It’s hard to forget playing or watching a concert at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in southwestern Colorado. With the towering, majestic San Juan Mountains surrounding the stage in a former Victorian mining town nearly 9,000 feet above sea level, I sat in awe during my visit many years ago.
The Athens, GA-based Packway Handle Band was there in 2004, and its members have their own fond memories. Among them was the Del McCoury Band whose performance in the isolated mountain town was the best bluegrass concert Packway guitarist Josh Erwin has ever seen.
“Packway was out there competing in the band competition,” recalls Erwin whose group joined with Jim White to release Take It Like a Man on Yep Roc records last year. “It was the day before the finals, and we were all in good spirits. Telluride is so beautiful, and the stage is backed up against a tall mountain. It was really impressive hearing Del's voice and the band's harmonies bounce back from the mountains on the other side of the valley. There was something about the time of day, the music and the atmosphere that left a lasting impression. It was definitely more impactful than any bluegrass recording I've heard.”
Packway’s mandolinist Michael Paynter, who is originally from Cleveland, also vividly remembers Telluride. He says watching Chris Thile and Bryan Sutton perform there was the best live bluegrass show he has witnessed. “They are two of the most prolific musicians of the last 20 years,” he says.
But he cites another performance at Telluride as the most influential.
“I would definitely have to say seeing Hot Rize was my favorite bluegrass concert. I've always loved Tim O'Brien's voice, and the songs they played are the kind of thing I want to hear when I hear a bluegrass band.
“Early on, when we were first starting to play bluegrass music, I tried to emulate Tim O'Brien's voice,” Paynter says. “It just seemed like the quintessential tone for bluegrass. Also, their stage show was very simple and raw.”
Erwin points to a concert in Atlanta in 2002 as the most influential. Tony Rice, Vassar Clements and Larry Keel played the Past, Present, and Future of Bluegrass concert at the Variety Playhouse.
“I totally idolized Tony Rice and Larry Keel as guitar players and really admired Vassar's playing,” Erwin says. “At that point in time, I had begun putting things together musically in the world of bluegrass and, particularly, the guitar. My dad came with me. He taught me how to play guitar and the basics of flatpicking. In retrospect, I guess it was influential because all the people I had been most influenced by musically were at the same event enjoying the same music. It was also cool to get backstage to meet Tony and Vassar. I got them to sign my guitar strap. Couldn’t find Larry, though!”
Today, being backstage with big-name musicians has almost become commonplace for the Packway Handle Band. After releasing the album with White last year and touring to support it, the band went on the road with Kid Rock and Foreigner on Kid Rock’s First Kiss: Cheap Date tour.
“It was one of the oddest musical matchups of bands when you include Packway in the mix,” but it was a really fun tour,” Erwin says. “We played 40 amphitheaters across the country, including 10 sold-out nights at Detroit’s DTE Energy Music Theatre (in Clarkston, Michigan). We had a short opening set, then Foreigner and Kid Rock took the stage. We were invited to play on stage with Kid Rock several times and even jumped into Foreigner’s "I Wanna Know What Love Is” choir. It was a pretty wild experience performing in front of 17,000-20,000 people.”
The tour with Kid Rock and Foreigner ended in September 2015, but the Packway Handle Band didn’t slow down. The group performed at the Americana Music Association’s Americanafest, various regional festivals and joined White again at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Then they went home and into the studio to record a new album at Chase Park Transduction in Athens. The album is scheduled for release next year.
“We had Scott McCaughey (R.E.M., Minus 5, Young Fine Fellows) produce it,” Erwin says. “Bill Berry from R.E.M. played drums on one track, Brad Morgan from Drive-By Truckers laid down some drums on a couple of songs, Matt Stoessel from Cracker played steel guitar on a couple of songs and Thayer Sarrano included some backup vocals. We’re now getting the songs mastered.”
The album will be “acoustic-based with some progressive-sounding bluegrass, some old-time bluegrass and a little rock mixed in,” Erwin says. “We put the best songs we’ve written to date on this recording and are really excited about it. Scott did a great job making all the songs relate to each other well despite the eclectic instrumentation.”
Eclectic instrumentation? Hmm, then, how does Erwin describe the Packway Handle Band’s music?
“How about root- infused bluegrass played at all speeds?” he replies.