Down from the mountain
Colorado's unique roots musicians relish their Rockies
DENVER -- There must be something in the air. Or maybe the spring water melting off the mountains. For all anyone knows it could go back to Colorado's own John Denver leaping atop the Baltimore Orioles' dugout during the seventh-inning stretch at the first game of the '79 World Series and leading an ecstatic crowd of blue-collar city dwellers in a rousing rendition of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy."
These days the Rocky Mountain rendition of roots music is kept alive by several generations claiming a unique slant on mountain music as their own, taking Bill Monroe's bluegrass and infusing it with contemporary elements to make it as vibrant as any evolving genre.
The parallels are plain to see alongside a Rockies team that has borrowed from traditional baseball while forging its own Rocky Mountain brand of the ol' ball game.
Sam Bush embodies Colorado's unique crossroads where baseball and bluegrass meet, coining a genre with his seminal band, New Grass Revival. While Bush was hailed as both the Jerry Garcia and the Keith Richards of bluegrass, the band's banjo player, Bela Fleck, once described their musical amalgamation as the product of "Bill Monroe getting together with Aretha Franklin and taking a trip to Jamaica."
The Kentucky native and longtime Cardinals fan has had a 34-year love affair with Colorado, revolving around the unique character of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, initially dreamed up as a way of getting New Grass Revival out to Colorado. The groundbreaking mandolin and fiddle player endures as one of Colorado's favorite musicians and is second only to Monroe in his impact on bluegrass music.
But bluegrass holds a slim lead over baseball as Bush's passionate obsession, and he often combines the two when hitting the state in the summer time.
"Lynn and I love getting to come to Rockies games," Bush said of the pastime he shares with his wife. "We try doing it before Telluride each year. We saw the Rockies take the first two games in that Yankees sweep this year in June. It was really sweet to see them sweep the Yankees at Coors."
While Bush is on stage, Lynn is often waiting in the wings, dialing up scores on her cell phone, and both Bushes have been rabid Rockies rooters through the season. Though Bush is a Cardinals fan first and foremost -- his ode to Ozzie Smith was distributed in hospitality packages at the shortstop's Hall of Fame induction -- he has no qualms looking to the mountains in those rare autumns when the Redbirds go missing.
"The Rockies just take care of the fundamentals," Bush said. "If I'm not mistaken, weren't the Rockies the best fielding team in the history of ball? I guarantee you, that adds up in close games."
As a fixture in the Nashville scene, Bush is immersed in Helton Country, where the locals still talk about Todd's toddler days and his emergence on both the football and baseball fields at the University of Tennessee.
"Boy, am I glad he chose baseball," said Bush. "He's the type of hitter I love, a guy that can hit for high average and is a smart hitter. He could hit more home runs if he wanted to. He's like Ichiro. That's not what they're about. He's a hard worker, and he is Mr. Rockie for me."
Jimmy Ibbotson is another distinctive musician whose musical voice was shaped by the Rocky Mountains. As a longtime member of the multi-Grammy winning Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ibbotson blended old-timey music with a rock sensibility, starting in the '60s, hitting an early highlight with their landmark "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" album and maintaining vitality 40-some years later. When the lights went out during Game 3 of the Division Series, the Dirt Band's "Fishin' in the Dark" was played over the Coors Field P.A."
Ibbotson will wax endlessly about the Rockies, whether talking baseball with Gaylord Guinnen at the Woody Creek Tavern, where the two hold court as they often did with their mutual friend and sports enthusiast, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, or up a dirt road in his mountain home, sitting beside his son and watching Matt Holliday pace the Rox.
"Holliday's got those simple values," Ibbotson said admiringly, recognizing a kindred spirit from the heartland. "You can see it in his face when he comes up to bat. A corn-fed, Midwestern kid from Oklahoma."
Ironically, among Holliday's values is the father-son relationship at the heart of the game. Holliday's father was the head baseball coach at Oklahoma State, and Matt's 4-year-old son Jackson accompanies him to the park every day, taking batting practice in the clubhouse after games and doing dead-on impressions of everyone from Nomar Garciaparra to Albert Pujols at the plate.
"My son would come home from work every day and find me sprawled on the couch watching the Rockies," Ibbotson said, echoing the theme of fathers and sons bonding through baseball. "If he wanted to visit with me, he knew I'd stay put until I either fell asleep or I saw the game to its fruition. He'd sit there with me and we'd talk. He fell in love with the Rockies. We've been side-by-side through this whole season."
