How could a cowtown have such a lousy country-music scene?
That question burned at Michelle Caponigro in 2007, when she shifted from seven years of singing in jam bands to writing three-chord Hank Williams-style songs under the name Chella Negro and then forming Chella & the Charm in 2011. In the years since, as her own career has taken off, Caponigro has watched the Denver country scene boom, with bands like Hang Rounders, Bison Bone and Grayson County Burn Ban forming and building a strong presence in town.
Still, most of those lack something she wants to see in more country bands: women at the helm. That desire led her to book Sweethearts of the Rodeo, a Valentine’s Day concert at the hi-dive that will celebrate women in Denver’s country-music scene. The set includes acts that Caponigro admires, including Ryann & Lee, Jennifer Niceley, Bonnie & Taylor and Five Mile Woods. Chella & the Charm is headlining the show.
Caponigro grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, listening to Reba McEntire and Mary Chapin Carpenter along with the Grateful Dead, which she notes is one step shy of being a country act on albums like Workingman’s Dead. To this day, she’ll defend the honor of the band against any country fan who decries it...though she does wish the Dead would stay buried. “For God’s sake, the Grateful Dead needs to quit right now,” she rails. “John Mayer? Are you fucking kidding me?”
She’s been an avid Phish head since 1996, in recent years buying $300 worth of tickets for the band’s shows at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “I’ll judge so hard through 20 percent of the show and will be like, ‘I hate this. You suck,’” Caponigro says. “And then they play something I love, and it’s like bliss pouring into every pore in my body.”
While she had some success singing in the jam-band scene, it proved not to be for her because of a problem plaguing all genres, be it bluegrass, country, hip-hop or rock. “Nationally, the jam-band scene, it’s not a very female-friendly genre,” she says. “For all the peace and love and all the flowery lyrics, jam bands — especially newer jam bands — are very masculine, sort of aggressive. People take it so seriously, and those people are mostly men. It’s like, ‘Look at my giant cock that is actually my guitar.’ It’s not set up to be very inviting to anyone.”
When she had finally had enough of the jam-band scene, Caponigro connected with co-workers in the indie-rock community she found through the now-shuttered record store Cheapo Discs. Singer-songwriter Jen Korte took Caponigro under her wing, and as Chella Negro, she started playing every show she could, developing a reputation among promoters as a reliable, hardworking act.
Caponigro looks back fondly on the days when she was emerging as a singer-songwriter. “Did we peak in 2009?,” she asks about Denver’s music scene. At the time, venues booked more mixed-genre shows; she recalls playing a folk set between a speed-punk band and a metal act at the Larimer Lounge, and a bald, bearded tattooed man approaching her afterward. She feared he would ridicule her, but instead he confessed that her music reminded him of how his mother sang to him as a child and that he had wept through the set.
The perk, as Caponigro tells it, of today’s music scene in Denver is that there has been an explosion of bands across genres, and it’s possible to assemble an all-country show — even an all-women country show, which is still tough, since she can only name a handful of women country acts in town. Still, they exist.
Around 2009, “I think a lot of what was happening in terms of singer-songwriters was that Paper Bird style. It was folky, but not straying past that folk line. Singing through your teeth like you’re Billie Holiday in the ’40s — I think that almost exclusively defined the Denver female sound for a number of years. It wasn’t representative of everything that was going on. Like, you’d have someone like Jen Korte & the Loss, who would sing balls to the wall. I have a big voice — but you get kind of glossed over because you have these beautiful fairy women playing the harpsichord.”
Chella & the Charm is bold. Caponigro’s got a take-no-shit, rough-around-the-edges voice that evokes a pure, wild country spirit, and her band turns a few simple chords, heavy-handed strumming and a pedal-steel guitar into a haunting sound.
Caponigro is nearly forty. She’s also working in the office of a garage-door repair business and studying up to become an accountant, because after nearly two decades in the city’s music scene (along with a short stint doing improv), she says she knows that music isn’t going to be particularly profitable. And the music scene is still dominated by men.
“As female musicians, we’ve always had to fight a little harder,” she says. “It’s no different than [with] any other profession in America, and maybe in the world. Women have a harder time at stuff, especially in the creative arts. It’s harder to get your voice heard, not be sexualized, and really have people put stock in what you’re doing.”
As for the Valentine’s Day show, Caponigro is excited: “We get to do it at the hi-dive, which is my favorite place to go and drink and be a weirdo, and also play. Kim Baxter does the sound there, and she’s really stepped it up. She’s got the sweetest ear and makes everything sound great. The team at the hi-dive is so supportive; they welcome everybody. It’s just a real friendly, warm place to be. I’m glad we could do this show there. Valentine’s Day? Why not?”
Sweethearts of the Rodeo, 8 p.m. Wednesday, February 14, hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, $7, 303-733-0230.
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