Music News

Keeping the Tradition Alive

When Chuck Tinsley, guitarist for the Denver-based bluegrass act High Plains Tradition, talks about close-harmony singing, the accent is on "close." In performance, Tinsley and his mates (mandolinist Doug Elrick, bassist Kenny Pabst and banjo player Dan Carter) croon while standing around a lone microphone. This approach makes for tight quarters, but Tinsley knows that it has its advantages.

"Pilots have told me that when they get their planes tuned just right, with all the engines humming at the right speed, the whole plane just vibrates," he points out. "Well, that's the way it is for us. Since we sing into one mike, we're all two or three inches away from each other's heads. If those harmonies are coming out right, it makes your whole head vibrate. It feels good."

So, too, does the old-fashioned instrumental approach that Tinsley and his partners bring to their version of this distinctively American aural treasure. The group's joyously neo-traditional playing calls to mind the time-tested sounds made famous by Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. But while most artists with these influences rely on blazing chops to wow their audiences, the Plainsmen rely on stirring vocals and what Tinsley refers to as "the words and the feel to the songs. You look at the old Bill Monroe stuff and, my goodness, he was a good mandolin player. But he's nothing like the kids who are picking the fire out of a mandolin today." However, Tinsley continues, Monroe's music offers much more than technical wizardry. "If you listen to one of his songs, instrumentally it sounds like you're in a Jeep that could run off into a ditch any minute going down a dirt road way too fast. He just barely kept it together sometimes, and that's the excitement we're looking for. We're not looking for the polished thing. We're just looking to create some excitement and get some adrenaline going."

The players achieve this goal on Prairie Wind, their just-released CD. The disc (available by calling 601-4113 or by visiting the outfit's Web site at HPT.html) is a heart-pumping gem marked by speedy picking, graceful songwriting and angelic harmonies capable of cracking a calloused heart at forty paces. The impressive platter, produced by Hot Rize founder/new-grass legend Pete Wernick, deftly moves from vintage careeners and gospel stompers to tear-jerking waltzes.

"Those are the songs that you can really throw yourself into when you're singing," Tinsley says of the quartet's slower numbers. "When you're singing along at 150 beats per minute, you don't have a lot of room to play with--you've got to get the melody out. But when it's slower like that, you can really soul it up a little bit."

Pabst and Elrick, whose honest, unpretentious songwriting plays a major part in the act's appeal, formed High Plains Tradition back in 1988 after meeting at an Adams County bluegrass festival. A few years and several personnel shifts later, Carter joined the fold, with Tinsley cementing the current lineup in 1994. Since then, the four-piece has been racking up accolades, including a best-band prize at 1995's Mile-High Bluegrass contest. The crew also topped the competition in the Rocky Mountain regional semifinals of the 1996 Pizza Hut International Bluegrass Band Showdown and finished third in the national finals. "We missed runner-up by one point out of a possible 400," Elrick notes, "so we're pretty proud of what we did out there." Last year's Rocky Mountain regional bluegrass awards led to more plaudits: The group as a whole was dubbed "Most Promising New Band of the Year," while Pabst and Elrick were acclaimed as, respectively, top bassist and number-one songwriter.

Audiences at bluegrass festivals across Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and several other nearby states have been just as free with their praise. But in Tinsley's opinion, the band's greatest rewards come after its performances. "One of the things I like about bluegrass is that it's real participatory music. I've never been involved in any other kind of music where, as soon as the stage show is over, the guitar cases open and people start singing and playing. If you go to a jazz show, the band leaves and you order a drink. You go to a rock-and-roll show, the band leaves and you go home. But with bluegrass, the end of the show is just the beginning of the night. When the show's over, the fun begins.

"Bluegrass is a kind of music that's hard to do well, but it's easy to do," he continues. "When I first got started, all I had to do was know three chords and I could join in a jam session. Bluegrass is not real tricky music, chord-wise. The tricky part of it is the timing and making it as precise as it should be. It's not like you have to know all these diminished and augmented chords. You just play your majors and minors and know a few words to some songs and you're a hit at a jam session."

According to Elrick, who regularly frequents the revered jams at Ralph's Top Service in Englewood, "The first time you see a bluegrass band doing their thing, like at a jam session where everything is just perfect, it's an unbelievable feeling and an unbelievable sound." He adds, "It's astounding to me, because there are no drums, no electrical instruments, no keys or horns. It's just four or five guys or girls standing up there on stage with acoustic instruments, swatting it out. And it's got such a drive and rhythm that you'd think there was a full drum set or almost an orchestra behind them."

As for the men of High Plains Tradition, they rely on little else besides their axes, their voices and that one microphone. "We've got a great condenser mike that we use," Tinsley points out. "It picks up everything. If you're making some comment about somebody in the audience, they're going to hear you. So you've got to watch what you say on stage.

"It requires a lot of thinking on our part," he concedes, "and you can't go to sleep in front of the mike. But it also gives us an edge, because from the audience's standpoint, it's not a static thing. We're up there dancing around that dadgum mike and moving around a lot. It's real dynamic to watch and, honestly, it's hard to take your eyes off of us.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Marty Jones