Playing in Heaven: Greensky Bluegrass and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival
Playing in Heaven: Greensky Bluegrass and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival
The following interview was conducted in April of 2008. Adam Greuel, a freelance writer and music lover, contacted Paul Hoffman and Anders Beck of Greensky Bluegrass about their band, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and their soon-to-be appearance there in June of 2009.
Talking with Paul:
Upon winning the Telluride Band competition in 2006, you were seemingly welcomed into the bluegrass/acoustic music scene. By that time, you had already been together for almost six years and had had some personal changes within the band. You were getting ready to release your 2nd album, Tuesday Letter, which would grow into a considerable success. In 2007, having won the band competition a year before, you were invited to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Looking back, what do you think winning the band competition and playing the 2007 festival meant to the future of Greensky Bluegrass? Playing such a prestigious and large event…
Paul: Winning the contest was a milestone in our career. Kind of a stamp on the resume. I was proud that we had achieved some recognition against tough obstacles…lack of sleep, traveling so far, not being registered in the contest, to name a few. I didn’t realize how many promoters and festival goers across the country would take notice though. Not even two days after winning, we were signing on to festivals that were over 9 months out. We worked really hard to market the new “name tag” for the year leading up to the festival. When we returned in 2007 to play the main stage, I think we were seasoned musicians and performed as professionals, not just a couple kids who picked real good at a contest.
In 2008, your band took another step forward and Anders Beck joined playing the dobro. Shortly after the arrival of Beck came the arrival of a new album, Five Interstates. In my opinion, as well as that of others, this album was one of the best of 2008. The dobro playing of Beck and the tight, talented base that was already Greensky Bluegrass came together to create an outstanding piece of work. Can you talk about the transition that occurred when Anders joined Greensky? Was it a natural fit?
Paul: Anders approached us about joining the band in the early fall of 2007. We had done a little playing together on stage and some late night picking sessions. He actually sat in with us at Telluride in 2007. A photo of him on stage with us became our first press photo in 2008 because it was all we had with him in it.
I think the addition has been great. We tried a couple shows in the fall of 2007 and then went full force for all of 2008. Anders moved up to Michigan and he’s a part of the Greensky family now. Our fans like the change and so do we. Not long into having Anders, we recorded “Five Interstates”. After that, we had a product with him involved and we had new Greensky material that he was a part of. He and I even co-wrote a tune for the album.
This January, one year after Anders joined the band, we fished back for some real old material and brought some stuff back. I think I can comfortably say that we now have the full arsenal of Greensky with a 5 piece sound. The new stuff has more depth and the old stuff is more fun to play.
I was lucky enough to see you boys, somewhat recently, at a very small venue on the University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point. To me, it was extremely evident that, in addition to being very tight and well-oiled, you were having a great deal of fun. Obviously, that is very important in the music business. Not only does it insure a successful band, but the energy created also draws a large audience. Friends upon friends have agreed that Greensky Bluegrass is sounding outstanding right now. How do you feel about the direction that the band has gone in the recent years? Do you feel that you are beginning to reach your full potential?
Paul: Some of the new songs we are playing and composing are exceeding my expectations. We’re taking more risks and I think they’re paying off. Some of the shows we played in the fall of 2008 and early 2009 are the best music I’ve heard us make. Fans are getting more into the project and involving themselves night after night. We’re always looking for the next big break around the corner but I think this summer is on course to set us up to higher standards with more potential. We just want as many people as possible to experience our music and become part of the Greensky sound.
This year, you were welcomed back to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for not only a main stage performance, but also for a Nightgrass show at the Sheridan Opera House, a prestigious late-night venue. Many, including myself, were very happy to see you on both the nightgrass and the main stage schedule. Could you talk about how Greensky feels about being back in Telluride this year?
Paul: After we won the contest, I set my eyes one step higher. I said, “that’s great and all but… let’s really impress these people…let’s blow them away. Let’s be the band who won the contest and then came back every year”. I figured it was a long shot and would take a few more years of work. We really have put a lot of effort into Colorado though. Our fans have given us a lot and we try to return their commitment. I’m really proud that Planet Bluegrass has recognized our hard work. When Nightgrass came after the main stage set, I thought, “dang…we’re really going to need to throw it down”. We all look up to Telluride Bluegrass as an industry standard for what IS great. To be included is a great honor.
Why is Telluride so special? Answers to that question are about as diverse as the music brought to the festival. In your opinion, from the aspect of the performer, what is it that makes Telluride such an amazing place to perform?
Paul: No one tells you when you become a touring musician that you’ll rarely get to see your favorite bands anymore. You’ll be the entertainer not the entertained. Telluride Bluegrass is perhaps the best setting for a music festival in the world. Weather and scenery are incredible and the lineup is top notch. My favorite part is seeing an awesome weekend of music. David Byrne, Bela Fleck, RRE, and on, and on…I can’t friggin wait!
