Head for the Hills Keeps Colorado's Experimental Bluegrass Tradition Alive

Head for the Hills plays at Cervantes' Other Side on Friday, March 2.
Head for the Hills plays at Cervantes' Other Side on Friday, March 2. Photo courtesty of Head for the Hills.
Matt Loewen is fifteen years into a musical journey that began during his freshman year at Colorado State University. The bassist for the group Head for the Hills, now in his early thirties, met one of his future bandmates in the elevator of their dormitory at CSU.

"I think I was wearing a band T-shirt of some kind, and Adam [Kinghorn], our guitar player, and I got to talking," says Loewen, who was born in Wichita and grew up in suburban Chicago. "Adam had an idea of wanting to start a bluegrass group when he got to college. And so he did. He even had the name picked out. He got it from an episode of Looney Tunes in which Bugs Bunny says something to the effect of, 'You'd better head for the hills, folks, or you'll be up to your armpits in Martians.' That was the genesis of the name."

Loewen says the four-piece has always been experimental in terms of its approach to some of the restrictions presented by bluegrass, and that it embraces the history of the genre in the state of Colorado.

"Part of our background is that we had one foot in the tradition of bluegrass and one foot in the Colorado tip, which is more progressive," he explains. "Bluegrass bands out of Colorado, starting with groups like Hot Rize, tend to break some rules. [Hot Rize] had an electric bass player, and their banjo player, Pete Wernick, played his instrument using a phase-shifter effects pedal. We tend to think of them as older and straight ahead, but they strayed from tradition, including the subject matter of their lyrics. There's a great history of experimentation in Colorado bluegrass, and we like to think of ourselves as part of that legacy. We start with the ingredients of the genre, but then we bring in other influences and just do our own thing. We're a little wider than just the traditional confines."

As the story goes, the group's fiddler originally had a penchant for hip-hop, but his bandmates were able to persuade him that acoustic-based music was a more desirable pursuit.

"We all lived next to each other in the dorms. The fiddle player, Joe [Lessard], actually lived next door to the guy who is now our manager. So we've been together since the beginning. We convinced Joe not to abandon the violin. He wanted to be in a hip-hop group, but we were like, 'Dude, we think you're pretty good on that violin. Maybe you should stick with it."

Joe stuck with it, and the group's latest release, Potions and Poisons, demonstrates the eclectic leanings of Head for the Hills, whose members are spread out across the Front Range, living in Fort Collins, Boulder and Golden. Loewen says the group, which produced its self-titled CD in 2010 with the help of Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon, enjoys the recording process. The band favors cutting its tracks at Swingfingers Recording Studio in Fort Collins.

"On the new release, we've got a few bluegrass instrumentals, a couple tunes with a string-section part, and we have Bonnie Paine of Elephant Revival singing and playing one with her washboard. We were really happy to have her contribute to the project. We've also got some new original stuff that's in the blue-eyed-soul territory and another that's on the edgy indie-pop side. We've got a bunch of different feels. The title, Potions and Poisons, is indicative of some of the thematic stuff that's happening these days. It's about temptation and being drawn to things in life that maybe aren't the best for us."

Head for the Hills, which also includes mandolin player Sam Parks, kicks off a three-show run at the Fox Theatre in Boulder on Thursday and then plays at Cervantes' in Denver on Friday night before heading up to Keystone. The band is joined by progressive bluegrass act Front Country, an outfit that Loewen and company came to know while playing on the West Coast.

"Front Country formed in San Francisco and then transplanted to Nashville," explains Loewen, who is as enthusiastic as ever about music and the pursuit of art. "They're excellent. They were part of the Bay Area scene for a while. They bring an interesting approach. They put out a CD of covers, and one was a King Crimson song, just to give you an idea of what they might do. We try to hook up with people who are doing really cool things and who align with us. I feel really lucky and privileged to do what I do. In times like these, people need something else to think about sometimes. We're just trying to find the better way forward."

Head for the Hills, 8 p.m. Friday, March 2, Cervantes' Other Side, $15.

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Nick Hutchinson writes about music for Westword and enjoys playing his guitar when not on deadline.
Contact: Nick Hutchinson