For the hill dwellers in Meadow Mountain, playing on a cruise ship might not have been what they had in mind when they first picked up their instruments. The band, now based in Denver, began as a casual summer activity near the up-country town of Minturn, but its members soon found themselves entertaining passengers on the high seas between Boston and Quebec.
"Most of us grew up in Summit and Eagle counties, in the Frisco and Vail area," explains vocalist and mandolin player Jack Dunlevie. "Meadow Mountain is a hill on the backside of Vail. We started out just picking together and busking at the [Vail] farmers' market. We were all close friends. It was pretty informal, and then slowly it got more serious. After a few of us graduated from DU in 2015, we moved in together and decided to try and become a real band.
"The guitar player and I have a mentor named Taylor Kundolf who's from the Vail Valley and is a piano-bar entertainer," continues Dunlevie. "He took us under his wing in high school and taught us music. His studio is at the base of Meadow Mountain, which is where we would spend a lot of our time. He plays a lot of cruise ships, and he got us a gig through his agent. We ended up on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship going between Boston and Quebec. We were the house band, and we played in the middle of the boat every night for a month. It was fun, but we were definitely crowded into a couple tiny rooms in the hull of the ship, and we had to put on a suit to go out in the passenger area. Performers have uniforms that they have to wear.
"It was a lot of playing every night. We had to work out new material; we performed for the same people for a week or two, so you had to come up with new stuff. It served us in the way of becoming a real band, and we started writing a lot of original music."
As fate would have it, the Meadow pickers went on to place third at the band competition at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2017, and later that summer the outfit took the top slot at RockyGrass in Lyons.
"Those festival competitions gave us a bunch of momentum and pushed us to become a serious band," says the 25-year-old Dunlevie, who attended high school in the town of Edwards before graduating from the University of Denver with a degree in jazz piano.
The band released its first full-length on Tape Time Records (a label started by the Infamous Stringdusters); the self-titled debut was produced by acclaimed banjo player and bluegrass luminary Chris Pandolfi. Meadow Mountain sold out its album-release show last November at Ophelia's Electric Soapbox and is set to play the Gothic Theatre on March 15. The group's lineup consists of Dunlevie on vocals and mandolin, Summers Baker on guitar, Ian Parker on fiddle, Sam Armstrong-Zickefoose on banjo, Ian Parker on fiddle and Wilson Luallen on bass.
"This upcoming show features a bunch of new material that we've written since we released our first album," Dunlevie notes. "Our new music veers away from traditional bluegrass and into more pop-influenced new-acoustic stuff, though we also spent a lot of time learning the straight-ahead bluegrass style. There's a subgenre of bluegrass that's really popular with Southern and East Coast bands called mash that we like. It's a hard-driving, straight-ahead kind of traditional bluegrass that has its own flavor. We studied bands like Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice, Lonesome River Band, the Special Consensus and Deer Creek Boys. These are bands that don't really play west of the Mississippi. They tend to be pretty local and play the festivals that happen back east. So we took in a bunch of home-craft bluegrass, but we also have an appreciation for more progressive bands such as Greensky Bluegrass, the Lil Smokies and the Infamous Stringdusters. Our music is kind of veering in that direction now."
Regardless of what subgenre of bluegrass Meadow Mountain decides to take on, the results always shine. Be it a Celtic-inspired ditty like "Flying Leaf Jig" or a more traditional-sounding number such as "Shadow of a Mountain," the quintet rings with old-soul authenticity.
"We've waited a few months to play another hometown show," Dunlevie says. "We've added a few of our friends — Avenhart and the Lonesome Days — and we're really looking forward to it. The Gothic show is a followup to our last Denver headlining show, which was at Ophelia's and sold out. It will be a showcase of the community of string music in Denver."
As for the future, Meadow Mountain is looking to the open road, which the musicians anticipate traversing in their new tour bus.
"We just recently started touring," explains Dunlevie. "We were lucky to have had a really successful Kickstarter campaign. We asked for what we thought was a silly amount of money, $20,000, to make an album, and figured people were going to laugh at us. But that's just what it cost, and we really couldn't have done it for less. We put a lot of work into the campaign, and in the first three days we raised the $20,000. It happened way faster than we were prepared for, and we ended up raising $30,000, which helped us buy our first tour van, so since last summer, we've started doing more touring outside of Colorado. We have an agent now, and we're playing a decent amount on the East Coast, and we're about to announce a Midwest tour. So there's a lot of momentum that's picked up, and we're just trying to ride it."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.