String Cheese Incident's Kyle Hollingsworth on Playing With Phil Lesh, Colorado Music Hall of Fame

This weekend will mark SCI's 48th Red Rocks show.
This weekend will mark SCI's 48th Red Rocks show. Courtesy String Cheese Incident
String Cheese Incident's Kyle Hollingsworth is looking out the window at leaves blowing in the wind, reflecting on how the band's Colorado roots led to its freewheeling, unique brand of music. "To me, it's almost as if Colorado speaks to our souls," he slowly begins, "and then kinda comes out through our fingers and through our creativity. Being here...God! Constant sunshine and beautiful days being a mile high. That drew us to the state in the first place, and inspires us to be musicians and to be creative."

Hollingsworth has been playing keys for the six-piece band — with Bill Nershi (guitar), Michael Kang (mandolin/violin), Keith Moseley (bass), Jason Hann (percussion) and Michael Travis (drums) — since its inception 28 years ago, and is gearing up for what may be SCI's biggest bash yet: the Rocks n Roses event, a three-night run at Red Rocks, July 15 to 17. The band will play sets with fellow Colorado Music Hall of Fame inductees Yonder Mountain String Band (Friday) and Leftover Salmon (Saturday). The run culminates with a show with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh on Sunday, dubbed the Phil Lesh Incident. And knowing Cheese, there's bound to be a moment when members of all the bands come together on stage.

"Rocks n Roses is the entire lead-up to Phil. Each one of the bands we're playing with, we're doing an homage each day," Hollingsworth says. "Rocks n Roses will be inclusive of special songs and collaborations throughout the weekend."

It's a full-circle moment, he adds, since Cheese rose to jam fame around the same time as Colorado staples Leftover and Yonder. "In the early days, we would do festival packages where we'd go around the country together," he recalls.
click to enlarge
Courtesy String Cheese Incident

Hollingsworth credits Leftover Salmon, which Cheese has toured with over the years, for helping formulate some key aspects of his technique. "It's always so impressive to watch them play," he says. "For me, it was like, how can I interpret bluegrass on piano? And Mark Vann, their banjo player who unfortunately passed away, he and I sat down at one point on tour and discussed what I could do on piano that would replicate banjo. Definitely in those early days, we were learning and growing together."

While having families and conflicting tour schedules have put an end to those impromptu, old-school jam sessions, the friendship is still there, making it all the more exciting for the musicians to come together again. And they'll be uniting at their home state's most iconic venue: Hollingsworth estimates that Sunday will mark SCI's 48th Red Rocks show.

"We are blown away every time we play there," he says. "We have great respect for this venue and its history."

And the fact that three of the bands are inductees in Colorado Music Hall of Fame? "It's freaking amazing!" Hollingsworth exclaims. "I'm so excited that this program even exists, and now the fact that we're inductees — the cherry on top. It's huge."

The Phil Lesh Incident is another cherry. This isn't the band's first time playing with the iconic musician, but like playing Red Rocks, it never gets old. Hollingsworth has known Lesh a long time, and "I'm really excited to get back with family again, to bring that vibe back," he says.

"In the summer of 1999," Lesh recalls, "I linked up with the String Cheese Incident for some magical shows at Red Rocks as a part of the Summer Sessions Tour, and it was a blast! They’ve become very dear friends of mine, and I’m thrilled to make some more music with them on the Rocks. We’re gonna party like it’s 1999!"

Hollingsworth and his bandmates have always been deeply into the Dead. "The Grateful Dead and their approaches to jam, how they improvise on the stage, the quiet spaces as well as the rocking spaces — we were looking at them as a template to become musically intuitive with each other," Hollingsworth says.

Cheese also mirrored the Dead's school-bus tours that marked its decades-long career, when Deadheads would religiously follow the jam masters around the country to catch every show. SCI would make hula hoops in the back of the bus and give them out to fans, a tradition that started at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. 

"We got a school bus, and we traveled all across the country," Hollingsworth remembers. "When we ended up on the West Coast, that scene started to invite us in in the late ’90s. We were hanging out with John Barlow, who wrote lyrics for Bob Weir; Robert Hunter, who wrote lyrics for Jerry [Garcia]. This whole Merry Pranksters scene adopted us. So to me, playing with Phil in ’99 was just the next step for us."
click to enlarge
Courtesy String Cheese Incident
He recalls Lesh imparting the sage advice to "listen more, play less." And Hollingsworth wants SCI to emulate the way the Grateful Dead members were able to "read each others' minds," he says. "That definitely happens with String Cheese. I don't think it's as deep as the Dead went, but we're striving for that."

While SCI is celebrating the past, it also has some new projects in the works. "We have a lot of new songs, some of which we're playing, some that are on the shelf, ready to be dusted off," Hollingsworth hints. "And we plan to start recording a full album in the fall. ... Most likely, the album will be out in 2023."

Meanwhile, Hollingsworth has some advice for those coming to the Red Rocks run. "Just like the weather in Colorado, our music can switch on a dime," he says. "Be prepared to be dancing all night; bring your best dancing shoes. And hula hoops!" After all, this is the only concert where the venue will allow you to bring them.

"Colorado are the best fans, they really are," Hollingsworth concludes. "Not just the jam scene. We live in a state with great musical taste."

Rock n Roses: String Cheese Incident with Leftover Salmon, 7 p.m. Friday, July 15;  with Yonder Mountain String Band, 7 p.m. Saturday, July 16; with Phil Lesh Incident, 6 p.m. Sunday, July 17; Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison. Tickets are $50-$225.
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.
Emily Ferguson is Westword's Culture Editor, covering Denver's flourishing arts and music scene. Before landing this position, she worked as an editor at local and national political publications and held some odd jobs suited to her odd personality, including selling grilled cheese sandwiches at music festivals and performing with fire. Emily also writes on the arts for the Wall Street Journal and is an oil painter in her free time.
Contact: Emily Ferguson