KC Groves Shines a Light
by Sarah Hagerman
KC Groves was first learning mandolin, she originally had her sights set across the sea, rather than gazing at the belly of Appalachia
“I was in college and started taking mando lessons. I wanted to learn Irish music but [the teacher] didn’t really know Irish music. But he knew bluegrass. He was the only teacher in town so that’s what I learned.”
But sometimes happy accidents lead to passions, and Groves found herself drawn to that high lonesome sound. It was through bluegrass that she further found her route into playing old time music. “You know I was really sort of drawn to that part of bluegrass, the singing and the tunes, kind of drawn more to The Stanley Brothers , to the old school bluegrass, and then one year I went to the an old time fiddle convention. That was a real eye-opener, like, ‘What are these people doing? I want to do it too!’”
When she began Uncle Earl in 2000, it was her and Jo Serrapere, making musical discoveries and playing gigs for fun. But the project grew and evolved, attracting a changing, fabulous cast of characters, bringing the band to light up festival stages and working with producers like Dirk Powell and John Paul Jones. When mining the old time gems, Groves says, “A lot of times I’ll take a song and think about it. I just sort of think about how to make it my own. Sometimes [the songs] are just perfect the way they are, to play them exactly how they were performed in the twenties. Sometimes, it’s about how to put a modern twist on it, or change the tempo. You know, shine new light on an old thing.” Now, with Uncle Earl putting up their boot heels for a bit, Groves has been able to focus on other projects, but no matter where her musical callings lead her, she continues to illuminate the sound – whether it’s through the folksy jangles of The Moody Sisters , the lost and found country mission of The Dangerfields , the duet team of Baugus and Groves, or any other chances she has to dust those strings on stage.
She is also an ambassador of the music scene in Lyons, Colorado where she found the close-knit community, with its extended musical family, that has brought her much joy and inspiration.
The mandolin maestro was attracted to Colorado while recording her first solo album, 1999’s Can You Hear It? which was produced by the great Charles Sawtelle. “I came out here all the time to record and got to know a bunch of people,” she explained. “I was really always impressed with the music scene and the music community around here.”
The community couldn’t ask for a better citizen. Lyons, Colorado, is often called “The Double Gateway to the Rockies,” due to its location at the intersection of State Highway 7 and U.S. Highway 36, which leads outdoorsy travelers on towards adventures in Rocky Mountain National Park. But anyone putting the gas pedal to the floor should think seriously about stopping in the small town of 1600 nestled up in the red sandstone mountains. If you get off the road, put your e-break up, and wander for awhile, letting that cool elevated air brush your forearms, you may hear string plucking in the air, and find yourself drawn to a jam session or open pick on a front porch or in a living room. And there’s a good chance you will spot Groves there. She and Eric Thorin host Lyon’s Jam, a weekly open pick for anyone from a novice banjo plunker to an experienced dobro master, at Oskar’s Blues, a brewpub and venue known for being a hotspot for all things grass and acoustic. She also co-founded the High Street Concerts series, where she helped put on events such as the first More Pretty Girls Than One concert , although she has relinquished the High Street series, which steams ahead strong, to focus on other projects.
One of those latest projects is also rooted in her Lyons pride – Redstone Radio, a 24-hour station that streams on the web, featuring a fantastic selection of Colorado bands, bluegrass, old time and folk. It certainly makes those work days fly by faster, and if your co-worker in the cubicle next to you wants to know why you’re compulsively dancing in your office chair, you can just point him to the Redstone Radio website. From Split Lip Rayfield to String Cheese Incident, Crooked Still to Yonder Mountain String Band, Packway Handle Band to classic Bob Dylan, it makes for a sweet amalgamation of the eclectic sounds and influences that power this open-arms bluegrass and acoustic roots scene.
Although it draws on sounds far from the Front Range, it is a project strongly rooted in that community. As the Redstone Radio website proudly proclaims, Lyons is, “A little mountain town with a big bluegrass problem.” Lyons is the home of Planet Bluegrass and its Rockygrass festival, but the cozy town is also a magnetic draw for pickers. Besides Groves, and the aforementioned Thorin, Sally Van Meter, Spring Creek, Todd Livingston, and Blue Canyon Boys call the town home, just for starters. “We have such an amazing community here and we truly believe that other people need to hear about it,” she said, of her and friend Eric Zilling’s decision to start the project. “There are so many great musicians around here it’s uncanny. We also thought it would be a nice unifying force within the community. We have a great little purple building right downtown where we have jam sessions and people can teach out of. Hopefully as the weather gets warmer we’ll have more events there. Eventually we’d like to have a low level FM station.”
