Nevertheless, we are going to consider a Colorado song – the “Colorado State Song” – that was written by Mr. U. Utah Phillips.
Phillips, who passed away in 2008, at the age of 73, was sort of a latter-day Woody Guthrie, hopping freights and riding Greyhound Buses across the country to sing songs, tell stories and act as a labor organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (the “IWW” or “Wobblies”). Wikipedia has a nice little piece on Mr. Phillips, so rather than repeat what has already been written, I will refer you to that article.
Although the “Colorado State Song” is a good song, the only recorded version of which I am aware is on the first album by the local group, Grubstake. That brings up another name to know: Harry Tuft. Continue reading →
For the past several days I have been thinking of the song “Holy Are You” from the Release of an Oath album by the Electric Prunes. I had considered filing this with the “Colorado Songs,” but decided that would not be appropriate.
Why would I even think of this as a Colorado Song, you may ask. Well, if we accept that God is omnipresent, then God is here in Colorado (which may be a good song title for someone). For a better reason, though, let us look briefly at the Electric Prunes.
The group was essentially four or five high school kids who played psychedelic-surf-garage rock and were fortunate enough to sign a contract with Reprise Records under the name Jim and the Lords. A very successful recording engineer named David Hassinger was assigned to produce their album. This was at just about the same time Hassinger was producing the first Grateful Dead album. He thought the group needed a more catchy name, so they decided to be the Electric Prunes, and Hassinger became the owner of that name – sort of taking advantage of the kids.
In late 1966 and early 1967, the Electric Prunes had two minor hits with “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night” and “Get Me to the World on Time.” Hassinger believed that they were very close to great commercial success, and decided (for some reason) that it could be achieved by expanding the group’s horizons and having them become a psychedelic-surf-Gregorian Chant -garage rock band. His suggestion was joined by their manager and the Electric Prunes agreed to do a concept album, which would be a mass – Mass in F Minor – composed by classically trained musician David Axelrod, and sung in Latin with fairly intricate instrumentation.
The group began the recording, but soon found the music too difficult for them. Hassinger – who owned the name, as you recall – augmented the Electric Prunes with other more polished musicians, and Mass in F Minor was released in January of 1968. Although it was only a minor (get it?) commercial success, it did become a cult favorite. The cult following was increased the next year when the “Kyrie” was used in the Easy Rider film.
The record’s reception was good enough for Hassinger, though, and he decided that the Electric Prunes (the name he owned) should try again. So, once again, David Axelrod composed a complex set of songs; once again, the “real” Electric Prunes found the music exceedingly difficult; and once again, David Hassinger brought in other musicians so “his” Electric Prunes could complete the work.
This is where we finally get back to Colorado. As the core of the added musicians, Hassinger recruited members of the Colorado band, Climax, some of whose members had previously played in Colorado’s own surf band, the Astronauts.
This album, released in November of 1968, was called Release of an Oath, referencing the first song on the album, “Kol Nidre.” Kol Nidre is a Jewish prayer of sorts, recited in Aramaic on the first night of Yom Kippur. It annuls any vows or oaths which might be made to God during the coming year in order to avoid the sin of breaking an oath. The other songs on the album are a mixture of Jewish and Christian influences that do form an interesting and cohesive whole. The best of those songs is “Holy Are You,” which could arise from any monotheistic tradition.
Interstate Highway 70 (I-70) is a major East-West highway running from western Utah to Baltimore, Maryland. It passes through ten states. In a sense it is the alpha and omega of the interstate highway system. That system was initiated by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, signed into law by President Eisenhower on June 29, 1956. Less than 90 days later, paving began on a portion of U.S. Highway 40 in Kansas, which became a part of the I-70 and was the first work performed under the 1956 law. The very last part of the the interstate system, as originally planned, was completed in 1992 with the opening of the portion of I-70 passing through Glenwood Canyon in western Colorado.
Besides being a major cross country thoroughfare, I-70 is the primary route for people in Denver and the Front Range to access the recreational opportunities of the Rocky Mountains. Driving westward out of Denver, one has access to Lookout Mountain, Evergreen, Idaho Springs, Georgetown, the central Colorado ski areas, through the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel ( at an altitude of 11,158 feet, the highest vehicular tunnel in North America and one of the highest in the world), Silverthorne and Breckenridge, Vail, Eagle, Glenwood Springs, the Colorado River, and on to Grand Junction and beyond. Not surprisingly, on weekends and holidays the highway becomes an extended traffic jam causing drivers to spend several hours to travel 50 miles or less.
I would like to paraphrase Yogi Berra and say that nobody uses I-70 anymore because it is too crowded, but that is not true. Everyone still uses it, and though there are frustrations, many appreciate that they are able to enjoy the beauty and ruggedness of The Rockies because of this smog-generating engineering marvel. Jim Dalton seems to be one of those people.
Jim Dalton is a singer, songwriter and musician who is involved in several bands in Colorado and nearby states. It seems that he spends most of his time these days as the lead guitarist of Tempe, Arizona – based Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers and he is one of the founders, with Johnny Hickman from the band Cracker, of the Hickman-Dalton Gang. Before becoming involved with those bands he started a group called The Railbenders with bass player Tyson Murray. The original group included drummer Gordon Beesly and guitarist Chris Flynn, but they have since been replaced by Graham Haworth on drums and Tony Asnicar on guitar.
