By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
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By Taylor Boylston
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Kenny Mallinson helps run the Cuckoo's Nest in Lakewood. "Normally I get guys in here that do an acoustic thing, because we don't have that much room," he says. "But Trace is a band by himself and has a following here that's unheard of for a one-man act. I can't believe he's not booked solid all the time, because he's the best bang for the buck in town." His appeal, Mallinson adds, is also based "on content. It's not the novelty of it."
As one of Christensen's regulars, Doug Opfermann catches the show about once a week. A musician and former recording engineer, he says some of Christensen's appeal is the techie side of his act. But he's most impressed with his onstage playing. "I've worked with a lot of musicians in the studio," he says, "and his guitar playing is impressive because he plays so well in so many different styles. He's what I aspired to be all my life."
Christensen's journey to his current gig began in the '60s, in Utah, where he grew up. His family settled there when his father, Charles C. Christensen, relocated to the state and became a leader in the U.S. rocket industry. (According to Christensen, techniques developed by his dad helped put the bulk of today's satellites into orbit, and in the '80s he won the revered R.D. Franklin award, joining a list of recipients that includes Marie Curie.) Life in Utah was complicated for the Christensens, Trace says, because the family was not Mormon. "I'm the whitest guy in the world," Christensen says, "but I know all about prejudice and discrimination." After graduating from high school, he followed in his father's footsteps and studied computers, picking up the guitar on the side. He soon dropped out of school to pursue a musical career in Utah's progressive rock community. One of his first bands, Hyperformance, enjoyed a stint overseas touring with the Scorpions. After that band folded, Christensen went back to college and got his degree in music from Boston's Berklee School of Music, where his classmates included Aimee Mann and Berlin's Terri Nunn.
In 1988, Christensen formed a top-forty cover band, Big Bang, that toured for three years. When that band collapsed, he moved to Denver and formed the Spencer Tracy Band, a power trio. The group played area bars and toured various states around the West, getting as far as Alaska. ("That was the last wild-West place for musicians," he recalls. "I lost a lot of brain cells up there.") In that band, Christensen began using the "sweetening" tracks that would later become his sole accompaniment. When the group broke up, Christensen relocated to Hollywood to spend a year in another top-forty band, Radio Radio. Then he returned to Denver and launched a solo career, which took off when one of his studio tunes -- "Time to Move On," from his Footprints in the Snow solo debut -- garnered airplay on a few hundred triple-A and college stations around the country.
"Having the success with the single was great," Christensen recalls. "The problem was that I didn't have a band to get out and support it." That dilemma led him to reconsider his methods, and it ultimately led to his current approach. But his solo act was also motivated by changing economics in the music scene. "I was on the road back in the '70s," he notes, "and this was the best job in the world. And it was real money then, and I could travel with a big band, and it was great. But the clubs have all downsized now, so I had to downsize with them. I decided to do the best I could and get rid of all of the overhead. Now there's no more agents, no more roadies. And no more musicians."
According to Christensen, much of this area's (and the nation's) musical shortcomings stem from decreased pay to live acts, which has forced good players out of the business. "When musicians started making fifty bucks a night and less," he says, "all those capable people went back to school or started businesses. The guys that are left over are the guys who aren't that capable or committed." The remaining musicians, he says, are doing further damage to their own scene by playing for cheap. Players, Christensen says, "have to work on their craft until they're worth something. If you're not ready, stay out of the bars and wait until you're good enough that you can offer a good product for a fair price." With his small payroll, Christensen could be joining the roster of bands willing to play for cheap, but he refuses to do so. "I charge what a band charges," he says with pride. "I'm not going to undercut any band, absolutely not. Musicians have to stick together."
Christensen says finding work for his neo-solo act was difficult at first. Rooms accustomed to traditional solo artists were scared away by the idea of his full-force show, or they couldn't understand the concept. Talent buyers accustomed to bands were skeptical that his act could hold a crowd hungry for the genuine article. It's a hurdle he continues to deal with.