By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
The 14th annual Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass returns to Reservoir Hill June 7-9.
This year’s lineup features performers in the folk, bluegrass and Americana music genres, including legendary bluegrass supergroup The Del McCoury Band and the 2019 Best Bluegrass Album Grammy winner, The Travelin’ McCourys. Also on the lineup are Sierra Hull, Sam Reider and the Human Hands, Kate Lee and Forrest O’Connor, Circus No. 9, FY5, Fireside Collective, Halden Wofford and the Hi*Beams, Bonnie and the Clydes, Sugar and the Mint, and this week’s featured bands: Dead Horses and Old Salt Union.
At 15, Dead Horses frontwoman Sarah Vos’ world turned upside down. Raised in a strict, fundamentalist home, Vos lost everything when she and her family were expelled from the rural Wisconsin church where her father had long served as pastor.
“My older brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and my twin had mental illnesses and cognitive disabilities,” explained Vos. “When the church kicked us out, they basically told my dad, ‘If you can’t lead your family, how can you lead your church?’”
What happened next is the story of Dead Horses’ stunning new album, “My Mother the Moon,” a record full of trauma and triumph, despair and hope, pain and resilience. Blending elements of traditional roots with modern indie folk, the songs are both familiar and unexpected,unflinchingly honest in their portrayal of modern American life, yet optimistic in their unshakable faith in brighter days to come.
Earthy and organic, Dead Horses’ songs often reveal themselves to be exercises in empathy and outreach; not only to find meaning in the struggles Vos endured, but also to embrace kindred souls on their own personal journeys of self-discovery.
When bassist Daniel Wolff and Vos first started playing music together, it felt as if the clouds had finally parted. Vos introduced songs she’d been writing since high school open mics, Wolff learned a new instrument for the band (the double bass) and, within months, they had earned a devoted local following. Regular gigs led to steady residencies led to regional touring and their first recordings. Two of the band’s original members ultimately left the group due to opioid addictions (“I still see the pawn shop sticker every time I look at my guitar tuner,” remembered Vos), but the Dead Horses moniker the pair created as a tribute to a friend who’d overdosed from heroin stuck even after their departure.
When it came time to record “My Mother the Moon,” Vos and Wolff traded Wisconsin for Nashville to collaborate with producer/drummer Ken Coomer (Wilco, Uncle Tupelo). Cut primarily live in the studio over the course of two weeks, the album is raw and understated, drawing its potency from the power of intimacy and hushed revelation.
With a sound that calls to mind everything from Joni Mitchell to Gillian Welch, Vos draws on a Biblical lexicon in her lyrics, but the gospel of Dead Horses belongs to no particular religion. Instead, these are songs of the people, stories of Vos’ own efforts to come to terms with her turbulent upbringing as well as stories of the men and women she grew up with in a rural America.
Described by NPR Music as “evocative, empathetic storytelling,” “My Mother the Moon” earned a spot in No Depression’s “Best Roots Music Albums of 2018” list, and Rolling Stone Country declared the Wisconsin-based duo an “Artist You Need to Know.”
Dead Horses will take the main festival stage on June 8 at 2:30 p.m.
Old Salt Union
Old Salt Union is a string band founded by a horticulturist, cultivated by classically trained musicians, and fueled by a vocalist/bass player who is also a hip-hop producer with a fondness for the Four Freshmen. It is this collision of styles and musical vocabularies that informs their fresh approach to bluegrass and gives them an electric live performance vibe that seems to pull more from Vaudeville than the front porch.
In 2015, they won the FreshGrass Band contest and found the perfect collaborator in Compass Records co-founder and Grammy-winning banjoist and composer Alison Brown, whose attention to detail and high standards pushed the group to develop their influences from beyond a vocabulary to pull from during improvisation and into the foundation of something truly compelling in the roots music landscape.
The band’s self-titled debut combines the band’s instrumental proclivities with pop melodies and harmonies into a coherent piece of work that carves out a road less traveled in the now-crowded roots music genre.
Though the band had established itself as a growing festival act with performances at LouFest, Stagecoach Festival, Bluegrass Underground, Winter Wondergrass, Freshgrass, Wakarusa, Yonder Mountain String Band’s Harvest Festival and the 2014 Daytona 500, it was their breakout track on Spotify, “Madam Plum,” that seemed to amplify awareness of the band beyond the bluegrass bubble.
Of working with the band in the studio, Brown said, “These post-modern bluegrassers are true renegades. While they look like a bluegrass band, their musical sensibilities run much deeper and broader, borrowing as much from indie rock and jazz fusion as from Bill Monroe. And, even more exciting to me, they know no fear. They are wide open musical adventurers and we had a great time experimenting in the studio at the crossroads of these disparate influences.”
At this point, the future of the band seems marvelously unclear. Their debut album closes with a track called “Here and Off My Mind,” which seems like the bluegrass song that Conor Oberst never wrote featuring a lyric that ends with the promise of a better life, though from the all-hands-on-deck jam session that breaks out in the middle (is that a kazoo?), one gets the sense that the band can’t imagine a better one than they have in the beat-up Winnebago they currently call home.
Old Salt Union has a main stage set on June 9 at 1:45 p.m.
Children 12 and under do not require a ticket for festival admission when accompanied by an adult.
Volunteer applications are currently being accepted; work two four-hour shifts to earn complimentary three-day festival admission. It’s a great way to meet people and have fun.
Information about tickets, volunteering, festival schedules and performers can be found at www.folkwest.com/folknbluegrass. Tickets can also be ordered by phone at (877) 472-4672.
Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass is supported in part with matching funds from Colorado Creative Industries, a division of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
By Crista Munro