As a kid, Bison Bone's Courtney Whitehead would leave the radio on all night long and wake up at 3 a.m., listening to the more adventurous end of country-music programming. He would grab his tape player and record songs by George Jones, Conway Twitty or Merle Haggard, drawn to their rich stories and melodies that would later inform his own songwriting. Whitehead listened to a broad spectrum of other music in the ’80s ’90s as well; he cites both Woody Guthrie and Soundgarden as influences. Their styles can be heard on Bison Bone's latest album, History of Falling.
When Whitehead writes about loss, love and resentment, there is a psychological and social awareness that informs the lyrics with an uncommon humanity and compassion that transcends genre. Because of that and the group's innovative sounds and song structures, it is impossible to pigeonhole Bison Bone as just another Americana band from Denver.
We spoke with Whitehead ahead of his April 8 show at the hi-dive, about his songwriting roots, what he means by “cosmic country,” and why Bison Bone sang about eminent domain on one of the group's most affecting tracks.
Westword: You moved to Denver in 2014 from Dallas, but you got your start playing live music in college at Oklahoma State University.
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Courtney Whitehead: That was with my buddy Dustin “Red” Coker, who is in Dallas now with a band called the Roomsounds. We just played barn parties and house parties. We would back up these old-timers and be their backing band: “Heartaches by the Number” and stuff like that, Buck Owens songs, guys that Dwight Yoakam would look up to. That's how we worked up our chops, playing two hours a night for weeks on end. We had thirty covers in our head at any given time. Then one guy would step away to dance with his wife or whatever, and we could do our own music or something by Todd Snider or Hank III. [We were also into] Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Ryan Adams, and then later on, Lucero and Drive by Truckers. I don't consider us a honky-tonk or country band, but I always say roots rock, Americana or cosmic country.
What is cosmic county?
That's a twofold thing. I like to stretch things out sonically, and I don't like being put into boxes. It's better than saying Americana, which is why I moved out of Dallas — to not get put into a box as readily. In Denver there seemed to be a need for that. My girlfriend at the time got a job up here, and my band then was breaking up. I've always surrounded myself with people better than me, and it's helped, so I'll continue to do that. The freedom of college to play every night means you get pretty decent pretty fast, especially with someone like my friend Red Coker who has been playing his whole life. And with the current lineup [which started in 2016], I have had the great fortune to play in a band with vocalist Brianna Straut, Eric Rudnick on pedal steel and lead guitar, drummer Ari Rubinstein, and Brad Wright on bass.
The [new] album [History of Failing] is ten songs and 47 minutes long. Traditional country albums would be thirty minutes. With pedal steel and some of the guitar stuff, you can be a little bit psychedelic. I like to do a chord progression without words as well. I think we're bridging the gap between some genres for sure. There's also not a waltz on the album. I like covering things in three-four time, but we're not that type of band. These songs fit [together] well sonically, so throwing a waltz on the record, it wouldn't work.
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“Here I Stand” is about eminent domain. That's a concept that probably seems a bit arcane to many people. What's your own experience with that?
I had this apartment that was sold to me because of this forested area right outside my window, and I could walk outside and be among the trees. I had assumed it was owned by the property owners. One day, I woke up at seven in the morning and bulldozers and everything crushed the trees down. It was then an empty space that never got used for anything because maybe the funding ran out, so it was just pure loss.
All ten songs on the record are all nonfiction for the most part. They're all real things I was a part of or saw. Being from Oklahoma, I grew up around recreational lakes. People lived in these areas, but lawyers and doctors want to take their boats out on a man-made lake, and those people get kicked out of their homes. They don't know how to read or write, but live off the land. They get promised good jobs in town, and money. But the money doesn't last long, and the jobs don't come, and some of those people kill themselves because they've got nothing.
Bison Bone, with Poet's Row and Bluebook, 8:30 p.m., Saturday, April 8, hi-dive, 303-733-0230, $10, 21+.