Spring Creek at the Myrna: The New Kids in Bluegrass
“Sometimes we say that even bad bluegrass is better than everything else,” says Spring Creek Bluegrass Band’s blonde bass-player, Jessica Smith, and quickly adds with a laugh, “Not that we’re bad bluegrass!”
The standing ovation that the Helena audience gave Spring Creek after their June 16th performance at the Myrna Loy seemed to tell that Spring Creek is actually very good bluegrass. The band’s three men in beige suits, pastel shirt collars folded over, evoked the cover of an Abbey Road album by The Beatles when they walked single-file from the stage.
The suits are a bluegrass tradition, Smith explains. “And we’re traditional to the bone,” says Alex Johnstone, the band’s innovative mandolin-player and fiddler.
Johnstone, 27, grew up in Chicago with an electric guitar in hand before he turned to the mandolin and violin for a challenge.
Smith grew up harmonizing right along with her musical family in Shallowater, Texas. She met Chris Elliott, the 2007 Rocky Grass Banjo Champion, and Taylor Sims, the honey-voiced guitarist, in the music program at South Plains College in Texas, and they discovered that they shared a rich heritage in folk and bluegrass music.
Smith, Elliott and Sims spent the summer of 2004 together at a guest ranch in west Colorado, where Spring Creek feeds into the Taylor River. They worked at the ranch during the day, and performed shows as the ranch house band at night.
Sims picked Johnstone up hitch-hiking down the road with his fly-fishing gear that same summer. After they spent a day in the river together, Johnstone got a job at the ranch and joined the house band. It was a good fit: Spring Creek was born.
The band stayed in Gunnison Valley for a year after they began, and then migrated back to finish school in Texas. The next year brought Spring Creek to Lyons, a town in central Colorado which the band felt had a partial ear to bluegrass. They worked temporary jobs and became familiar to the community by playing at local gatherings every opportunity that they could.
Last summer, Spring Creek carried off first-place awards at both the 2007 Telluride Bluegrass Festival and the 2007 Rocky Grass Festival, which also gave them enough recognition to justify dropping the temporary jobs and supporting themselves as a full-time band. They’ve released their second CD (“Lonesome Way to Go,” Spring Creek 2008).
And they give a darn good show. Their playing is infectious: people couldn’t help getting up and shakin a leg even in the middle of the seated audience in Helena. The band members move in and out of a diamond shape, dancing with their strings, and the mandolin-pluckin Johnstone can’t help reflecting every note with his facial expression, which is often painful. “Every time I hit wrong note, a piece of my soul dies,” he told me – which should tell you something: musicians that are this life-and-death serious are worth watching.