With their first record on the historic Rebel Records label, Way Up On A Mountain, out last month the Colorado-based band Spring Creek is ready to expand their fan base nationally.
Guitarist Taylor Sims and bassist Jessica Smith took some time to talk to us over coffee in their respective hometowns of Longmont and Lyons, Colo.
Read what they had to say about the new album, the typecasting young bluegrass bands face, meeting some of their musical heroes and their cartoonish muse.
On the new album…
Jessica Smith: It’s more streamlined. We had a producer, Jeff White, come in from Nashville and just having that perspective gives it a little more of a smooth, more polished and professional sound to it. A different kind of professionalism (than with Sally VanMeter,) it doesn’t have the Nashville sound but it has a bit of that influence coming from just having Jeff help out with it.
Taylor Sims: Also the time we had to do it in was another factor. We went off the road October 16 of last year and we knew we had to start recording by like the first week of December so we basically had November to do all the pre-production, all the song selection and not all of the songwriting, but some of it. So we were on a time constraint and that added to some of the difficulty as well as the freshness of the overall finished product.
And it’s our first release on Rebel, we got signed to Rebel Records and they’re the oldest label in bluegrass. We were very honored that they approached us to work for them and record an album. It’s our first push into the national scene. And I’m pretty sure we’re the youngest band that they’ve ever signed. And we are the only band they’ve ever signed west of the Mississippi.
On keeping traditional bluegrass ‘fresh’…
J: We all have different musical backgrounds that we come from, and different tastes within the band individually.
I definitely think that lends itself to always being fresh and unique and hopefully moving forward even though we are trying to stick with the traditional instrumentation and for the most part the traditional bluegrass sound.
T: In the songs that we write, they’re not necessarily traditionally sounding lyrically. It comes down to how you approach the music and what sort of feeling you give to it. You can hear a band that’s very progressive do a traditional sound and they still make it sound progressive. It has more to do with the attitude or the palace you’re coming from, the groove you give to it.
And also our banjo player, Chris is a very driving player and a really hard driving banjo is something that when you think of traditional bluegrass that’s like one of the first things that comes to mind — really hard, balls-to-the-wall banjo playing.
On breaking out of the shadow of other ‘young’ bluegrass bands…
J: Just being young and being from Colorado, I think a lot of people, especially on the other side of the country, in the Southeast mostly where bluegrass comes from I think we get a lot of, you know, they want to group us with Yonder and Leftover Salmon and String Cheese even and all that stuff and we’re just like, ‘No, no, no, no, you don’t understand — we play bluegrass. Not jamgrass, not newgrass but bluegrass.’
And we come from the traditional side of things and its what we love. We always have to set people straight as far as that stereotype goes.
Honestly, we’ve played a couple places down in the Southeast and places that have generally an older crowd that came from listening to the first generation live and in person, Bill Monroe and Jim and Jesse and Flatt and Scruggs and all those guys — they saw them live and in person. They’re still listening to bluegrass music and going out every weekend and those places sometimes make us nervous.
We’re like ‘I wonder what they’re gonna think… is Alex’s hair too long, is my hair too crazy? I don’t know if they’re gonna like this one instrumental, it’s a little bit weird’ but we’ve been received really well.
It always feels really good when you can walk away from a show like that where you know this audience has seen more than probably any other audience that listens to bluegrass music and they like what we’re doing.
T: All the bands that are our age are heading in a more progressive bluegrass sound and the traditional bluegrass is being played by much older bands nowadays. I would say that us and a band called the Steep Canyon Rangers… other than that I can’t think of too many bands that are really sticking to the traditional sound.
So, it’s good in a way that a lot of the new bluegrass bands, the young bluegrass bands, they’re all doing real progressive stuff and they have a similar sound. They’re all super hot pickers but they all seem to gravitate to the similar sound.
There’s kind of a trend where they had really complicated arrangements and are real flashy and especially with the singing and the songwriting gravitate more to the commercial country sound on acoustic bluegrass instruments. There’s a similarity between a lot of the bands. There’s some great bands and they sound really good but we’re happy to be a young band still playing traditional music and people dig it. People who respect the traditional sound are really kind of surprised that us being all in our 20s are playing that style of music that is kind of losing its popularity in the young bluegrass world.
