"I don't know if you're a musician or anything, but it's terrible playing to an empty room," says Paul Whitacre.
The Denver-based vocalist and songwriter, who moved to Colorado from Indianapolis in 2016, explains what motivated him to form his new group.
"I played at empty coffee shops about once a month or so while I was at college in Indiana," says Whitacre, who studied at Ball State University, where he earned a degree in marketing. "When I moved to Denver as a solo artist, I continued to play those gigs for a while, but it was hard, and it wore me down."
The aspiring tunesmith and solo performer was new to town and didn't know any local musicians, until one day he received a message on the Internet.
"My drummer, Mark, who I didn't know at the time, sent me a note on Instagram," Whitacre recalls. "It said, 'Hey, I see that you're doing this music thing on your own. I'm a drummer, and my roommate is a bassist. Do you want to get together and see how it goes?' I had a few gigs booked, and a few other musicians wound up joining us, too, so I was like, 'Let's just see what happens if we play a couple shows together as a band.' It clicked, and the rest is history. Since starting, we've gone from sold-out show to sold-out show, which definitely helps keep things going."
With a few musical compadres on board and a minor rebrand (the band dropped the "Paul" from its moniker), the five-piece Whitacre has carved out a compelling bluegrass-inflected sound. The rootsy outfit, which has dropped two self-produced singles and is now working with local Denver musician and producer Joe Richmond, is in the process of releasing a new EP, Within the Mountain Shadows, due out in October, and a new single, "The Fence," that drops at the end of this month.
"We're definitely trying to keep our bluegrass feel, but as a live act, we want to push the rock edge more and give it some grit," says Whitacre, who plays rhythm guitar and sings. "I brand us as folk rock."
The members of Whitacre, which has been up and running for just shy of a year, all live in the Denver area and aspire to a trajectory similar to groups like Wilderado, who provided inspiration for them early on.
"At one point I was pretty much at the place where I was thinking, 'I'm done with this,'" confesses Whitacre. "But I went to a show at the Ogden, and the opening act [Wilderado] just stole the show. I was blown away, and I thought, 'I'm going to start hitting up bands that I like and pitching us as an opening act.' I figured, we can support these bands, we can bring people, and we can focus on our ticket sales. I kind of shifted from wanting to be the main act to wanting to support really good bands. I figure we can pull our weight and they pull theirs, and together we can put on a great show. Sometimes I dread seeing an opening act, but watching a really good opener makes a show that much better."
Whitacre got its first taste of audience appreciation at Globe Hall in September 2017, when the fledgling outfit played to an enthusiastic crowd of about sixty people. The positive reaction from that show helped propel the five-piece band, which comprises Whitacre on guitar and lead vocals, Mark Cunningham on drums, keys and backing vocals, Chase Perry on banjo, accordion, harmonica and backing vocals, Joey Wenberg on bass, and Robert Bullington on lead guitar.
"We had a great group of people show up for us that night, some of whom had seen me before as a solo act," says Whitacre, who performed with his group at the Bluebird earlier this month in support of the band SUSTO. "But, yeah, that show at the Globe was the first time that I'd had an energetic big sound with a bunch of people getting into it. It's kind of what kicked things off."
The folky five-piece will release its new song "The Fence" on August 31. Whitacre says the anthem-like ditty attempts to provide advice for the choices that people face in their everyday lives.
Listen to the new song first here:
"We're faced with decisions daily, and we kinda feel like we know what the right answers are, but taking the right path isn't always the easiest thing to do," he says, "So the song is an encouragement to live right, make the best decisions and know that you're not alone in feeling that sometimes following the right path isn't easy.
He adds: "I tried to keep it pretty broad so that people could use it if they're going through a breakup, wrestling with their job, their faith, or whatever it is. I try to write in a way that, regardless of the situation, it can be applied specifically."