Talking with Anders:
Back in 2008, when members of the Wayward Sons went their separate ways and you joined Greensky, you joined a band that was certainly on the rise. The whole band, in my opinion, is incredibly talented. However, one thing that has always stood out to me is the incredible songwriting of Paul Hoffman. Greensky’s latest album is certainly no exception. Songs like Old Barns, Reverend, and Just To Lie are tunes that could be played on an autoharp or piano and still convey the same powerful message. In my opinion, when these tunes are played in Greensky Bluegrass, they not only convey a powerful message, but convey a strong emotion as well. Dave Bruzza also adds a source of outstanding songwriting that, to me, paints a vivid picture. Can you talk about the songwriting of those two individuals? Why does it work so well with Greensky?
Anders: Well, coming off of working with Benny Galloway in The Wayword Sons, I knew one thing. I knew that whatever band I joined had to have original songs that I believed in. I don’t want to call it “jaded” per se, but I was certainly used to playing what I considered to be some of the best songs around with The Wayward Sons. With Greensky, I feel the same way and that is a major reason I am part of the band. I consider the dobro to be a very lyrical instrument and, in my playing, I really try to feed off of the words being sung. Paul’s and Dave’s songs are “real” (for lack of a better word). They are emotional without being cheesy. Paul’s tunes, in particular, make you think… which is rare. He doesn’t tell you the whole story… somehow in his writing he holds a few cards close to his chest and lets you make some guesses as to what its about or moreover, lets you do the job of relating it to your own life, which is the sign of a great song. A song like Old Barns can mean a million different things to a million different people and that’s pretty cool.
You’ve got a pretty interesting background in regards to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. In a certain aspect, you were “born there”. I really enjoy the story I’ve heard about the origins of your dobro playing. Could you talk a bit about that? I’d like to hear the story from the horses mouth.
Anders: OK… from the horse’s mouth (or ass, who really knows). I was an aspiring bluegrass guitar player (after leaving the jam band school of guitar) living in Durango, CO with the likes of some amazing musicians, most notably Travis Book of the Infamous Stringdusters. We weren’t any good yet but we were learning. I went over the hill to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for the second time in 2002, I think. I was camping in a friend’s yard to save money and was walking towards the festival grounds one morning and stopped by Elks Park to see what was going on there. There happened to be a dobro workshop going on with Jerry Douglas, Sally Van Meter, Rob Ickes, and I think Randy Khors. I almost dropped my bloody mary…there was the sound I had been looking for! It was just “exactly it”. It was the crossover between an acoustic and electric guitar I had been looking for but didn’t even know existed. It fit in with bluegrass, had the signature twang, but also had that sustain that I loved from my history of listening to Phish and The Grateful Dead. Of course, the fact that there were 4 masters of the instrument playing didn’t hurt either. I know I am making this sound like a super-cheesy defining moment, but it really was striking. I literally bought a dobro the next day and started playing 5 hours a day. So I guess I really do owe Telluride Bluegrass something… I certainly try to pay them back every time I am there.
Being your rich history with Telluride, it has to be nice to be welcomed back for two shows at this year’s festival. You’ve been there as both a fan and a performer so you have very clear knowledge of Telluride and the incredible experience it is. What do you think makes Telluride as special as it is?
Anders: Short answer: Every single thing about the festival!
Long answer: First of all, the setting. It’s just a truly majestic place to begin with and when you add killer acoustic music ringing through the valley, it just puts it over the top. If the sunset sets (of music) at TBF don’t make you feel like there is no better place to be at that very moment on the entire planet, you are crazy. I’d been in the crowd numerous times, but the first time I got to play a set on the stage really rocked my world. I don’t really ever get nervous, but I had a hard time playing those first few tunes of the set. It was just emotional…the view from stage is absurd. I really think that because of that aspect of the festival, bands and musicians really raise the level of their music at Telluride. It’s like playing in heaven.
Beyond that, the festivarians make the festival what it is. Town Park is truly one of a kind and I spend as much time there as possible. The party starts two weeks before the festival and goes strong for the whole time. But the people are there for the music, first and foremost. Lots of festivals have a good party, but the people who are at TBF are really very knowledgeable about the music. Few festivals inspire me to end a late night show at 2:00 AM and then want to rush to the campground for more pickin’. Few festivals have campgrounds that welcome pickers at 3:00 AM to begin with!
I know I am sort of rambling, but the history of the festival is just so present every year that just by being there, you feel like you are a part of something greater. It’s truly amazing and I feel really lucky to get to play there.