Some people are probably turned off but we love it so much and it wasn’t a conscious decisions, we all loved traditional bluegrass and that’s how it came out. And that’s what we’ve tried to stick to.
On forming the band…
J: I met Chris the banjo player and Taylor the guitar player down in school and I got into bluegrass while I was down there and I was already pretty well into it when I met Taylor. He was kind of a folky kid, he loved — he still does love, of course – Neil Young and Bob Dylan and those guys like that. That’s kind of how he wrote and how he played and I started inviting him to like jams and stuff and he was like ‘this is pretty cool’ and I gave him New Grass Revival, and some John Hartford and kind of eased him into the whole bluegrass scene. He discovered that he liked that and Chris was playing the banjo and then the whole guest ranch thing it was just like, ‘lets do this, people like it’ and to some tourist groups it’s kind of a kitschy novelty thing, “Oh it’s a banjo!” but it worked so well, we’re doing it still, five years later.
On getting a start in music…
J: I grew up in a family that, we always sang and I took piano lessons when I was a little kid. I went to a church where we sang four-part acapella harmonies all the time, so that was a big part of the tradition in the church.
I just grew up being around it all the time and sang ever since I was tiny and I took a few piano lessons as a kid and got into bass and guitar when I was in college. I was mostly a singer at first, but then converted.
T: I started playing guitar when I was 16, I was in a pawn shop in Amarillo, Texas one day and just saw a guitar on the wall and had this epiphany in my mind, like ‘What the hell have I been doing? Why haven’t I learned?’ It looked so alluring. Maybe it was the guitar, it was all white, a horrible guitar but it was all white and it looked like something Elvis would have played. I bought it that day and started practicing.
I spent a lot of time just playing and then I started thinking that maybe I could play in a band someday. At first it was ‘maybe I could play a gig someday’ and that turned into ‘maybe I could play in a band’ into ‘maybe I can make a CD someday.’ But it really didn’t sink in until I went to college and started studying it and realized that I really loved it and it could be a career. I’ve never really seen much past a few months at any point in my musical career.
On other career plans…
J: I assumed that I would have to, honestly. Like after I left with my little associates degree in music I was like, ‘Ok, we’re going to go and spend the summer on the ranch and this will be fun and I’ll get to play and hang out and then I’ve got to figure out what I’m gonna do.’ That was really the thought process I had.
I thought I might go down to Texas State in San Marcos and study PR or something like that.
And shoot, I’ve been doing [music] ever since. I wound up pretty lucky I guess.
On listening to music as a kid…
T: I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan, lot of Neil Young. But also, earlier in my life when I was like three-years-old, I listened to a lot of Asleep at the Wheel, which is kind of the last great western swing band. I’d sit on the bay window of our house and listen to that tape nonstop.
When my younger sister was a baby, I must have been 5 or 6, she pulled all the tape out of the cassette and it was like the worst day of my life. I thought the world was crashing in on itself, that we were going to crash into the sun. I was so traumatized, ‘What?! I can’t listen to Asleep at the Wheel anymore?’ I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. I got into the Beatles and was into a lot of different kinds of folk, but my dad was always big into country music, he liked Dwight Yoakum a lot. I never listened to any bluegrass growing up, I didn’t even know what it was until I got to college.
On music that influences…
J: I remember listening to Roy Acuff records with my dad when I was little and I thought that was pretty cool. And my uncle also had like a pop country, like a dance band down in Texas and that was always a lot of fun when I got to go out to his shows — you know anywhere that they’d let me in. That was definitely an influence.
You hear some bluegrassers that say, ‘I don’t really listen to much bluegrass when I’m not playing,’ but I still love to listen to it because I think that it’s good for me. It’s good for my writing, it’s good for my ear and I love it.
And a lot of old country, like George Jones, Buck Owen, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn like all that stuff. That’s mostly what I listen to, in my own spare time. Some singer-songwriters stuff, I like Fred Eaglesmith a lot.
T: I still listen to a lot of country music, a lot of Asleep at the Wheel and Merle Haggard. My taste for bluegrass has always stayed on the traditional side, the classic sounds. It seems like the number one thing is still Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard.
It’s kinda weird, but I love Michael Jackson. As screwed up as he is now that guy changed the world when it comes to pop music and dancing. So I have Thriller on vinyl and I still listen to that all the time. It’s been awhile but I have XM radio and they had a Michael Jackson month, it was just Michael all the time. I never stopped listening to it, I have [XM] in my house too, and in my car.
