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My intention is to play music full-time, not run a restaurant," says Johnny James Qualley. "But I love this place so much that when the opportunity arose, I just couldn't pass it up."
It's a bright Monday afternoon between the lunch and dinner rush at Appaloosa Grill, an upscale but casual eatery housed in Denver's Masonic Building, at the corner of 16th and Welton streets. As Dub Side of the Moon tickles its way through the sound system, Qualley, Oakhurst's co-founder and upright-bassist, is discussing how he evolved from waiter to bar manager to GM to primary owner of one of Mayor Hickenlooper's crown jewels. Seated beside him in a burgundy upholstered booth, disheveled and drinking a Red Bull, Adam Hill, the band's frontman, flashes a big smile.
And why not? This summer has been something of a coup for the members of Oakhurst -- as both musicians and budding restaurateurs. The roots-rock outfit recently opened for Junior Brown and Nickel Creek at the Chatfield Music Fest (adding to a list that includes John Prine, Béla Fleck and Arlo Guthrie); they performed at Film on the Rocks and landed a prestigious slot on New Belgium Brewing Company's Tour de Fat; and following a live radio interview on KDNK-AM in Carbondale, they played to more than 5,000 folks at the town's Mountain Fair. "It was one of those deals," recalls Qualley, "where the arm hairs don't lie down for about an hour after the show."
Today the two are happily acknowledging their one-month anniversary of acquiring the Appaloosa from Wynkoop Holdings. Despite the new responsibilities and high overhead, Qualley and Hill, along with Wynkoop accountant Tracy Gonzales and chef Tim Erwin (bassist for the hardcore outfit I See Spies), are quickly adjusting as the Grill's new proprietors. In addition to a lunch and dinner menu that merges Asian and Southwestern fare with bar grub, steaks and seafood, Appaloosa boasts live music seven nights a week (Oakhurst takes the stage every Thursday evening). The colorful, ghostly history behind the Masonic Building, gutted by fire in the early '80s, adds mystique to the venue. "It's said that someone died here," Qualley says, referring to the corner space once occupied by Banana Republic and Galileo. "The Archdiosese of Denver came in and did an exorcism with palm leaves and holy water and the whole bit."
Hailing from less hallowed ground, Oakhurst got its start six years ago in an old yogurt factory at 20th and Lawrence. Guitarist Hill, a Knoxville, Tennessee, picker who goes by "AP" on stage, led the original trio with Qualley, a Minnesota transplant, and New York bucket-banger Todd Hoefen. "It was cold as hell in the winter," remembers Qualley of the band's graffiti-scarred practice space. "But we were there every night after work, playing the same three songs over and over again, 'cause that's all we had. We used to run out and play basketball in that little court just to get warm."
As the music heated up, Oakhurst branched into a six-piece, even adding a piano player until an alleged nail-gun accident prompted the departure of ivory-tickler Ray Foss. ("He needed to do that for his career," Hill adds, chuckling. "No hard feelings.") Hoefen soon broke ranks as well, following a career with NASA as a planetary geophysicist. "He made a very significant discovery on Mars when the rover got there -- a mineral called olivine," Qualley explains. "It gets condensed in the presence of water into green, crystally stuff, which would imply that there was water on Mars at one point.
"It's funny, because when we were mastering Greenhorn," he continues, recalling the sessions for the act's second album, "we all ran out to the car to listen to him being interviewed on NPR. He's studying Saturn now."
Oakhurst's current earthbound lineup includes mandolinist/lead guitarist Adam "Tarzano" Smith, banjo and spoons player Zach Daniels (discovered busking for change on the 16th Street Mall), and drummer Chris Budin, from the Reals and the Inactivists. Specializing in amplified Americana and old-timey mountain sounds, the band is often mistaken for some odd Appalachian throwback. But it's not like the boys crowd around a single microphone in matching suits, yodeling about black lung and train wrecks.
