A STEADY WAVE OF COUN­TRY MU­SIC AT HOME IN COLORADO

State hosts Seven Peaks fes­ti­val, Coun­try Jam and more

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Dy­lan Owens

Tim McGraw, Brooks & Dunn, Ras­cal Flatts. For the last 30 years, Brian O’Con­nell, Live Na­tion’s head of coun­try tour­ing, has steered some of the genre’s big­gest shows around Amer­ica. Dur­ing that stretch, there’s one city that is guar­an­teed a visit at least once a year.

“When you route a tour, you fig­ure out where and when are you go­ing to play Denver,” O’Con­nell said. “It’s a strong coun­try mar­ket. It al­ways has been.”

While the Denver area has re­cently come into its own as a mecca for pop con­certs, coun­try mu­sic has rid­den a steady wave of pop­u­lar­ity for far longer. The ra­dio dial could tell you that: Coun­try sta­tion KYGO still rou­tinely nabs a top-three share of the Denver-Boul­der mar­ket, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen. But now, with a bur­geon­ing un­der­ground scene and a brand-spank­ing-new block­buster coun­try fes­ti­val in the Seven Peaks Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, com­ing to the area this sum­mer, coun­try could be primed for a re­nais­sance here.

Fes­ti­val pro­mot­ers are ze­ro­ing in on that buzz. Take this year’s in­au­gu­ral Seven Peaks Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, a three-day hoo­te­nanny (Aug. 31-Sept. 2) put on by O’Con­nell and coun­try su­per­star Dierks Bent­ley on a ranch in Buena Vista. For all O’Con­nell talked about the area, he’s putting his money where his mouth is with Seven Peaks. The 30,000-per­son event has al­ready made a big splash this sum­mer in the coun­try com­mu­nity

— Bent­ley’s grav­ity has pulled in top-tier acts like Mi­randa Lam­bert, Brothers Os­borne and Clint Black. But O’Con­nell is an­gling to make the event a na­tional des­ti­na­tion for any­one in search of a La­bor Day week­end tra­di­tion.

“In the United States, ev­ery­thing is so red and blue right now,” O’Con­nell said. “But we’re red, white and blue. We’re ev­ery­body. If you like it, come on in.”

Seven Peaks joins the com­pany of a long-stand­ing coun­try party in the state: Coun­try Jam, which has been shak­ing the grass on the Western Slope since 1992. Last year, the fes­ti­val — which ad­ver­tises it­self as “the big­gest party in Colorado” — drew 92,000 fans, ac­cord­ing to a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Town Square Me­dia, which pur­chased the fes­ti­val in 2013.

Of course, you don’t have to leave Denver to dip your foot into the stream of coun­try mu­sic. The Cow­boy Lounge down­town is a coun­try-mu­sic club with a rooftop pa­tio and sleek bar, adding a coat of var­nish to the genre’s rough-hewn im­age.

But the beat­ing heart of the scene lies along a frontage road off In­ter­state 25. There, the Griz­zly Rose, a neon-bathed Denver sta­ple, is clos­ing in on its 30th year as the city’s ver­i­ta­ble cow­boy hat. As thou­sands pass through its heavy doors every week for the party du jour — line dancing on Wed­nes­days, ladies’ night on Thurs­days and big shows on Fri­days — the venue has achieved an al­most leg­endary sta­tus.

Since the mid-1990s, artists have quite lit­er­ally sung its praises. In 2016, Denver coun­try band Buck­stein wrote an en­tire song about the venue. Su­per­stars like Garth Brooks and Kenny Ch­es­ney, the lat­ter of whom plays Sports Au­thor­ity Field on June 30, have also ven­er­ated the club in their lyrics — cu­ri­ously, both slant-rhyme the club’s name with “the code of the road,” short­hand for “what hap­pens on tour stays on tour.”

Like the genre it­self, coun­try bars are of­ten stereo­typed. Films like “Road House” painted a pic­ture of the coun­try bar as a xeno­pho­bic fight club, where mul­let-laden drunks wield pool cues like mar­tial artists and a chicken wire fence pro­tects the stage from beer bot­tle bar­rages.

The Griz­zly Rose has kicked that type­cast, ris­ing into a com­mu­nity pil­lar by keep­ing its fa­cil­i­ties up­dated (it ren­o­vated much of its 40,000-square-foot ex­panse, in­clud­ing the bath­rooms and fa­cade, last year) and host­ing fam­ily-friendly all-ages nights on Sun­days. In that way, it grows its own crowd.

Griz­zly Rose gen­eral man­ager Lindy Arnold, 42, first came to the venue with her par­ents when she was 15.

“Twenty years ago, ‘Road House’ is kind of what bars were,” Arnold said 42. “It doesn’t hap­pen any­more. We’re safe and com­fort­able for all walks of life. It’s not just a bar where you come in and it’s just jeans and cow­boy hats.”

Al­though, there’s that, too. On Wed­nes­days, you can usu­ally find Johno Roberts on the floor. Speck­led with tat­toos, Roberts, 33, is the front­man of un­der­ground Denver coun­try band Hang Rounders, a bur­geon­ing old-school act that stands in sharp con­trast to the sheen of to­day’s pop coun­try.

“He was the only guy I knew that could sing coun­try songs and had time for a band,” Wal­lach said. “That’s not to dis­count how good he is, though. He’s not try­ing to prove him­self to any­body, just is what he is.”