On the first show he ever attended…
T: The first concert I ever went to was the Artemis Pyle band, he was the drummer from Lynard Skynard, one of the only guys who survived that plane crash, in Oklahoma City. It was my senior year and me and two of my buddies had the day off from school so we got in the car and drove to Oklahoma City with no plans.
We found on the Artemis Pyle band was playing at this bar so we went and begged the door man to let us in because I was 17 and my friends were 18. They put the big old nasty X’s on our hands so everyone would know not to serve us beer and we’re like ‘We’re not here for that! We want to see the band.’
It was great, there must have been 10 people in the club and we sat right at the front of the stage. I’m sure that Artemis Pyle and everybody in the band thought we were the weirdest kids. I mean, I could prop my feet up on the stage. But he was real gracious, we met him after the show and got him to sign something. He was really cool. That was the first of many.
On traveling as a band…
J: The van, I actually drove it here today because my van’s broken down, so it’s nice to have a band vehicle that we can all borrow if our vehicles are out of commission. But we have a big 15 passenger van that actually used to belong to the band Open Road, which is like one of our favorite bands that ever came out of Colorado and a couple of those guys actually live here in Lyons.
We pile in the van and the way it works is usually Donny, our manager, does a lot of the driving and if it’s not him, it’s me or Taylor. Everybody gets a seat to themselves and it works fine really, it’s not too bad.
We get along pretty well, we really do. We found that after about a month, that’s when nerves start getting raw. We might want to snap at each other once in a while after about a month, so we’ve tried to tell our booking agent, ‘keep it at about a month because then we all stay friends.’
T: We have a 15 passenger van we get in and tolerate each other for a month at a time. We all get along great but no matter how well you get along after a month of being in the van you start wearing on each others’ nerves. But we just pile in and go.
The more and more we do it the better and easier it is. When we first started out the gigs weren’t as good the audiences weren’t as many in number but it’s easier now to do than it was but it’s still tough being away from home for that amount of time.
On things that are in the suitcase…
J: Lots of clothes that I never end up using, which the boys make fun of me constantly because of course I’m the only girl and they’re like, ‘are you serious? You’re taking this suitcase that weighs 60 pounds. You can’t even put it in the van by yourself.’
It’s weird when you go on tour because you have down time and you go, ‘I might go hiking so I need this and this or we might go play in the river so I need this and this and we might go out to somewhere fancy…’ and you have to have different gig clothes if you’re playing a festival. So I overpack clothes.
And I always take my own pillows and my own blanket because you never know where we’re going to be staying.
T: For me, personally, I just bring books and read. I would bring my iPod but it got washed in one of my pockets so no more iPod.
On the Thundercat figurine…
T: We used to have this, I don’t know what happened to it but, it was a Thundercat, he used to be with us on the road with us all the time. And he was in the studio with us too, he was kind of our partner and inspiration or muse in the studio. He had a lever on his back to make his arm punch, it was kinda stupid. But I don’t know what happened to him, he’s somewhere in the van — hopefully he’s still in there. I haven’t seen it in a while.
J: Thundercat? (laughs) He’s at my house, because he was my boyfriend, Jordan’s, when he was a kid and we found him when we were cleaning out his old apartment and we took him to the studio last time and he’s been in the van a lot. I have it, I’ll give it back.
On festivals vs. theater shows…
J: I love festivals because I’m selfish and I like to watch the other bands. It’s like you get to go and perform at festivals and that’s really fun but it’s also like you’re attending the festival, too. You have down time and you’re hanging out for the rest of the afternoon until you play your set the next morning.
Festivals are so much fun because people are just there to have a good time and it’s like a vacation for a lot of people and you get to see so many different bands and you’re exposed to a lot of music that you might not be otherwise. Theater shows are good too, attentive audiences.
We just got to play Old Settler’s down in Austin for the first time, which was really super cool because Taylor, C-Bob and I had gone to that festival when we were in college. It’s really neat, it’s a great size and it’s a great time of year down there in Texas and they always have great acts, but all really diverse.
And then of course Rockygrass, that’s here in Lyons, I love Rockygrass. It’s the same, always really good acts from all over the country and it’s a really nice place to have a festival and a really good size.
