In preparing this series, I have looked at a number of other people’s lists of Colorado Songs. Can you believe that none of them have included “On the Natural,” by Hoyt Axton?  I am putting it on my list to set that travesty to rights.

I previously mentioned this song in passing while discussing Chapter 9 of the Tao Te Ching, and I wrote a few things about Hoyt Axton in commenting on his song, “The Devil.”  To avoid redundancy, I will be brief here.

You probably know that for many years Hoyt battled the “demons of addiction” that came in the form of alcohol and cocaine.  In the late 1960s, when he got his first major record label contract, he was also experimenting with LSD.  That, or Columbia Records’ attempt to make his music relevant, seems to have influenced his 1969 album, My Griffin Is Gone.  Unlike most of his other work, the songs on this album are heavily produced and almost lushly orchestrated, resulting in a folk/country/psychedelic mélange.

That sounds like a strange combination, but the approach worked well on songs like the anti-war “Beelzebub’s Laughter,”  It was not so successful on some of the others.  The album was not a commercial success, and today it is usually referred to as “obscure.”  In his “Consumer Guide,”   Robert Christgau, of Village Voice fame, and the self-proclaimed “dean of American rock critics,” grades the album as a D+ and says, “Hoyt Axton, who can’t sing, has written two good songs, ‘The Pusher’ and ‘On the Natural.’ The latter is on this record, produced by Alex Hassilev, who can’t produce.”  Though I would disagree with the more smug portions of that smug assessment, it shows that My Griffin Is Gone was not well received.

Hoyt Axton was born on March 25, 1938, making him 31 years old when My Griffin Is Gone was released.  He was old enough and smart enough to understand that he needed to overcome his problems with substance abuse, and it was during this period – the late 1960s and early ’70s – that he wrote some of his best anti-drug songs.  Two of them are found on this album, “Snow Blind Friend” and “On the Natural.”  Here, we are looking at “On the Natural.”

Shortly before recording the album, Hoyt lived for a time in Crested Butte, Colorado.  It was a slower paced lifestyle than he was used to on the road or in California.  He seems to have realized that if one just catches his breath and looks around, Nature (especially in the Colorado mountains) is miraculous and a better and more lasting “high” than is possible with chemicals.  He tells us that in “On The Natural.”

In the liner notes to the album, Hoyt wrote,  “Someone once told me in a dream that truth was a great white bird. Here are some feathers I found.”  “On the Natural” is a feather from the Bird of Truth.

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The String Cheese Incident (“SCI”) is your typical Colorado bluegrass-Afro-Latin-Calypso-electronica fusion jam band.  The group started in 1993 when several musicians from Telluride and Crested Butte got together to do some jamming.  During

A Bluebird Sky
(Photo from Pintrest by @epidote1)

their early days, they played at various Western ski areas for lift tickets.  As their popularity increased, they moved to Boulder in 1996 and began playing for money.  Over the years, they have released several studio albums and some live albums, but they are mostly known for their tremendous performances.

Like other great jam bands such as the Grateful Dead and Phish and Widespread Panic, SCI has a very knowledgeable and devoted following.  A quick search will find several websites devoted to the band’s set lists, lyrics, upcoming shows and news.  As the years have passed, SCI has moved from playing small clubs to much larger venues such as multi-day performances at Red Rocks, Austin City Limits and the Bonnaroo Music Festival.  Leading into this coming New Year (2017), SCI will play for three nights at the 7,500 seat 1stBank Center in Broomfield, Colorado.

Like the Grateful Dead, R.E.M. and Pearl Jam, SCI has tried to develop its music without becoming a slave to the music industry.  Before releasing any albums, the band members formed their own record company, SCI Fidelity, which also records a number of other local groups.  SCI filed a complaint against Ticketmaster with the Federal Trade Commission and sued Ticketmaster when the FTC did not act.  That lawsuit was settled so that SCI now is entitled to additional tickets to be sold without the seemingly exorbitant Ticketmaster charges.  The band has actively worked to give back to the communities it visits by promoting “Green” shows and tours and contributing to various nonprofit organizations.

All of the band members are involved in writing songs, but this particular song – “Colorado Bluebird Sky” – was written by guitarist Bill “Hershey” Nershi and his wife, Jillian.  Nershi moved to Telluride, Colorado when he was 20 or 21 years old, in 1981 or ’82.  In 1993 he moved to Crested Butte for a short time, and that was where he met the other band members.  That is pretty much the story he tells in this song.

The song title hearkens back to the days when the band members were skiing and playing for lift tickets.  A “bluebird sky” is the clear, blue, cloudless sky that is often seen the morning after a snow storm.  It could be called, simply, a “blue sky,” but it is more than that.  It is a term that incorporates the happiness (“bluebird of …”) felt when the weather clears and a whole mountain of fresh powder awaits.

The YouTube video below is the version of the song on the 2014 album, Song in My Head; and it lasts for about six and a half minutes.  Since this is a jam band, however, you can find other renditions online.  If you would like to hear a version that is more than twice as long, just click here.

And the name of the band?  Where does that come from?  It seems it either relates to a broken mandolin string or a late night food fight or something else.  They have never tried very hard to explain it.

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