Ragged Union's Playing Progressive Bluegrass at Swallow Hill Music Concert | Westword

Ragged Union's Smooth Bluegrass Sound

The path to bluegrass wasn’t linear for Ragged Union's Geoff Union. Although he was born in North Carolina, it wasn’t until he attended an elite liberal arts college in the Northeast that the music of the hills stirred his soul.
Ragged Union plays Swallow Hill on November 11.
Ragged Union plays Swallow Hill on November 11. Reggie Ruth Barrett
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The path to bluegrass wasn’t linear for Geoff Union. Although he was born in North Carolina, it wasn’t until he attended an elite liberal arts college in the Northeast that the music of the hills stirred his soul.

“A friend of mine turned me on to Doc Watson while I was a student at Wesleyan College,” says the 46-year-old husband and father, who now lives in Boulder. “I’m from North Carolina and so was Doc, but I didn’t learn about him until I left the state.”

Union, who is a flat-picking acoustic guitarist these days, says he was more into classic rock while growing up in the Tar Heel State, where he listened to Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead and even some heavy metal.

“I studied some music in school, and I started playing the bass at about fourteen, but I was a normal rock-and-roll-liking kid,” he says.

Fast-forward to 2002 in Austin, Texas, when Union joined the hillbilly-influenced Two High String Band.
“I had a fun career with that band,” he says. “We toured quite a bit, and I was also part of a country-music project while I was living in Texas.”

In 2008, on one of the group’s tours to Colorado, he met his wife, Christina, who was a singer with the Golden-based newgrass outfit Coral Creek. The two hit it off, and Christina moved to Austin for several years before they returned to live in Colorado with a new baby girl in 2014. The couple paired their talents to create Ragged Union.

“We both write and sing the songs,” Union says. “Christina writes and comes up with ideas for lyrics and melodies, and we’ll get together and finish the arrangements as a duo. I also do some writing on my own. I have an old friend from Austin who is a poet and lyricist, and he sends me some cool material from time to time. So I’ll take that and try to fit it into any melodic ideas I might have. He comes up with themes that aren’t the usual country fare. It’s more personal, storytelling stuff that’s less obvious in its meaning.”

When asked about Ragged Union, the name of the group, Union says it was given to him by an associate in Austin.

“I don’t know exactly what it means. There’s a music store in Austin called Fiddler’s Green, where my friend Ben Hodges came up with it. I used to teach guitar lessons at the store, and he suggested the name. I figured, well, someone took the time to think of something, so I’ll just go with that,” he says. “The name reminds me of the [country and roots] musician Norman Blake, who, during the part of a song when all the musicians come together to play the melody using different versions — since not everyone always knows it exactly the same way — calls it playing in ragged unison.”

The group’s impressive debut release, Hard Row to Hoe, hewed to a more traditional bluegrass sound, but its upcoming effort, Time Captain, covers wider ground.

“Our new album is a step forward in terms of songwriting and performance,” says Union. “We have a lot of new ideas that are mixed with a more progressive feel in terms of timing and melody.”

Regardless of genre label, the music moves with strong vocals and traditional instrumentation provided by the Unions as well a group of talented bandmembers from across the South, including fiddler Justin Hoffenberg, 2016 Winfield national mandolin champion Jordan Ramsey, banjoist Chris Elliott and bassist Dave Richey.

“The Front Range is a place where everyone moves to and no one is actually from,” Union observes. “It’s funny to be from the South and then move to Colorado, where you end up playing with other people from the South. It’s cool to be a part of the evolution of the bluegrass genre. One of the things that people in the genre talk about in bluegrass circles is how the music is going to live on and grow. It can’t be Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers forever. So all the new strains of bluegrass, such as the bands that come out of Colorado, help to breathe new life into the genre.”

Bluegrass also continues to evolve thanks to developing recording technologies, which Union says he enjoys using at home.

“We recorded Time Captain at my house. We mixed it at eTown and got it mastered professionally, but I think we pulled it off well. If we can record at home on our own time, it gives us the opportunity to try different things and come up with cool ideas. I hope to do more of it that way in the future.”

Ragged Union, Saturday, November 11, Swallow Hill, 71 East Yale Avenue, $17, 303-777-1003.
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