"A lot of people have to make utilitarian decisions at some point," says guitarist Eric Wiggs of the rising bluegrass and old-time group Masontown.
Wiggs knows what he's talking about. The 36-year-old acoustic flatpicker, who moved to Boulder in 2005 from Alabama to pursue a master's degree in jazz guitar at CU, joined his first serious local outfit as a bassist.
"I learned bass as a function of always needing a bass player," he explains. "So I bought one and figured out how to play it in order to get gigs. I played with a group called Monocle Band in Boulder for three or four years and then decided I wanted to play guitar more than I wanted to play bass. So eventually I decided to form a band where I was able to play guitar."
Wiggs's conclusion to go beyond the practicality of plying the low end proved to be a good one. Masontown, which is now at the end of its second full year, is poised to move up the acoustic-music ladder. The band, which includes four core members who met at various bluegrass-related events on the Front Range, released a self-titled EP (Masontown) in 2015 as well as an impressive 2017 full-length, In This Time. The group is contemplating adding a banjo player to round out its already intriguing sound.
"We found each other one by one at local jams," says Wiggs, who began his musical career playing rock before moving on to other genres. "We liked the way each other played, so we made it happen. We're sort of spread out between Denver, Lafayette, Longmont and Lyons, but we try to be diplomatic about it, and we go back and forth for rehearsals. We've had the band for two years now, but we're slowly ramping up. We're on the trajectory of aiming for more festival and listening-room gigs with fewer bar gigs. We're aiming for quality over quantity. That's more of our fan base."
Masontown occasionally makes its way beyond the Centennial State to the Pacific Northwest, though its last trek to the coast did not include Wiggs. Two weeks before the ensemble was ready to head West, Wiggs's dog made a hasty dash that resulted in her owner falling and injuring one of his hands.
"I was jogging with my dog, and she decided that something was interesting opposite from me, and I tripped over her," the guitarist explains. "I had to have surgery, and I was in a cast for two or three weeks and then physical therapy for two or three months after that. Fortunately, it was my picking hand. So, if there's a hand you're going to break, that's probably the best one. Luckily I was able to get a friend of mine, who is the guitarist for the Jeff Austin Band, to fill in for me."
Wiggs says he hopes to make it on the road next time the group heads for the Pacific and that they also have plans to go east this summer for the annual International Bluegrass Music Association gathering in Raleigh, North Carolina. Masontown comprises other ringers: mandolin player Mike Canney (aka "Doctor Mando"), a biomedical engineer by day; bassist Bradley Morse; and fiddler Natalie Padilla, a champion fiddler, classically trained violinist and head of the Folk and Bluegrass Studies program at the University of Northern Colorado.
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"My mom is a great fiddle player," says Padilla, who grew up in Montana and now resides in Lyons. "So I started playing casually when I was three and picked up the violin when I was six. I started playing basic American fiddle, and then more specifically, I learned what's called Texas fiddling, which is the same as contest style. It's a showy style. People call it 'fancy fiddling.' I played my first contest when I was five."
A casual listen to Masontown reveals Padilla's polished chops, which ring out across the music and command attention. Though she left the more remote state of Montana and spent some time in Summit County before settling on the Front Range, she still retains her relaxed country roots.
"I've been living in Lyons for about four months now," she says. "I enjoy it here. I'm not much of a city person. I do get to Denver once a week to host an old-time jam at the Washington Park Grille, which is really fun. And I commute to Greeley for the music program at UNC. Lyons is a good location for me, where I can enjoy my downtime when I get it. We try to gig around Colorado and not have to tour too much. We're trying to keep it as local as we can."
Masontown, 9 p.m. Friday, December 29, Syntax Physic Opera, 554 South Broadway, $7.