Travis McNamara Looks Outside of Bluegrass on Debut Solo Release | Westword

Travis McNamara Looks Outside of Bluegrass on Debut Solo Release

He played every instrument for his new album.
Travis McNamara
Travis McNamara Photo by Preston Utley

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Travis McNamara began writing music on the piano while he was in middle school, back in his home state of Michigan. Decades later, McNamara, who also plays banjo in the Denver-based, bluegrass-inspired band Trout Steak Revival, has realized his longstanding goal of creating a solo album. 

McNamara plays a variety of instruments on the release, Moon Calendar, which drops on Friday, March 10, and happily explores new sonic territory on the nine-track album.

"This solo project has been a dream since I was young," says the multi-instrumentalist and songsmith. "I started writing music early on, and then I started recording myself, picking up different instruments and trying to flesh out ideas while I was in high school. It's been a longtime wish to do an album where I would write the songs, sing, play all the instruments and record it all. It's kind of a challenge to myself."

McNamara met a few of the people who would become his Trout Steak Revival bandmates while working as a camp counselor back in the Great Lakes State. The campfire pickers later migrated to Colorado, where McNamara took up the banjo and began playing and touring with TSR as a full-time pursuit. When COVID hit, he decided to make use of the downtime to scratch his old creative itch.

"The pandemic came, and Trout Steak had just released a record, so we were lined up to do eight months of touring, and that got wiped out," McNamara recalls. "Like a lot of people, I found myself at home with a bunch of extra time on my hands. All of a sudden I had the opportunity to try and do what I'd always wanted to do, and I wanted to stay as busy as I could. I joined an online songwriting collective that included a bunch of other Denver musicians. We would contact each other every couple of weeks and offer prompts to work off. I love an assignment, so it helped to get me started. One person per meeting would throw out an idea, which included prompts such as 'write a love song,' or 'write a love song to something that you would never write a love song to.' A really fun one was 'writing with the greats.' It's an exercise where you imagine that you are writing a song that you're going to give as a gift to your favorite songwriter. So you write it in their style, like something that they might perform on stage."

McNamara's homebound recording activity paid off, with Moon Calendar offering a pleasing variety of textures and moods that aren't what you might expect from someone in the folk and bluegrass realm.
"This solo effort was an opportunity to explore new territory for me," says McNamara, who did everything from penning, performing and recording the tunes to lining up the cover art (designed by Denver artist Scott McCormick). "I love Trout Steak and the Trout Steak fans and all the stuff we've made, but sometimes I was desiring new artistic growth outside of that. One of the goals I had with this project was not to write bluegrass music. Interestingly, that opened up a lot of doors. I tried to just follow the songs. 'First thought, best thought' became a mantra for me."

The banjoist says he enjoyed playing with new sounds and adding slide guitar as well as electronic tones to his sonic palette.

"This project is more folk, indie and ambient and goes in a number of directions," he explains. "It was really fun to get to explore. I bought a Telecaster, and I tried to put all these layers and samples in there. It's a world of stuff I don't usually play with in the bluegrass idiom. Folk and bluegrass are kind of in my DNA, so it was a challenge. It's similar to my writing with Trout Steak, but in different clothes."

You'll be able to hear it for yourself at McNamara's album-release show at the Bluebird Theater on May 5, with Heavy Diamond Ring and Summers Baker. But in the meantime, vinyl and CDs are available for pre-sale on the musician's website.

McNamara is also an avid chef and foodie, and says his interest in the culinary arts often spills over to his musical passions.

"I enjoy pursuits where there is no ceiling. You try to get as good as you can at the thing, and on any given day, that's as good as you are. I try to approach these things as snapshots in time, and to accept any mistakes and continue moving forward and not judge it too much," he says. "There's a lot about cooking that feels similar to making music to me, where I'm always learning."

Moon Calendar releases on all streaming platforms on March 10. Travis McNamara, with Heavy Diamond Ring and Summers Baker, 6 p.m. Friday, May 5, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $18-$23.
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