The Railbenders first got together in 2000. Westword Music Showcase named them Denver’s Top Country/Roots Band in 2002 and 2003. In 2004, the Denver Post chose them as “Best of the Underground” and Coors Brewing Company named the band the Coors Original 2004 New Sound Throwdown Champions, which included a sponsorship.
In 2006, the Railbenders released an album called Showdown that included Jim Dalton’s song, “I-70 Westbound.” The group has played regularly in the Denver/Front Range area since then and the song has become sort of a favorite of their local fans. Essentially, it tells us that we can drive west on I-70 and enjoy the mountains.
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.
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.
Singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt (whose full name was John Townes Van Zandt) was an enigmatic, perhaps singularly talented individual. He never had a hit song, and most people probably don’t even know his name. Nevertheless, he was quite influential in the music business and his songs – the best known of which are “Pancho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You” – have been recorded by numerous artists, including Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, Joe Ely, Cowboy Junkies, Lyle Lovett and many others. A documentary film about his life, entitled Be Here To Love Me was released in 2004, and he has been the subject of at least three full length biographies, perhaps the best being A Deeper Blue: The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt (2008), by Robert Earl Hardy. I can’t hope to give much insight into his life in this brief post, so let me simply tell you why this is a Colorado Song.
First, of course, the name of the song is “Colorado Girl,” which probably qualifies it for inclusion even though it comes from a quintessential Texas songwriter.
My maternal grandparents settled into Sulphur Springs, Texas, which is between Dallas and Texarkana, in the latter part of the 19th Century. If you were to travel to the southwest for less than an hour from their house, you would be in Van Zandt County, which is nothing at all like Colorado. The county was named for Townes’ great-great-grandfather, who had been the official diplomatic representative of the Republic of Texas to the United States, and who had died while he was running for governor. His great-grandfather was one of the founders of Fort Worth. His mother’s maiden name was Townes, and she was a direct descendant of John Charles Townes, for whom the main building of the University of Texas at Austin Law School was named.
With that pedigree, he might have spent his life in Texas and become quite influential in matters other than music. However, his father was an attorney in the oil industry and his business required the family to move frequently. In 1958, when Townes was 14 years old, they moved to Boulder, Colorado. He attended school there for a short time, but because of his extremely high IQ he spent his last high school years at the exclusive Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Fairbault, Minnesota, where the son of Senator and soon to be Vice President Hubert Humphrey was one of his classmates. After graduating from Shattuck in 1962, he returned to Boulder to attend the University of Colorado. Continue reading →
After recently writing about Leonard Cohen’s passing and some thoughts about the recent presidential election, it is appropriate that I should mention, too, the passing of a unique musical talent, Mose Allison, who died on November 15, 2016, four days after his 89th birthday. Although his work has been called too bluesy for jazz and to jazzy for the blues, it has been accepted and honored in many fields. In addition to his many recordings, many of his songs have been performed by the likes of the Who, the Clash, Elvis Costello, Georgie Fame, Van Morrison, Blue Cheer, Paul Butterfield, Bonnie Raitt, Leon Russell, Roy Rogers and many, many others.
One of the most memorable things about Allison’s writing was the wry sense of humor with which he observed the world around him.
I would like to share a couple of his songs that seem to be relevant to our current political situation. First, here are the words to “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy”: Continue reading →
The natural beauty and the interesting people of Colorado have inspired many wonderful songs through the years. In this series of posts, we look at some of the best of these. The songs considered to date are:
The fog on a London morning is not the same as the toxic haze of Beijing, and both are different from the the wide open vistas of Montana’s Big Sky Country.
Songs like Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Ole Buttermilk Sky” evoke images of particular and distinct locales.
The sky that is seen from any place on Earth is determined and shaped by what is below it. Its breadth may be framed by mountains or extend across an ocean to the horizon. The color of the sky and the clouds it holds result from the dust and humidity of the land, and the clouds often form around geographic features like lakes or mountains.
The sky above is familiar to those below who have seen its ways. They can predict the weather based on the color of the sunrise or sunset, and they can use the stars to guide them home.
In a real sense, any place on this planet is defined by the sky which is above it. Therefore, it would seem that a song like Pure Prairie League’s “Boulder Skies” should tell us something about the City of Boulder. But it doesn’t.
“Boulder Skies” is a pleasant song performed by talented musicians, and it is definitely a Colorado song; though I can’t say precisely what it is about – other than a brown-eyed “Colorado Canyon Girl.” But was she real, or just a pie in the sky dream? Continue reading →
Singer/songwriter/poet/novelist Leonard Cohen departed this world yesterday, November 10, 2016, less than two months after his 82nd birthday. He was admired and famous enough that today the print and electronic media include numerous pieces remembering him and his work. I won’t add to that, except to say that in 2013 I posted some thoughts about a Leonard Cohen concert I saw with my brother Jim more than 40 years ago, when the singer was still a “youngster.” You can read it by clicking here.