Roots music — whether country, reggae, Americana, bluegrass or folk — holds massive appeal here in Colorado. We love music that boils songs down to something completely devoid of pretension. Throw traditional instruments into the arms of the musos, wind them up and let them go. As a result, we're blessed with some fantastic bands and artists, both old and new. Some play trad-folk, others meld the genre with country or jazz, indie or pop. Here are ten greats, in alphabetical order.
1. Judy Collins
Born in Seattle, maybe, but Judy Collins will forever be seen as a Coloradan after forging a solid career here. She certainly sees it that way: Collins still speaks excitedly about the mountains, Denver, Boulder and everything in between. At 76, she performs about 129 shows each year and shows no signs of slowing down. Since her A Maid of Constant Sorrow album debuted in 1961, Collins has barely stopped working, with last year’s Silver Skies Blue album with Ari Hest earning her a Grammy nomination. She’s a force of nature.
2. John Denver
He was born in Roswell, New Mexico, and he died in California, but damn, did John Denver love Colorado. He lived in Aspen for much of his life, and “Rocky Mountain High” remains one of his best-loved songs. He was more folk rock, or perhaps folk Americana than pure folk, but that’s okay. Any excuse to write about the man with Denver in his actual name is good with us. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is a classic jam, and the pop-punk version by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes is a trip. It’s been twenty years since Denver died in his own aircraft at the age of 53, and he’ll be forever missed.
3. Elephant Revival
Metro Denver has no shortage of contemporary folk bands, but Elephant Revival is right up there among the best of them. The musicians' joy in the roots sound is overt, but there’s also a mournful, near-gothic vibe to their sound, too. Hailing from Nederland, the band's music is often described as transcendental folk, which kind of works, too. Whatever you want to call them, the act put out its fourth studio full-length album, Petals, last year and proved that it’s still slaying — acoustically.
4. Josephine Foster
As a kid, Foster sang at weddings and funerals, proving early on that she can capture a mood. Now fourteen albums into her seventeen-year career, Foster has dabbled in psychedelic rock (with her band the Supposed on the All the Leaves Are Gone album), and Spanish folk (with the albums Anda Jaleo and Perlas). She can do practically anything, and last year’s No More Lamps in the Morning proved that she’s still on top of her game.
There’s bluegrass in Masontown. And newgrass. Certainly some folk. They call it “eclectic Front Range acoustic music.” What we know is that this relatively new band is grabbing the bull by the horns and making some of the most exciting acoustic music heard around these parts in a while. The musicians come from classical and jazz backgrounds, so the influences are spread far and wide. Put it all together, and it meshes beautifully.
6. Mollie O’Brien
Mollie O’Brien is from West Virginia but has lived in Denver for some time, and we’ll happily claim her as one of our own. After all, she’s a Grammy winner. She’s perhaps best known for her collaborations, either with her brother Tim O’Brien or her husband, Rich Moore. Of her home in Boulder, she once told us, “It was a real hotbed for lots of types of music. Good country, good rock and roll, blues — there wasn't too much of an acoustic scene like it has now, but there were a lot of places to play.” Now the acoustic scene is wild, and O’Brien helps.
7. Paper Bird
Nearly eleven years old, Paper Bird’s debut album Anything Nameless and Joymaking was a revelation when it was self-released in 2007. The releases have just kept coming since then, and last year’s self-titled debut for the Thirty Tigers label proves that they’re only getting better. The indie-folk outfit added Carleigh Aikins to the ranks recently, a Toronto-based vocalist who is so good, she’s worth shipping over when work requires.
Straight outta Fort Collins, SHEL is four sisters (Sarah, Hannah, Eva and Liza Holbrook — can you see how they got that name?) who play violin, mandolin, piano and drums. Is it trad-folk? Nope. But there are enough elements there to make the group appropriate for this list. SHEL's Just Crazy Enough debut is a tour de force, a stunningly beautiful effort that is powerfully emotive. Watch these sisters grow.
9. Jill Sobule
Denver folkie Sobule had a great song, “Supermodel,” on the soundtrack to the not-so-great movie Clueless. She also scored a minor hit in 1995 with a song called “I Kissed a Girl.” It’s not the Katy Perry tune, though in John Seabrook’s books about the pop industry, The Song Machine, Sobule said, “Fuck you Katy Perry, you fucking stupid, maybe ‘not good for the gays,’ title-thieving, haven’t heard much else, so not quite sure if you’re talented, fucking little slut. God that felt good.” Sobule's music, which is often autobiographical, is also wonderful.
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10. Laura Veirs
Raised in Colorado, Veirs put out a debut self-titled album in 1999, recorded live with just her and her guitar. Her stature grew over the following years and eight albums, and last year, she sang with Neko Case and K.D. Lang on the Case/Lang/Veirs album. Her sound has been described as chamber folk, which covers the orchestral elements. She’s gone from local to national treasure, and we love her for it.