There is no trout at Trout Steak Revival's band practice, but there are five musicians and a manager full of bratwurst and salad in a back yard in east Denver.
"You can only eat so much trout," banjo player Travis McNamara jokes.
Fiddle player Bevin Foley hosts her bandmates on Thursdays for food and practice when they each make the trek into Denver from their Front Range homes. On this particular Thursday, they sit around the table in her small back yard. A faded wooden sign proclaiming "Trout Steak Revival" leans against the fence in the corner. Except for gigs and the occasional Sunday practice, Thursday band practice is one of the only chances they have to all get together while juggling their own day jobs and living in different towns.
It has been a long journey for Trout Steak, with member changes, years of practicing and two full albums, but recent events suggest the band's work is paying off. In 2012, the band took third place at the RockyGrass Festival band contest. In June of this year, Trout Steak won the prestigious Best Band award at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, securing a full set (and free tickets) at next year's festival. Trout Steak also just booked its first headlining gig at the Fox Theatre in Boulder.
In the semi-finals at Telluride, on the small free stage outside the boundaries of the festival, the band covered an old Harlan Howard song, "It Takes One to Know One." Their cover showed a group of musicians with serious bluegrass chops.
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The surprising thing about Trout Steak is that its members aren't the born-and-raised bluegrass players that their songs and sounds suggest. And though they have a few covers under their belt, most of the songs they play are originals, unlike a lot of bluegrass bands who win over crowds on old favorites.
"We don't hang our hat on most of the traditional songs," mandolinist Steve Foltz says. "It's not our strong suit."
"It's not how we started, either," bassist Casey Houlihan says. "When we started playing songs as a band, it really wasn't bluegrass at all. I played a banjo and [Travis] played a mandolin, but we weren't playing Old Home Place; we were playing CCR and Neil Young and Bob Dylan."
The actual band formed formed after the boys, who had all met in their home state of Michigan, each moved out to Colorado. As they played music at small bars or for their friends, they found the bluegrass style that is prevalent in Colorado.
"It's fun to get immersed in it, because it's really happening here in Colorado," McNamara says. "It's fun to be a part of this community with all of these other bands."
They never stuck to just playing old fiddle tunes and bluegrass classics; they play mostly originals, though you might not know it just from listening. They capture a lot of the essence of folksy, bluegrass lyrics -- about trains, about catching fish, about climbing (and dying) on a mountain -- though they insist that they've never sat down with the intention to write a "bluegrass song."
Bluegrass is somewhat of a loose genre. It encompasses a lot of styles, which is why some people envision backwoods moonshiners when they hear the name "bluegrass" and others picture quick-pickin' city folk. But bluegrass tends to be something that is introduced at an early age. It is the kind of music that is passed through generations -- family music as much as it is whiskey-drinking music. So it's truly unique to come across a band where not one of the members grew up on bluegrass, especially one this good at playing it.
Foley played classical violin from childhood through college. McNamara's mother was a music teacher. Houlihan, Koster and McNamara recall playing guitar around the fire at the camp where they met as boys. Each had musical backgrounds -- just not of the bluegrass inclination.
But since getting into bluegrass, the band has put out two self-recorded (in mountain cabins, nonetheless) albums: a self-titled one in 2010 and Flight in 2012.
Not only are they new to bluegrass, they are new to their instruments -- at least relatively. Almost none of them are still playing the instruments they started on.
"We all diversified our instruments after Trout Steak started, except for Bevin; she's played violin since she was a little kid," Foltz says. "But the rest of us all played guitar when the core of the boys started, and then we picked instruments from there."
McNamara was the original mandolinist until Foltz picked it up, and McNamara learned the banjo when Houlihan abandoned it for the bass. Koster's mom bought him a dobro, and that became his standard instrument, and Foltz and Koster are the only ones who still play plain old guitar for the band.
Foley is the only one who stayed with her original instrument, though she underwent the change from classical violin to bluegrass fiddle (which is the same instrument playing different music, if you've been lost in the perpetual confusion between the two).
Her bluegrass journey began when she was given a set of CDs labeled Bluegrass Goods 1-5 as a gift in college.
"I liked that music a lot; it was way more fun to play," Foley says. "And you could drink beer when you played it."
"You can't do that in the orchestra," Foltz jokes.
It's the beer-drinkin', mountain-pickin' type of music that made them a perfect fit at Telluride.
Trout Steak received a loud welcome from the crowd at Elk's Park during the semi-finals. Whether it was because they were remembered from 2012 or just because they were repping the home state, the audience had a clear favorite.
"My mom gave us some advice before we left. She said, "You haven't won nothing yet, so just have fun," Foley said on stage before playing their last song.
Of course, that statement wasn't true for long, but the band stuck to the advice. Saturday morning's stage brought tears, jumping up and down and lots of hugging, all from the members of Trout Steak Revival.
"It was just a lot of hugs -- group hugs," Foltz says about their post-win celebration.
The win was a long time in the making. Telluride's band competition is not for amateurs who happen to be at the festival and feel like hopping on stage. You have to be a real, practiced band to even get in; there is a round of selection long before the festival starts to determine who gets time on the free stage. After that, the competition is tougher, with bands from across the country coming to give it their all, like the Gold Top County Ramblers from Virginia and some bands that have competed multiple times, like the Kitchen Dwellers, from Montana.
Trout Steak placed at RockyGrass and had already been busking on the street and handing out CDs at Telluride Bluegrass years before they reached the competition stage.
To be a band contest winner and join the ranks of Nickel Creek (a headliner at this year's festival), the Dixie Chicks and Greensky Bluegrass, it takes a lot of work and cohesion as a band.
"It takes constant focus," Foltz says. "We've had complete breakdowns, there's no getting around it, but we've been to the bottom of the valley and we've climbed out of it every time."
"We talk about our feelings a lot," Foley says. "We hug it out. We don't agree most of the time, but we always come to an agreement. It's a pretty special thing to be able to do with people."
They say it's important to maintain the relationships in the band and communicate well, especially since they all live in different towns.
"It's like being in a relationship with five people," McNamara says.
"We don't have a leader, and we decided that a long time ago," McNamara says. "Everybody brings such a different, essential ingredient."
Trout Steak Revival is working on their third album with help from Chris Pandolfi of the Infamous Stringdusters, and they hope to have it out in late winter or early spring. For a list of upcoming performances and free music, check out www.troutsteak.com.
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