Ten of the Best Colorado Bluegrass Artists

The Cody Sisters are Denver's latest rising bluegrass act.
The Cody Sisters
The Cody Sisters are Denver's latest rising bluegrass act.
It's no secret that the Centennial State is fertile ground for bluegrass. The high and lonesome tones that emanated from the British Isles and that were later echoed in the United States via artists like Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs have long been at home in the Rockies. Each new year reveals emerging local talent and further seasons our existing roots-oriented artists. The abundance of pickers and grinners on the Front Range cannot be contained by ten bands, but here's a sampling of some of the acoustic-based outfits who help make up the always evolving and thriving Colorado bluegrass music scene. Bluegrass is an expansive genre, so we have included a few newgrass bands and purveyors of bluegrass blends along with the more traditional sounds.

Hot Rize
Hot Rize is one of the first Colorado bands to bring wide acclaim and notice to the state's rising bluegrass scene. With classics including "Colleen Malone," "Blue Night" and "Hard Pressed," as well as brilliant takes on traditional gospel-based numbers such as "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" and "Climb the Ladder," Hot Rize was and is one of the Front Range's finest bluegrass products and has been inspiring younger generations of pickers since the act kicked off in the late ’70s. Tim O'Brien, Nick Forster, Pete "Dr. Banjo" Wernick, Bryan Sutton, the late Charles Sawtelle and the late Mike Scap (original Hot Rize guitarist and founder) have all left their indelible marks as part of the band.

Leftover Salmon

Festival cryer and all-around embodiment of polyethnic Cajun slamgrass, Salmon frontman Vince Herman moved to Colorado from his home state of West Virginia after being inspired by bands including Hot Rize, which he first took in at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in the mid-’80s. Herman followed his bliss and realized his musical dreams in the Colorado Rockies. When members of zydeco-rooted act the Salmon Heads mashed up with members of the Left Hand String Band, including guitarist and mandolin player extraordinaire Drew Emmitt, for a 1989-1990 New Year's Eve show in Crested Butte, Leftover Salmon and jamgrass were born. Many younger bands continue to take their cues from this act in an attempt to capture the fast-picking, ski-town-bar magic of the inimitable group.

Trout Steak Revival

One of Denver's rising bluegrass-rooted groups, Trout Steak Revival also offers folk, country and maybe a dash of rootsy pop. The band, which was founded by a few Michigan transplants, is a blend of the old and the new, with an emphasis on uplifting performances and original songwriting. The act's sound includes the strain of a fiddle and the twang of a banjo along with a newgrass sensibility and a focus on solid vocal hooks and familiar refrains. Trout Steak Revival started around 2009 and took top honors in the band competition at Telluride in 2014; it has since blazed an arc over the foothills and beyond.

A group that has been noted on Westword's previous bluegrass lists, Masontown continues to impress. The Front Range-based outfit, with members in Denver, Lafayette, Longmont and Lyons, is marked by outstanding musicianship, including the fiddling of Natalie Padilla, the guitar picking of Eric Wiggs, mandolinist Mike "Doctor Mando" Canney, upright bassist Bradley Morse and banjo player Sam Armstrong-Zickefoose. Their sound is a mix of the contemporary and the traditional with a driving rhythmic current and an airtight sense of arrangement.
Whitewater Ramble
Self described as high-octane Rocky Mountain dancegrass, Whitewater Ramble is known to fuse acoustic instrumentation with drums, piano and even the occasional electric guitar exploration. This is progressive bluegrass played by some of the area's best musicians that holds to the rootsy core of the genre while expanding traditional bluegrass boundaries to arrive at a contemporary place. Whitewater leans at times toward rock, but there remains enough down-home acoustification to keep the act rooted in bluegrass while swinging for the jam stands.