Hail­ing from Nashville, Tenn., Roberts came to the city af­ter a long road of busk­ing and in­ter­mit­tently rid­ing the rails through­out his teens. Coun­try mu­sic came nat­u­rally to him be­cause he’s been steeped in it: Not only did he grow up in Nashville, but his fam­ily was also friends with Lit­tle Jimmy Dick­ens, a singer-song­writer wor­thy of the city’s rhine­stone roy­alty.

At 13, around the same time his mother started bring­ing him to the honky-tonk bar she worked at in Nashville, Roberts picked up the gui­tar. When he left Nashville, he landed in a laun­dro­mat in the small city of Murfrees­boro, busk­ing on street cor­ners to earn his keep.

Com­ing to Denver in 2005 changed his for­tunes. Roberts lived in his car for a few months, sav­ing up the money he earned as a bi­cy­cle mes­sen­ger be­fore mov­ing into a DIY col­lec­tive called The Pitch­fork in Five Points. Cur­tis Wal­lach, cur­rently a tal­ent buyer at Denver rock club the Hi-Dive, lived nearby and be­friended Roberts, even­tu­ally of­fer­ing him a job at the since-closed Denver bi­cy­cle shop The Track Shack, which Wal­lach owned.

Wal­lach of­fered to record some of Roberts’ songs. Af­ter hear­ing his sound, Wal­lach pro­posed they form a band in 2013, and the Hang Rounders was born.

“There is real mu­sic that comes out of Nashville, but a lot of it is re­ally fake,” Roberts said, ref­er­enc­ing the city’s ma­chine of pro­duc­ers and song­writ­ers for hire. “In Denver, it’s a gen­uine close-knit group of peo­ple, and it’s very ver­sa­tile — you get a lot of weird throw­back stuff, Gra­ham Par­sons stuff mixed with jam, purists. It’s a good mix.”

Roberts was im­pressed with the size of the un­der­ground coun­try scene in Denver.

“Those (Nashville) bands are more suc­cess­ful be­cause it’s eas­ier to do there. Here, it’s nine hours to the next city.”

De­spite that dis­ad­van­tage, the Hang Rounders have made big strides in the past year. Ac­cord­ing to Mike Harmeier, front­man of the road war­rior coun­try band Mike and the Moon­pies, the Hang Rounders are on the radar in Austin, in­de­pen­dent coun­try’s holy city.

“They’re re­ally get­ting around,” Harmeier said, call­ing on the way to one of the 250 shows that the Moon­pies will play this year.

The buzz might have started with 2017’s “Out of Beer, Out of Here,” the band’s sopho­more ef­fort. Recorded at famed Nashville record­ing stu­dio The Bomb Shel­ter, the al­bum sim­mers be­tween tra­di­tional beery-eyed boot-stom­pers to achingly hon­est bal­lads. For ex­am­ple, “McCrory Lane,” the al­bum’s closer, in­cludes this verse: “I pointed that pis­tol at the ground where Daddy lay / I let it bark and said what I needed to say.”

The song isn’t a metaphor or even hy­per­bole. Roberts’ fa­ther died when Roberts was 16, and spent nearly all of his son’s life be­fore that in jail. Three years ago, Roberts vis­ited his fa­ther’s grave for the first time and shot it re­peat­edly with a pis­tol. The po­lice ar­rested him soon af­ter.

“They charged me with reck­less dis­charge of a firearm, but it wasn’t re­ally that reck­less,” Roberts said. “I was so torn be­tween ‘I hate this per­son, but he’s my dad.’ ”

Roberts’ cry has res­onated far fur­ther than the Ten­nessee pines. “Outta Beer, Outta Here” lifted the band onto the pages of Coun­try Mu­sic Peo­ple — a 50year-old coun­try mu­sic magazine based in Eng­land — and ear­lier this month, in front of a sold-out Boul­der Theater, where the band opened for Reck­less Kelly. They’re even start­ing to get rec­og­nized around Texas, a place where coun­try is just called “mu­sic.”

“When­ever I’m there, peo­ple ask me whether I’m in the Hang Rounders,” Roberts said. “I’m like, ‘How do you know this band?!’ Peo­ple say, ‘Well, you’re from Denver. It’s kind of known for coun­try mu­sic.’ ”

Denver Post file

Thou­sands pass through the Griz­zly Rose’s heavy doors every week for the party du jour — line dancing on Wed­nes­days, ladies’ night on Thurs­days and big shows on Fri­days.

Charles Sykes, Invision

Dierks Bent­ley is head­ing up the Seven Peaks Mu­sic Fes­ti­val in Buena Vista.

Terry Wy­att, Getty Images

Su­per­stars like Garth Brooks have ven­er­ated the Griz­zly Rose in their lyrics.

Pho­tos by Dy­lan Owens, Spe­cial to The Denver Post

Neon hangs at The Griz­zly Rose, a pil­lar of the coun­try com­mu­nity in Denver and be­yond.

Denver’s coun­try scene took Johno Roberts’ mu­sic career from the street corner to a sold-out show at the Boul­der Theater.

The Griz­zly Rose, a neon-bathed Denver sta­ple, is clos­ing in on its 30th year as the city’s ver­i­ta­ble cow­boy hat.

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