Where: Oskar Blues Grill & Brewery, 303 Main St., Lyons, Colorado, 303-823-6685
When: Tuesdays, 8 p.m.
More info: oskarblues.com
Where: Conor O’Neill’s, 1922 13th St., Boulder, 303-449-1922
When: Wednesdays, 9 p.m.
More info: conoroneills.com
Where: Abo’s on the Hill, 1124 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3199
When: Thursdays, 6 p.m. (none Thanksgiving day)
More info: abosonthehill.com
Where: Oskar Blues Homemade Liquids and Solids, 1555 S Hover Rd., Longmont, 303-485-9400
When: Sundays, 12 p.m.
More info: oskarblues.com
T here’s no shortage of top-notch live music in Boulder. A ticket to the Fox or Boulder Theater is a usually ticket to a great show. But step out of the big venues and into the small bars, and there’s a completely different music community that’s thriving.
Bluegrass picks are happening all around Boulder and the surrounding towns on almost any given night. They stand out in the music scene because they’re so participatory. No one is on a stage, facing an audience. Instead, musicians stand around tables and face each other when they play. They all know the same songs, especially the popular, basic material most of them learned from — songs by Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Earl Scruggs and the like. With a standard catalogue, it’s easy for anyone to jump in.
“Most bluegrass is pretty simple — it’s just three chords, typically,” said Brian Stevens, a regular at Abo’s on the Hill’s pick. “Most of the stuff you can figure out by ear. A lot of the guys that come here, they know all the songs by heart.”
Stevens, a 24-year-old science teacher and guitar player, started playing at Abo’s when he was a graduate student at CU. He went to Abo’s with some friends, saw some guys jamming, and has been playing there at least once a month since.
“It’s fun for me to come, be social, have some beers,” Stevens said. “It’s just a fun music to play and it’s good music to play live.”
The bluegrass pick is a loosely organized thing, despite the regularity of time, location, music and players. Groups grow, move around and die out all over the area, all the time. The common thread is the community of musicians just looking for a place to hang out and play.
The heart of the community
Much of that community comes together Tuesday nights at Oskar Blues Grill & Brew in Lyons. K.C. Groves, who has been co-hosting there for almost nine years, said that on the busiest nights she’s counted around 50 people with instruments. Waitresses have to dodge swinging banjo necks and elbows thrown by accordion players.
“A lot of times people meet at the jam, and there’s been people who have long standing relationships. I think there’s actually been an engagement,” Groves said. “There’s a lot of people who meet and form bands.”
The Oskar Blues pick gets going with one group around 8 p.m., then small groups break off, somehow managing to contain the sound within each pocket. The crowd works in their favor, the people and conversation acting as buffers between the clusters of musicians.
And that’s sort of how bluegrass picks work on a larger scale: A huge part of the community plays in Lyons, but most of the musicians play in smaller groups in other towns.
“Everyone always has their favorite jam or their home jam, but I think everyone is into going to different ones so you get to play different songs,” Groves said. “I think for a lot of people, there is this great camaraderie, and I don’t think the jams are necessarily exclusive or competitive.”
Picking on the Hill
The Thursday night jams at Abo’s get going after 6 p.m. The room is brightly lit, CU students come in and out to grab a slice, and a rowdy few yell at Tim Tebow through the bar TV. The musicians stand next to the front window, around a table covered in music books and glasses of beer, blissfully ignoring everything else.
Some look young enough to be students, some look middle-aged, and a others have heads full of gray hair. They take turns singing the lead, often engaging as if they’d written the songs for each other — looking right at their fellow musicians, singing to them. This Thursday night, the group starts off with seven men, one of whom was just passing through town.
The glue in this Hill-bound pocket of the bluegrass community is John Ware. He started playing the fiddle about 10 years ago, and eventually discovered a group of CU students who were jamming at a Mexican restaurant. When they graduated and left town, Ware kept the pick going, moving it first to Borders, then to Abo’s two years ago.
“I just fell in love with this jamming,” Ware said. “This is my passion and I’m the one who’s always here. You never know who else is going to show up. It’s a neat little social thing.”
The other popular pick in Boulder happens every Wednesday at Conor O’Neill’s. Around 9 p.m., the gusts of wind from the opening front door come with people toting instrument cases. The musicians gather on a dimly lit small stage near the back of the bar or in the middle of the room, sitting amongst tables of other people who are drinking and chatting loudly.
On this particular night, the pick starts off with four musicians who all look to be in their twenties. Watching them unpack their instruments is both predictable and surprising. A man with a longish black beard pulls out his mandolin, while another wearing a bright red, flat-brimmed backwards cap breaks out a banjo.
Kyle Ussery, a 28-year-old upright bass player, got the picks at Conor O’Neill’s started when the music booker at the bar proposed the idea last March. Through word of mouth and a little Facebook promotion, he’s kept them going since.
“All it entails is me putting the word out there. It’s pretty low-key, I don’t really, you know, break my back trying to promote it,” Ussery said. “I have a core group of friends who I can usually expect one or two of them to show up or maybe more. There’s at least one new person a week.”
Core groups of friends and word-of-mouth are what fuel bluegrass picks. There’s a strong sense of community, visible by just watching everyone play. They sip beer, laugh and chat between songs, and anyone who joins in is greeted with a warm smile.
“It’s interesting, you know, in the acoustic bluegrass kind of world, one of the cool things about it is a lot of people play with each other and do it in a social setting, just hanging out at people’s houses, more or less doing the same thing we’re doing,” Ussery said. “People come and hang out and play a couple tunes and take a break and have a beer and talk to whoever.”
And that’s what sets bluegrass picks apart. Kristina Murray, a 26-year-old guitar player who frequents the picks at Oskar Blues, Conor O’Neill’s and Abo’s, described it as “a mixed bag.” She sees musicians of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels coming together not to perform for an audience, but to play for fun and for each other.
“It’s cool to be a part of the acoustic music community on the front range for sure,” Murray said. “It definitely feels like a family.”