"You're just not a bluegrass band if you have drums," Qualley insists. "That's why we call it roots rock with a bluegrass injection. That makes it understandable.
"I've never really seen true bluegrass until we went on our very first tour," he continues. "You see an eighty-year-old lady playing bass and a ten-year-old kid on banjo, and they're just rippin'. They could play circles around me."
"Bluegrass, from where I come from, is not the same as Colorado bluegrass," adds Hill, who was weaned on Southern church choirs. "People coin us as bluegrass, but we aren't. We've got rock and roll. We got some funky stuff. We might not do it as well as our forefathers on each level, but we bring 'em all to the table."
Oakhurst serves up a tasty combo platter of rustic tunes on its debut EP, Loose and Prosperous(available for free download at www.porchmusic.com), and 2003's Greenhorn, which received unsolicited airplay in Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands and started the band's ongoing affiliation with Big Bender Records. "They have a vision," say Qualley. "Big Bender wants to put Rocky Mountain music on the map worldwide. We went to them because we like to do as much as we can locally, too. For them to come along and book shows and get our music featured prominently in stores like Tower Records and Virgin is something that we don't have the gumption or the time to do. The less we spend doing all this other stuff, we can just focus on the craft."
Hot off the griddle, Dual Mono lifts Oakhurst's artisanship to new heights. With engineer Scott "Scooter" Smith and producer Matt Kowal of the Reals on board, the band recorded its official first full-length in three separate locations with two different drummers (Budin and Andrew Clapp). The unconventional approach began in an overcrowded, snowbound cabin near Walsenburg -- in the shadow of Greenhorn Mountain, fittingly enough.
"You're miking drums with a pot of beans cookin' next to your head and fires crackling, and all the rest of the string section is packed into this little tiny room," recounts Qualley of the sessions. "There was so much bleed between all the channels that you couldn't overdub if you wanted to. So we decided to play it nice and clean."
For the remainder of the album, Qualley and Hill took advantage of a friend's warehouse in Southwest Denver to cut certain tracks, while another pal's art-studio basement near the railroad tracks provided good acoustics for others. "The last thing we wanted to do," Qualley notes, "was go in and spend eighty dollars an hour on some studio and end up with something that sounds stiff."
Virtually a live offering, Dual maintains a warm, analog feel from start to finish, alternating between acoustic shoot-outs ("Gypsies at JR's"), tender balladry ("Moonshine Still") and groove-oriented, electric blues funk ("Olivine"). Generous at fourteen cuts, it pays tribute to Virginia's Hackensaw Boys with a turbo-charged cover of "Dance Around," plus a breezy ode to the Hacks' banjo picker, Jimmy Stelling, aka the "Kooky Eyed Fox." Emphasizing the importance of lyrics and composition over any gratuitous special effects, Dual's impressive packaging, with artwork by Greg Carr, deftly captures Oakhurst with raw immediacy.
"I never thought I'd be doing this when I left college to come ride snowboards," Hill admits. "English was one of my weakest subjects. But now understanding how to tell a story comes a little more natural. Whether it's good or bad, I don't know -- it's mine. But it's a fun process."
"Songs are just like babies," Qualley adds philosophically. "They're born, and sometimes they never make it past infancy. Sometimes they become these wild teenagers. And other times they grow old. This song "Chili" is like a grandfather. We talked about putting it on the last record, but it just wasn't developed until now."
However the tunes materialize, Oakhurst certainly gives a crowd ample reason to cut a rug in a live setting ("You gotta bring your dancin' shoes -- and your hollow leg," Qualley quips). For Hill, though, the straight dope is derived from the simple joy of the songs themselves.
"Music should have been free from the get-go," he concludes. "Nobody's in this to worry about dollars. We just try to deliver the party every time. People clappin' and jumpin' and dancin' and hootin' and hollerin' -- that's all we ever asked for."
Well, that, and maybe a full house at the Appaloosa Grill every Thursday night.