Winston Heuga of Tenth Mountain Division went to college with a musical agenda. The then-aspiring mandolin player, who grew up in Eagle County near Vail, headed to CU Boulder with a plan to pick his way through academia.
"Our guitar player, MJ [Ouimette], and I both started playing music together in high school," says Heuga. "And we both started at CU with the intention of meeting some other musicians, starting a band and growing it from there. We wound up finding some people who fit that bill, including our drummer, Tyler [Gwynn], who actually played the drums in the stadium during CU basketball games as part of the drum team and band."
Heuga, who graduated from CU with a degree in journalism, now lives in Denver, where he and his group, Tenth Mountain Division, are preparing to open for Colorado music legends Leftover Salmon on the second night of the jamgrass pioneers' upcoming post-Thanksgiving shows at the Gothic Theatre.
"Having grown up in Colorado, I've been seeing Leftover Salmon since I was in middle school, and I grew up really admiring them," Heuga says. "Now I've become good friends with some of the members, and I've had the opportunity to do some hanging and playing with them. It's really exciting to finally be able to get on a bill together. I'd been emailing with Salmon management for a couple years to try and put something together, and this one synched up. We're very appreciative of them giving us a chance."
Tenth Mountain Division, which fields a sound somewhere between the Band and Zac Brown, began with bluegrass-flavored tones of acoustic instruments, then eventually sidled over to the louder expression of electric music. Despite the move, Heuga still plays his acoustic mandolin, though he's now expanded his quiver to include an instrument that uses electric-guitar pickups to help boost his high and lonesome output.
"We started out as a three-piece with an acoustic bass, an acoustic guitar and a mandolin," Heuga explains. "That was our first year, 2013. Once we added drums and keys to the band, our bass player and guitarist decided to take up electric instruments, too, which left me the odd man out with my acoustic mandolin, though it actually makes for our own sound. We've been playing as a five-piece for a few years now, but I just had a mandolin built for me by the same builder that makes Drew Emmitt's [of Leftover Salmon] instrument. It's an electric one that has two humbuckers in it. It's made it a little easier to get heard over the drums and stuff, but I still like to pick up my acoustic mando, and I continue to work on that sound. It's fun to learn and grow."
This past September, Tenth Mountain dropped a new full-length, In Good Company, and marked the occasion with a sold-out show at Ophelia's Electric Soapbox in Denver, where the band was joined by friends from Boulder and brothers in jam Flash Mountain Flood. TMD's most recent addition is bass player Andrew Cooney, who joined the fold in 2017. A songwriter and gifted vocalist, Cooney has helped school the band in vocal harmonies. The outfit has four singers who assist in lifting the sound.
"Yeah, Andrew really helped tighten up our harmonies," says Heuga. "He wrote the first track, 'Django,' on the album. We're really proud of this record. It's our baby, and we worked on it for more than a year. We couldn't be more excited to finally get it out there."
Cooney, 28, who came on board after meeting the group at the Lazy Dog Saloon one night in Boulder, is enjoying the ride.
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"It's been a really fun run joining up with these guys," says Cooney, who grew up in Chicago. "We've found ourselves in a snowball, a really good snowball. It's definitely been going well. For the most part, we each have our own creative ideas, and we just present them to the band and see what everyone comes up with."
Tenth Mountain, which just returned from its fourth tour of the Southeast and Midwest, is keeping its eyes on the horizon, always looking to bag the next musical peak.
"We've been doing a lot of roadwork," says Heuga, "and we just signed on with Madison House, which has helped us out with regional booking and beyond. We're hoping to keep building and do more team-ups with other bands, and we're always looking for more good shows in Colorado. It's nice to get a little bit of exposure through this Salmon show, and we'll be playing at WinterWonderGrass in February. That should be a really good time. There's no end to the possibilities in this state."
Tenth Mountain Division, 8 p.m. Saturday, November 24, Gothic Theatre, 3263 South Broadway, Englewood, $35-39.95.