I’ve Been a Rocking, I’ve Been a Rolling
Groves spirited propensity for dusting the oft-overlooked corners of Americana came to bear when hatching the plot for The Dangerfields, her rocking country outfit, with Jefferson Hamer. Hamer is a stellar singer songwriter, who played in Great American Taxi, Single Malt Band and The Wayfarers while living in Boulder, and now lives in New York City.
The two first met and sang together at a party about six years ago, and found in each other like-minded musical co-conspirators. As Groves describes:
“We knew right away that we wanted to perform together. We soon realized that we both loved old country music especially from the Gram Parsons/ Emmylou Harris era. It seemed there were a few bands at the time doing real vintage country, but none were exploring that lost era of country music. Jeff always had that rock and roll edge to whatever kind of music he was playing, even traditional Irish stuff, so it seemed the route to go.”
From the tracks available on their myspace site, it would seem they are certainly putting their quarters in the right juke box, and broken hearts and broken bottles are on the agenda. Drawing on the creaks of wooden dance hall floors and empty whisky glasses rolling down a bar worn smooth by the slumping arms of storied patrons, the music made me to kick my chair to the side, find some trucker, and settle into his shoulder for a song or two, inhaling cigarettes and diesel perfume from his flannel shirt.
With Groves on acoustic guitar, and Hamer on electric, they recruited Sharon Gilchrist on bass, Oliver Craven on fiddle, Eben Grace on pedal steel and Todd Moore on drums. Groves describes how the line-up gelled: “Jeff was coming to town, after having moved away to New York City, to do some shows and we thought it would be fun to put together a band to play at Oskar’s for old time’s sake. He suggested, almost in jest, to call it The Dangerfields. After considering it, I came to the conclusion that The Dangerfields was really Jeff and myself, and that whatever band we put together we could rightly call it The Dangerfields. Jeff and I had a four plus hour singing jam session at Rockygrass this summer where we vowed we’d try to sing together as often as possible. It was Jeff’s idea to get Sharon to come up from New Mexico and I was insistent on getting Oliver Craven to play with us. Eben Grace lives around the corner from me and we’ve been playing and writing some this past year. We were thrilled when he agreed to do some shows with us. He is an amazing guitar and pedal steel player. Since we already had the dream team happening, we called our favorite drummer, Todd Moore and of course he said he’d do it. It just seemed like we were on a roll the way it fell together.”
With the pieces together, the band set to writing…
“On our last Dangerfield run, Oliver, Sharon and myself all stayed at my house and for two or three nights stayed up all night playing and writing. Jeff had some fun songwriting exercises that we tried out and ended up with two new songs. We’ve performed one of them at least three times now. It’s called ‘I Can’t Quit You.’ It was really a fun process and, considering it was four people writing the same song, it was painless and seamless. There is definitely a synergy when the four of us get together”
It fits like an old school country cut, crackling in a lovelorn swell, with gritty lyrics that compare drug addiction to love addiction. The former, of course, being easier to quit.
The mutual respect, the sense that, “Wow, I’m lucky to have these folks as friends”, is the tie that binds. The excitement Groves feels about the project is infectious. She puts it down to, “Chemistry! There is really something electric with the Dangerfields. We are all such fans of each other and sing so well together in any combination. I truly believe the vibe we create is contagious and magnetic. For a while I thought maybe it was just me and how much love I have for everyone on stage but I’ve heard from so many people that they felt it too when they saw us play. Who knows how long it will last, perhaps we’re in a honeymoon phase. I’m relishing every moment of it though, as I’ve been in many many bands and know how rare and special it is.”
The Moody Sisters meanwhile, tap a different side, more in the old time vein. As Groves described it, “It’s a little more folky/string bandy, like there’s an accordion, old time banjo and mandolin, and washboard sometimes. It’s a little bit more jangly or string bandish, almost like a jug band.” This is the kind of band that will warm you up like a hot toddy with those velvety harmonies, an earthy timbre and a charming scratchiness. Cheryl Winston (“Rarely,” guitar), Sally Truitt (“Stormy,” banjo and bass), Erin Humphrey (“Fruity”, accordian), and Groves (“Gloomy” mando and bass), have been playing dates around the front range, first coming together in the spring of 2008 for the second More Pretty Girls Than One concert.
With Dangerfields shows on the horizon (“Seeing how Jefferson lives so far away we have to book tours in spurts. I think we’ll probably do another run of shows in the spring. We’re also hoping to play a bunch this summer.”), Moody Sisters dates on the calendar, and Redstone Radio streaming strong, the break from Uncle Earl (“We are just really taking some time right now,” she said) will certainly be a fruitful one. No matter where her projects lead her, she will continue to follow this path as it unfolds, and have a darn good time doing it, as she listens to the call that led her to Colorado, the call to broadcast her community’s rays, the call to shine that light.
You May Want To…
Can You Hear It
Livingston, Hamer, and Groves: Just Like The Snow
featuring the Lyons Christmas Council