On goals for the future…
J: The other night we had our CD release show at the Boulder Theater and sometimes it just boggles my mind to think that all these people, hundreds of people, came out to see us play, our music. I still just feel so fortunate that we’re getting to do this and that we’ve been as successful as we are.
I think we’ll just ride it as long as we can, we love it and we love working hard at it. So personal goals, I would say musically are to play the Grand Ole Opry, do big things where people might know you on more of a national level. But we’re getting there, so it’s really cool. I guess we’ll just keep going at it as long as we can.
I remember when we first moved back here to Lyons, back up to Colorado, it was hard because no one knew us here in this area and it’s like you have to backtrack and go back to playing smoky bar gigs and stuff like that that you did a long time ago.
But once we started getting, like I remember when we opened for Del McCoury the first time at the Boulder Theater and I was like, ‘Cool, people know who we are, they know that we’re a good band to call to open for Del’ and stuff like that when it’s your first time to do it you’re like, ‘Ok, good, it’s a milestone… keep going.’
T: The Grand Ole Opry is definitely a venue we’d love to get in, because the history. It’d be awesome playing the Opry because of the notability but to stand onstage at the Ryman would be bigger, that would be huge to get a show at the Ryman. Hopefully one of these days they’ll let us come in and play a couple songs.
Gruene Hall, in Gruene, Texas that’d be a great place to play because it’s like the honky tonk to beat all honky tonks. There’s festivals all over we’d like to play – Grey Fox out in New York State but the Opry is number one.
On meeting heroes…
J: We’ve opened for Del McCoury a couple times, Split Lip Rayfield. We’ve played festivals with of course if feels like everybody now after playing Rockygrass, Telluride and Merlefest – we’ve definitely met a lot of heroes.
Missy Raines, as a bass player, a female bass player — like having her recognize me and say ‘hello’ and I’m just like, ‘Ahh! Cool! Hey what’s up?’ And she’s like, ‘I like your boots,’ and I’m like, ‘I like your boots, let’s trade!’ People like that, and all the guys in Del McCoury’s band like all those guys know us now and it’s kind of crazy but it’s really cool. Everybody’s really nice, like some people you think of as untouchables and then you get to know them and they’re just like down to earth, good ‘ol people.
I would love to meet Gillian Welch, I would just like to talk to her and see what kind of person she’s like . She’s always been kind of a songwriting hero to me. Emmylou Harris, it would be really cool to meet her. Dolly! I’ve always wanted to meet Dolly, she just seems like a neat person.
T: At Merlefest, I met Doc Watson, which was huge. He’s like 80-something-years-old and I’ve listened to so much of his music and he’s done so much for guitar playing and bluegrass and Americana music he’s been a staple of the Americana music scene for over 60 years.
We met Tim O’Brien last summer, that was a big one — he was very complimentary of our sound. But Doc takes the cake, he’s so old and he’s still doing it. He still rips just as hard as he ever did.
On moving to Colorado…
J: I fell in love with it the first time I went to the Western slope. I hadn’t really been here – I’d been to Denver but I don’t know if that really counts. I went to the Western slope and it’s so awesome over there.
We worked on the ranch and then we moved to Crested Butte and we were there for a year and I still miss that place sometimes — it’s such a beautiful place. We just liked it a lot and our music was received well there and then we went back to Texas for a year so that the guys could go back to school and we knew that we wanted to come back here.
T: We made our first CD down there [in Texas] and we knew we wanted to move back to Colorado because we had somewhat of a name built for ourselves and we started looking for places on the Front Range because we knew if we were going to tackle Colorado we had to be on the Front Range.
We knew none of us wanted to live in the city and we knew that Boulder was great but it ended up being a little too expensive for what we were looking for and somewhere in there we found out about Lyons, that it was kinda a bluegrass hub.
On favorite songs…
J: My favorite song that I’ve ever written was a song called “Sleeping Like A Baby” it was on the second album, Lonesome Way To Go it’s a really fun, catchy little song on the new CD. I really like “Another Lonesome Night” and “Way Up On A Mountain.”
There’s a Red Allen song that we do called “That’s How I Can Count On You” and that’s a really fun one to do, I like all the really hard, driving, fast songs, those are the funnest for me.