Greensky Bluegrass Works for a Living

Greensky Bluegrass
Greensky Bluegrass Courtesy of Greensky Bluegrass
Greensky Bluegrass started out in Michigan in 2000, when its three original members, Dave Bruzza (guitar), Paul Hoffman (mandolin) and Michael Arlen Bont (banjo), began to develop their promising picking skills at open mics and bars around the city of Kalamazoo. Eighteen years into their musical ride, the now-five-member band finds itself at the top of the jamgrass scene, performing regularly at places including Telluride and Red Rocks and at festivals and venues all across the U.S. Since their early days in the Midwest, it's been a long climb to the fabled stones of Morrison, where the group, which borrows from both rock and bluegrass, has headlined shows for the past several years while continuing to expand their dedicated audience and explore the boundaries of acoustic-based music. Greensky plays at the Ogden this Friday, followed by two shows at Red Rocks this weekend. Westword caught up with GSBG to get the word on how the group is handling its hard-earned success and what these musicians have planned for the next chapter.

Westword: Hi, glad to catch up with you, Paul.

Paul Hoffman: Hi. Glad to talk. 

So where are you living these days?

I have a house in Wheat Ridge, where it is currently very hot.

Indeed, we've got a heat wave on...

Well, I'd rather have it be 90 degrees than 40 degrees and raining, which is what was happening last year when we played Red Rocks. So I hope the heat sticks around for a couple weeks.

You all started around 2000 in Michigan, right?

Yeah, we first met in Kalamazoo at that time. There were a couple years, when we were getting going, where we were playing open mics and bar gigs. We might have played a festival or two. But, yeah we all lived there and played there for a few years. We toured nationally from there, too. Now we're spread out across the country. But that's the original home of the band and crew, too. In 2004 we started touring nationally and never looked back.

Was there a good music scene in Kalamazoo?

There was a decent kinda folk songwriter/bluegrass/rock-and-roll music scene there. It's not quite the hotbed that Denver is, I suppose, but not a lot of places are. There's no 10,000-person venue carved into the mountainside (laughs).

When did your dobro player Anders Beck start playing with you?

Anders came on board in 2007. We met him when he was playing with Benny Galloway. We did a show together, and we became friends from there on. He was looking for a new home at that point, and he asked to join the band, so we approved his request.

When did you move to Colorado and why?

I've been living here for about three and a half years now. I love it here. It's great. Sunshine, mountains, a really vibrant music scene. I love living in a city where I can check out great music all the time. I go see a lot of shows. I ran into a fan at Red Rocks this summer and he was like, 'Man, I see you here more than I see my friends.' I'm staying.

How old are you all?

I'm 36. I'm actually the youngest guy in the band. But we're all within about five years of each other.

How many gigs a year are you guys playing now?

The last couple years, 2016 and 2017, we did about 125 or 130 shows per year.  The maximum we ever did was around 180 shows in a year. We traveled to and fro, and we were driving everywhere then. That was somewhere around 2006 or 2008. I know there are other bands that play that much, but still It was pretty serious.

You guys have logged some time on this trajectory. It wasn't like you were playing Red Rocks right away. It took some work. How does it feel to have finally caught fire?

Yeah, not only are we headlining Red Rocks, but we are playing two nights in a row this year. It's kind of overwhelming to us. There's a lot that goes into it, as you said. We definitely worked for it, and I feel like we deserve it. But it blows my mind. I remember the day in Denver that we decided to organize a long-term plan to build a crowd. Red Rocks was one of those things that was palpable, and so we worked for it. We've earned it, but our fans helped us earn it, too. That's not lost on us. It wouldn't be possible without them. Many of them travel from far away to get to Colorado. They take personal responsibility to support us. It's a powerful thing.
What other cool venues are you playing these days?

Places like the Capitol Theatre in New Jersey, the Warfield in San Francisco, the Anthem in Washington, D.C., lots of places big and small. We played at the Troubadour in L.A., which is where Elton John played his first show in America, and of course Red Rocks is a big one for me since I grew up a fan of the Beatles. Red Rocks is one of five venues that are still around where the Beatles played. So it's very cool to play somewhere where they actually performed. And we've even sold out one of our nights, which is very flattering. And of course playing at the Telluride Bluegrass Fest is always amazing. After winning the band competition there in 2006, we started returning regularly. It's been an every-year staple since about 2010. It's a good notch on the resume. It takes a lot of confidence to go out on the road, make music and hope that it all works. Having that fest behind us was very encouraging.

Has your sound changed over the years?

When we first started out, we were more of a bluegrass band than we are now. We've kind of evolved with our imaginations. We started doing things that weren't typically what you might hear from our kinds of instruments.  We're all fans of a lot of different kinds of music. We might listen to a metal band and go, 'How can we pull off something like this?' We play about 80 percent original stuff these days. We're just finishing making our seventh studio record, so we have quite a lot of material. Some of the songs are quite long, too, which always helps if we're playing fewer tunes. The audience seems to like the long tunes.

Anything else?

Well, as I mentioned, we're working on a new album, so we'll have some new material coming out soon, though we don't have a title for the release yet. And, let's see, we're going to play with Willie Nelson this weekend, so maybe we can bring him back with us to Red Rocks. We'll go ahead and invite him. Maybe he'll drive us back on his tour bus.

Greensky Bluegrass, Friday, Ogden Theatre, Sold Out; Saturday, with the California Honeydrops, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Sold Out; 6 p.m. Sunday, Sep. 23, with Turkuaz, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, $44.50, 720-865-2494.     
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Nick Hutchinson writes about music for Westword and enjoys playing his guitar when not on deadline.
Contact: Nick Hutchinson