Ibbotson goes back to the first days of the Rockies, having sung the national anthem with his band mates at the second game ever played in Colorado, back in '93. He counts "listening to a ballgame on the radio while you're puttering around the house" as "the greatest joy in my life," and remembers singing the anthem for the Rox on Sept. 7, when the club was in fourth place, five games back, as a highlight of his season.
"I met Aaron Cook," Ibbotson recalled of the sidelined Opening Day starter. "They always send out one of the guys on the DL to greet the anthem singer and the guy who throws out the first pitch. I remember saying to him, 'I wish you were starting tonight.' He said, 'Well, I do too.'"
A month and a half later, Cook is set to make his first start in over two months during Game 4 of the World Series.
"Everybody feels so good being outside in Colorado, out there with the clear air, the stars above," Ibbotson mused, searching for the secret ingredient to the unique brand of Rocky Mountain baseball. "The area around the stadium has such a young and vibrant feel, it seems like there's rock 'n' roll coming out of every bar. And the Rockies represent the entire state, not just the city of Denver. We all drive in from Telluride and Aspen and Grand Junction and Pueblo and all over the state with our energy."
If this year's Rockies are part of the "Generation Next" evolution within the franchise, the distant descendents of the Blake St. Bombers, Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band must be counted as the equivalent offspring of Bush's newgrass revolution and Ibbotson's old-timey rock 'n' roll revival. Leftover Salmon's Vince Herman created a unique "Poly-ethnic Slamgrass" while Jeff Austin's Yonder Mountain quartet is the reigning "jamgrass" genre bender, taking newgrass to yet another permutation.
"I've been a Rockies fan since it started 15 years ago," said Herman after watching the mayor of Denver and the governor of Colorado rename a street running into Coors Field as Rockies Road. "I grew up in Pittsburgh during prime time of the Pirates. I saw Roberto Clemente play in Forbes Field for one of my first memories.
"So to tell you the truth, I've been a freelance fan. I decide by the All-Star break who I'm going to throw my support to. The Rockies, that's just home. That's what baseball's supposed to be, you're supposed to cheer for the home team. My ways of being a for-hire fan, they're over now. I'm a hardcore Rockies fan."
Austin's a harder sell at relinquishing the loyalty he bears for his hometown Cubs, who he remembers seeing every summer day through three years of junior high, taking the bus and getting a $5 ticket to Wrigley. He scored a rare doubleheader this season, singing the national anthem for the Cubs at Wrigley Field and again at Coors Field when Chicago was in town for a four-day tour, with the Cubs losing each time Austin sang.
"The Rockies have an incredible lineup of young guys," Austin observed. "That Troy Tulowitzki can do anything he wants to at any point in time. I wish the Rockies the best, but I truly don't have any loyalty or dear feelings toward that team after they beat my Cubs all year."
Despite making their home in Colorado, bands like Yonder Mountain take their mountain music to the far reaches of the globe, simultaneously getting the chance to experience the game they love in dramatically different contexts.
"We played Japan last year, and I speak five words of Japanese, but when I had some downtime, I'd sit in my hotel room and throw on a game," Austin explained. "I'm watching the [Japanese League] Tigers play against I don't know who. I'm in another country, and I feel completely at home. It was the game, and it was unfolding in front of me."
While the band's banjo player, Dave Johnston, held his bachelor party at Coors Field with the Giants in town this summer, guitarist Adam Aijala and bassist Ben Kaufman hail from Red Sox Nation.
"I don't think anything human or machine is going to stand in the way of the Red Sox dominating," Austin said, making a dire prediction for Rockies fans. "I must say that as an unrewarded Cubs fan for the 33 years of my life, I'm a little upset at having to watch the other half of my band maybe celebrate another championship in the last four years. I'm not interested in that any more."
Somehow these mountain musicians have managed to mirror the roots values of the game that consumes them, enduring the challenges to allegiances in a sort of sibling rivalry while strengthening the sense of family and home that is at the heart of the game, whether high in the box canyon of Telluride, traipsing across the heartland in a tour bus built for baseball, or taking comfort in the universal language of the play-by-play from half a world away.
The season for pickin' and grinnin' is fading with the last of the fall colors, bringing these bluegrass boys of summer down from the mountain for a final feast at baseball's Fall Classic.
"There's nothing worse than when the World Series is over and you realize, 'Wow, there's no more ball,'" Bush said, reluctant to look ahead into the no-man's land of November. "That's the only thing that's sad about the end of the World Series."
Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.