By any measure, Courtney Whitehead’s journey through the Denver music scene has been a successful one — even if the Bison Bone frontman felt terrible through much of it.
For the past decade, Whitehead has struggled with increasingly debilitating bouts of poor health, as well as anxiety, insomnia and depression, all of which affected his overall quality of life and his ability to tour. His affliction remained a mystery until about a year and a half ago; the diagnosis was Lyme disease, a bacterial infection caused by tick bites. It’s a nasty illness that can go undetected for years and is often mistaken for other maladies.
“That’s just kind of Western-medicine stuff, trying to get this diagnosed,” Whitehead says. “They can’t find it doing test after test after test. Finally I found a doctor [who] said it sounded like Lyme disease, and they tested for it, and they were right.”
Whitehead underwent a course of treatment, and while he’s not 100 percent better, he’s well into what he hopes is about a two-year recovery process. He's been working with a vocal coach in an effort to perfect his craft, but notes that his improved health has also had a significant impact on his singing ability.
“Anything trauma-related is going to affect how you sing,” he says. “My health, mentally and physically, was getting worse and worse from year to year.”
Now that a light has finally appeared at the end of a decade-long tunnel, Whitehead says his songs have become more upbeat, as well. That’s not to say that Bison Bone's previous output was exactly crying-in-your-beer type of music, but the songs on the band's soon-to-be-released second full-length, Find Your Way Out, reflect his new, happier outlook on life. Although they were written last year, before the entire world seemed to fall into sadness and chaos because of COVID-19, Whitehead says he probably would have composed them the same way in 2020. He hopes that anyone who has gone through their own trials and tribulations, whether physical, mental or spiritual, can find some solace in the songs.
“I would say lyrically and sonically, [it’s] definitely more upbeat, more hopeful and vulnerable and appreciative,” he says of the album, which will be released at an outdoor show at Lost City on September 26. “Things are tough out there, they surely are, but you should keep your head up. If you’re open to it, I think things will get better.”
“It’s changed every part of my life,” he says of living in Denver. “It’s a very progressive city. There are a lot of talented artists of every medium here, and I’m a very curious person.”
Bison Bone’s music falls squarely under Americana, that nebulous genre that combines country, folk and rock and roll (and, if we're being honest, offers a way for country-leaning musicians to avoid being grouped in with people like Trace Adkins). Whitehead grew up listening to classic country singers like George Jones and Merle Haggard on the radio, and when bandmate Adam Stern lays down a lead on pedal steel guitar, the result is undoubtedly country. “Hey Bartender,” from the group's debut, Take Up the Trouble, wouldn’t feel out of place on a Dwight Yoakam record.
“You know, Take Up the Trouble, [2017 EP] History of Falling and “Hey Bartender” — a lot of that stuff is a little darker,” he says. “I like doing some of that stuff, and I've had those times. I think my perspective has changed a lot with some of that, too. I’m not nearly as jaded as I was when I wrote some of those songs.”
Bison Bone still delves into twangy territory at times on Find Your Way Out, but Whitehead doesn’t see the band putting out an entire album of full-on Bakersfield-sound tunes anytime soon. He sees the more rock-and-roll feel of the new album as the direction he wants the group to take, adding that some of his music of late has been compared to the heartland rock of Bruce Springsteen.
“The more rock-and-roll stuff is actually truly who we are,” he says. “We keep growing, keep learning, keep pushing. I’m curious, and I think the band’s curious, about what we can do and what we can pull off. I think we're really just scratching the surface."
Bison Bone comprises Whitehead, guitarist Wolf Van Elfmand, backing vocalist Brianna Straut, drummer Adam Blake, Stern on pedal steel and guitar and Tony Piscotti on bass. A cast of other musicians appears on the new record, which also includes the production, mixing and engineering skills of members of the Fray and Paper Bird. Whitehead says the current lineup has been in place for more than two years; he and his bandmates started tracking the album last October, after they had played quite a few shows together and had time to jell as a group.
“I think that really helped,” he says. “These guys all work on their craft pretty hard. Sometimes it just takes time to find your audience, and it takes time to find your players.”
The band recorded most of Find Your Way Out together in one room, something that might prove harder now because of COVID-19. But Whitehead, who views the recording process as a way to document the evolution of the group’s sound, doesn't want to take long breaks in between studio sessions. He already has new songs, and he's determined to find a way to make the next project work, even if everyone has to go into the studio separately and overdub all the different parts.
“There are about five songs we could go in and cut right now that I feel just as proud of, if not more proud of, than what’s on this newest record,” he says. “There are three new ones that I’m going to play at this outdoor record-release show. I’m sure all of those are going to end up on the [next] record. I feel like we could go in and get quite a bit done if we needed to today.”
Meanwhile, with the latest album wrapped up, Whitehead decided to take a vacation. He's spending some time in Grand Lake with friends, lounging on a pontoon boat and doing as little as possible. Labor Day has come and gone, and with it the horde of revelers. It’s quiet, relaxing and, best of all, healing.
“Today I think we're going to hang out and play some horseshoes,” he reports. “It’s taco night, and the weather is just beautiful. And this is all part of the recovery process. I’m finally feeling good enough to be able to go on vacation and enjoy it.”
Whitehead and Stern will play an outdoor record-release show at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, September 26, at Lost City, 3459 Ringsby Court. Tickets start at $25 and are available at eventbrite.com. Find Your Way Out will be available for download and on vinyl at bandcamp.com on September 25. For more information, visit bisonbone.com.