes the boundaries of traditional bluegrass and the old-time sound and mindset to entirely new places. Embracing both progressive and legacy influences, Big Richard applies fiery instrumental soloing while also creating delicate spaces and weaving compelling harmonies with Celtic influence and even classical notes. The group’s singer and mandolin player, Bonnie Sims, counts Sam Bush and New Grass Revival among her early influences, and the band covers music by alternative groups such as Radiohead while challenging the established norms of bluegrass culture.

Cody Sisters
With an impressive knack for capturing a variety of old-time and bluegrass styles, the Cody Sisters — Maddie (guitar, mandolin, banjo, vocals) and Megan (guitar, mandolin, vocals) — demonstrate instrumental and vocal skills way beyond their years. The girls are both graduates of the Denver School of the Arts and originally started playing with their father, Steve Cody, on upright bass. They are currently teamed up with Will Pavilonis on the low end, and have found appreciative listeners in Colorado and around the world. The sisters, whose roots lie in traditional American acoustic music, cite inspiration from artists including Sarah Jarosz, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Among other upcoming performance dates, they will be playing a set at RockyGrass this July.

High Country Hustle
As time marches on, the tradition of pushing the boundaries of bluegrass and celebrating its time-honored spirit continues with younger players happily joining the jamboree and adding fresh spins to the always-evolving sound. One of the rising younger groups to gather momentum in the Centennial State is High Country Hustle, a quartet out of the Durango area that won the WinterWonderGrass band competition in 2020 and is steadily ascending the peaks of acoustic twang and pleasing its listeners. Hustle released a well-received album, Weather the Storm, in 2022. Along with other groups from the Four Corners area, such as Liver Down the River, the band continues to take on the Colorado festival circuit and grass scene one pluck at a time.

High Lonesome
Calling Longmont home, High Lonesome, which combines a pleasing mash of mandolin, dobro, guitar and bass, seeks to put a new spin on good old hard-driving bluegrass by way of tight harmonies, pleasing original material, and an expansive reach that takes in music from various realms, including jazz and jam influences as well as traditional bluegrass. Lead singer and storyteller Chuck Sitero happily made his way to Colorado from Georgia a few years back, and the group now comprises a talented aggregation of pickers who reside on the Front Range. With original material and a growing fan base, High Lonesome has upcoming gigs on the books at a variety of local venues.

The Infamous Stringdusters
The Dusters cut its teeth learning to play classic bluegrass in Nashville, but these days, the group considers Colorado home, regularly performing at Red Rocks and at eminent Colorado festivals such as Telluride Bluegrass and
RockyGrass. The band’s banjo picker and Denver resident, Chris “Panda” Pandolfi, is a bluegrass and jamgrass enthusiast, who regularly writes and Bloggs about those worlds, as well as an accomplished traditional-style banjo picker with a reverence for Earl Scruggs. The Grammy-winning quintet can bring the heat to covers by artists as disparate as the Cure and Phish, while being able to throw down hardscrabble bluegrass and country-influenced jams at the drop of a thumb pick.

Jake Leg
With sizzling instrumentality and years of bluegrass immersion under its collective belt, and despite its moniker, which is derived from a moonshine- and foot-related malady, Jake Leg is up and running with a debut full-length, Fire on the Prairie (releasing in May). The group merges a deep love of the bluegrass tradition with an innovative drive to bring the past into the present via top-notch acoustic technique. The outfit includes brothers Justin (fiddle) and Aaron (upright bass) Hoffenberg, Eric Wiggs (guitar and vocals) and Dylan McCarthy (mandolin and vocals). You can catch the talented new group at various Front Range venues this winter, spring and summer.

Leftover Salmon
Salmon frontman Vince Herman traveled to Colorado from the state of West Virginia after being inspired by bands including Hot Rize, which he drove across the country to see at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in the mid-’80s. Herman went on to realize a musical vision in the Rockies, where members of his former zydeco-rooted act the Salmon Heads mashed up with members of the Left Hand String Band, which included guitarist and mandolin player extraordinaire Drew Emmitt. The fish-themed outfit first pooled for a 1989-1990 New Year’s Eve gig in Crested Butte. Citing influences that include the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Seldom Scene and David Bromberg, the band embodies the freewheeling spirit of eclectic acoustic music. Cleverly dubbing its sound “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass,” Salmon brings its much-appreciated speed, attitude and variety to its bluegrass underbelly.

Ragged Union
Ragged Union melds an authentically traditional sound with the virtuosity of top local talent. The group, which sometimes refers to its music as “grassicana,” comprises skilled founder Geoff Union (guitar, vocals), Elio Schiavo (mandolin, vocals), Rebekah Durham (fiddle, vocals) and Matt Thomas (bass). The band has undergone some personnel shuffling over the years, but its latest iteration finds a particularly sweet spot, with its most recent release Round Feet, Chrome Smile (fall of 2022) setting a new high for the outfit. “It can’t be Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers forever,” explains Union. “All the new strains of bluegrass, such as the bands that come out of Colorado, help to breathe new life into the genre.”

String Cheese Incident
Taking inspiration from Leftover Salmon, the Grateful Dead and even the Talking Heads, The String Cheese Incident seamlessly combines elements of bluegrass with a variety of sounds, including rock, world music and electronica. An enterprising and self-determined outfit, Cheese started its own record label (SCI Fidelity) in Boulder in the late ’90s, shortly after moving to the Front Range from Crested Butte. Similar to Salmon, the band forged its popularity by hitting the road nationally, spreading the jamgrass sound far and wide by tour bus and bringing the Colorado hippie music-festival vibe to venues across the land. Live Cheese sets range from the trad sounds of Flatt & Scruggs to electronic, keyboard-inflected explorations and then back to the campfire tunes. The band celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2023, playing its fiftieth Red Rocks show during its traditional run last July.

Yonder Mountain String Band
Grabbing the baton from Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident and plowing the same musical trail down the foothills, Yonder Mountain String Band locked into the sweet spot between technological advances in acoustic amplification and the authenticity of the bluegrass sound. In the late ’90s in Nederland, the late Jeff Austin helped the group take the music of the hills to a more rock-influenced space, extending the group’s jams and infusing them with a harder edge when the mood hit. The band plays on, having become a highly acclaimed and widely appreciated Colorado outfit that represents what can be achieved when the right elements coalesce under the right conditions, in the right place and at the right time.

Bonus Pick:

Hot Rize
Hot Rize helped land Colorado on the bluegrass map back in the late ’70s. The four-member group performed and recorded classic ditties including “Colleen Malone,” “Blue Night” and “Hard Pressed,” as well as offering brilliant takes on traditional gospel-based numbers such as “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” and “Climb the Ladder.” Although unofficially retired, the band, which was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, remains one of the Front Range’s finest bluegrass creations and has been inspiring younger generations of pickers since its inception. Tim O’Brien, Nick Forster, Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick, Bryan Sutton, the late Charles Sawtelle and the late Mike Scap (original Hot Rize guitarist and founder) have all left indelible marks as part of the outfit. The quartet served as architects of roots-based acoustic music in Colorado, laying the groundwork for what would emerge over the following decades. Hot Rize features a sound that pulls from the deep well of old-time and bluegrass while also expanding on the traditional forms. The group also fielded an alter-ego Western swing band called Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers.

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