Colorado's Beloved Bluegrass Band Trout Steak Revival Returns to Aspen
Intimacy aside, one of the best things about Belly Up Aspen is getting to say “I saw them when.” For Trout Steak Revival, the Denver-based string quintet, their trajectory to becoming one of the biggest names in bluegrass is happening right now. On Saturday, October 15, they’ll headline here for the second time as they make their way around the West to wrap up a year on the road. From the band's start eight years ago, it’s been a slow and steady rise to the top, with all of the members balancing day jobs until they took first place at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival's band competition in 2014. The following year, with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, the band released its first studio album, Brighter Every Day, and opened for Yonder Mountain String Band—and hasn’t looked back. Since then, the tight-knit group of friends has traveled from sweat-soaked clubs to mountain town festivals, performing for sold-out audiences who have turned into loyal fans in appreciation of the band's heartfelt songwriting woven with intricate harmonies.
I caught up with banjo player Travis McNamara ahead of his Aspen arrival to talk making music and taking the Belly Up stage. (Full disclosure: we were colleagues at the Denver Film Society during those early days, and he's one of the nicest dudes you'll ever meet.)
Aspen Sojourner: Some of you met as kids in Michigan, but how did you reconnect and start a band in Colorado?
Travis McNamara: Will, Casey, and I were all counselors at the same summer camp in Michigan. Steve met Casey around that same time at college in Minnesota. We didn't really have plans of starting a band, but everyone found their way one way or another to Colorado pursuing different careers. We started playing at the Bucksnort Saloon in Sphinx Park, mostly for free beer and something for our friends to do. A few years later, we met Bevin in Denver at the Walnut Room, and tried—unsuccessfully at first—to get her to join the band.
AS: So when did Trout Steak Revival officially form and what's behind the name?
TM: In 2009, on a backpacking trip to the Sawatch Mountain Range. In typical idiot male fashion, we did not bring any food and said that we would just fish and catch it all. It rained for three days. At one point, we would send one guy out in the rain to catch fish, and somebody yelled, "Bring me a trout steak!" And he did. And the band name was born.
AS: Is it true none of you grew up with specific bluegrass backgrounds? Is Colorado to thank for your direction as adults?
TM: Yes, we were all musicians growing up, but in many different genres ... indie rock, orchestral, and classical. But I think since we all loved the outdoors, our hiking and camping adventures steered us to acoustic instruments, and honestly bluegrass music was just happening all around us. At festivals, around campfires, at picks in bars—it was kind of the common language. And we learned how to play the songs and our instruments, and then started writing our own music. We feel very born of the Colorado bluegrass scene.
AS: You also didn't have any banjo experience before forming Trout Steak Revival, right?
TM: The short story is that all the other instruments were taken, so I went on Craigslist and bought a banjo so I could get in the band. We were all pretty bad for a pretty long time. But bluegrass is a very fun genre in that you can always study and learn from the many talented musicians and the depth of the musical history. I studied a lot of Earl Scruggs and Tony Trischka. We also attended the RockyGrass Academy as a band, which is taught by professional musicians. I can't recommend that highly enough.
AS: What other musicians inspire you?
TM: In our genre, we identify more with the progressive branch of bluegrass—the Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass, Leftover Salmon. We are inspired by our peers the Lil' Smokies, the Railsplitters, and Elephant Revival. As far as out of genre, Kendrick Lamar's last record was amazing; we love Jason Isbell, Dr. Dog, and Mandolin Orange, too.
AS: What do you love most about playing at Belly Up Aspen?
TM: It is one of the great rooms in Colorado. Great sound, fun vibe, friendly people. And the locals come to get down!
AS: What's on the daytime agenda when in town?
TM: We are pretty much all skiers, so if we ever get the chance to ski we are always pretty stoked. In the summertime, hiking, taking in all the beauty in Aspen.
AS: What’s next?
TM: We are prepping for recording our next album in the spring, so writing a lot of new material and talking with studios and producers. We just won a people's choice vote to be included on the Cayamo cruise to Honduras and Mexico, which is pretty cool. And excited, of course, for our three-night New Year's Eve run, from the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride, to the Steamplant in Salida, to the Warren Center in Keystone for New Year's Eve.
Trout Steak Revival plays Belly Up Aspen with Durango’s Running Out of Road on Saturday, October 15 (9:30pm). Tickets are $8 at the Belly Up Aspen box office or online at bellyupaspen.com.
Updated (November 3, 2017):
Trout Steak Revival released its third studio album, Spirit to the Sea, today and heads back to Belly Up Aspen on Wednesday, December 6 with Meadow Mountain (9 p.m.). Tickets are $10 at the Belly Up Aspen box office or online at bellyupaspen.com.