Andrea Pares’s dynamic voice defines eclectic Denver roots outfit Avenhart. Her brassy, soulful singing is gritty and warm, at once urban and rural — inspired by both the city and the state she lives in.
“Colorado is a really cool place,” says Pares. “To be able to live in the city but also be able to pop into the wilderness in ten minutes is just amazing. We were talking to a friend about what our aesthetic is as a band, and I think that we’re the kind of people who are standing in a beautiful meadow, overwhelmed by the beauty of nature, looking into the stars. You know, it’s such a beautiful moment, and then you look down and we’re wearing denim jackets and motorcycle boots. City folk in nature is what Colorado allows us to be.”
That aesthetic is reflected in the band’s music, which uses bluegrass instrumentation to meld soul- and rock-inspired sounds.
“We’re always trying not to be a folk cliché,” says Pares, “so [we try] to balance that bluegrass folk with a city edge.”
Pares grew up in Longmont, where she was first exposed to bluegrass. She remembers browsing through recordings at the public library and checking out a variety of styles of music. She listened to big band with her grandmother and found herself drawn to soul and Motown.
“I have a very musical family,” says Pares. “Nobody plays any instruments or has any formal musical training or anything, but they just sing all the time. When they’re folding laundry or doing the dishes, they’re just singing all the time. There’s just a joy in singing that I’ve always grown up around.”
After graduating from high school, Pares enrolled at the University of Colorado Denver to study music business and vocal performance. She met the other founding members of Avenhart there, in a bluegrass-ensemble class taught by Leftover Salmon’s Greg Garrison.
“None of us knew what we were doing, but we continued to be in the class together because it was so much fun,” says Pares. “One day I was just like, ‘Hey, do you guys want to play this song I wrote? It’s kind of folksy.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ We played it, and we were like, ‘Yeah, maybe we should do this.’”
Garrison encouraged the bandmates, letting them know he believed in them.
They took some time to decide upon a name, ultimately settling on Avenhart because, as they tell it, the word conjures a sense of longing and possibility born from road trips. Moreover, they feel that it has the right balance of masculinity/femininity and hardness/softness to represent the group’s musical sensibilities.
Shortly after forming the band, the musicians began producing their self-titled first EP; they turned to Elephant Revival founding members Sage Cook and Bridget Law for mentorship.
“We were so fortunate to work with Bridget and Sage on our EP a while back,” says Olivia Shaw, Avenhart’s fiddle player. “Bridget had so many unique and beautiful arrangement ideas for the songs. Perhaps more important, she shared really heartfelt advice with us about being a band: It can be a really transformative environment if you let it, but there has to be a solid foundation of trust and tenderness.”
Avenhart’s members took those words of wisdom to heart. Pares, Shaw and guitar player Payden Widner, who write the songs, formed a tight bond.
“One of us will bring in a skeleton of a song. Maybe it’s missing a bridge, or maybe we’re unsure of the words. Then everyone else chimes in with ideas, and we build around it,” explains Pares.
Avenhart, released in 2017, comprises six songs characterized by simple lyrics depicting honest emotions. The bandmates were able to create such resonant songs despite their diverging musical backgrounds.
“We all have such different influences in our musical upbringing and tastes — and I mean very different — but the music we write always reflects the common ground that we share,” says Widner. “It can be hard, sometimes, to bring in a song that you’ve become attached to, only to have it completely rearranged and mangled. Every song I’ve brought to the band is radically different from its conception, but I think that’s what makes this process work so well.”
Pares doesn’t think it would work as well if the musicians weren’t so close.
“We’re just a family,” she says. “Being in a band is so weird. It’s like a family, but it’s also like a marriage. It can be fun and it can be hard, but no matter what, all those people have my back, and I have theirs. It’s about building a community with a band. It’s so fulfilling.”
Key to building this family, of course, is Pares herself, and not just because of her incredible voice.
“The thing that I always notice and respect about Andrea as a leader is her ability to make a decision,” says banjo player Alex Drapela. “Naturally, by having as big of a band as we do, there are a lot of opinions. I really admire Andrea’s ability to sit down and hear all sides of everything, and at the end of the day make a decision that she knows isn’t going to be perfect in everybody’s mind.”
Although Pares is far from the only female bandleader of a bluegrass group, her role is still relatively unusual.
“There are a lot of male-fronted, male-vocalist bluegrass bands, especially here in Colorado, and I think to have me at the front as someone who has the more soulful, deep voice and is also a woman gives us an interesting edge and perspective while writing songs,” says Pares. “As far as the community goes, we’ve had nothing but open arms. I haven’t run into anything weird.”
About six months after the release of the EP, Avenhart took a much-needed hiatus during the fall and early winter. The members were worn out from a demanding performance schedule, the need to constantly find fill-ins because they lacked a stable bass player, and practicing the same songs over and over again.
“The break ended up being really good,” notes Pares, “because we had some time to breathe and evaluate all the songs we’ve written and also write a bunch of new songs — just like really enjoying playing music together and exploring our friendships.” The lineup was also solidified during that time with the addition of bass player Gil Clark.
Now Avenhart is back and better than ever. The bandmates are ready to take their home state by storm — jean jackets, motorcycle boots and all.
Says Drapela: “As a band, we’ve talked about far-off goals, and have agreed that we all want to eventually hit that point where we are selling out Red Rocks.”
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Sage Marshall is a freelance writer and editor covering
outdoor recreation, environmental issues, Denver's music scene, the arts, and other Colorado stories. You can check out more of his work and connect with him here.