Like Woodstock, Ark Valley artists go original and play live

Jamie Wolkenbreit

In the 1920s, the New York City neighborhood around Broadway and 28th Street was called Tin Pan Alley home to a prolific music publishing industry. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the name referred to “the sound of pianos furiously pounded by the so-called song ‘pluggers,’ who demonstrated tunes to publishers.” The composers in New York penned many of the ballads, jazz, vaudeville, dance music and eventually rock ’n’ roll tunes that helped define American popular culture.

Eventually, the term Tin Pan Alley came to mean American pop music in general. In The Last Waltz, Robbie Robertson refers to a time in the 1960s when The Band hung around the Tin Pan Alley Scene and mingled with songwriters such as Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Leiber and Stoller, and Carole King. It was around that time, however, that the U.S. was hit by Beatlemania and musicians like the Beatles, the Byrds and Bob Dylan shifted the paradigm to performing songs they had written on their own. Living in the Woodstock area as a backing band for many great musicians, The Band honed a unique and original sound along with them.

Many of the participants of Salida’s Last Waltz have been around since the early days of Salida’s music scene and switched from popular dance band tunes performed at the country club in Smeltertown to original bands and musical collaborations at the downtown Salida, Buena Vista and Leadville bars and clubs. They help define for us the progression of local and original music in the Ark Valley.

Jimmy Luchetta, guitarist and all around music geek who grew up in Salida said there have always been great musicians in the area. Smeltertown was the center of his night life in the earlier days, when he and his friends would play for hire at high school dances and weddings at The Club, which is now a dance studio.

His gang supplied the rhythm and blues and dance tunes needed for those engagements, but he was always one to shy away from the “bubble gum” style for what he perceived to be more authentic sounds. Through the 1970s Luchetta was fond of the big guitar rock bands like Led Zeppelin and equally enthralled with funk and fusion players from James Brown to Weather Report.

He, like many of the musicians of the day worked day jobs, including mining, and spent weekend evenings on F Street at places like the Office Bar where the present day 146 Taphouse resides. He describes “Friday Night Fights” as mostly miners, farmers and ranchers who would let out for the night and get up in one another’s business.

There were only a few local bands at the time, but they were made up of quality musicians, some from what Luchetta called the “San Diego Invasion.” Musicans like Papa J, a technical guru with a Hammond B3 brought a Southern California vibe to Salida with a style gleaned from popular bands like Booker T and the MGs. He helped organize Luchetta and others and up the game a little. Luchetta also acknowledged local blues guitarist Jimi Trujillo as a force at that time. Their bands had names like Cruzzin F, and The Arkansas River Band.

As these bands locked down an eclectic mix of rock, soul and impressive musical knowledge into entertainment for a lively bar crowd, new faces showed up from other corners of the country. Stew Pappenfort and Ernie Hatfield arrived from Kansas City and Seattle and mixed in with Luchetta. J.N. Bates, Deke Rushton, Denny Daley and others arrived in the ’80s. These men and others became the Lazy Aliens Blues Band, which employed many of the members of the present day Mo’ Champipple and the Meso Horns.

Stew Pappenfort remembers checking out the Aliens with Hatfield, being really impressed and getting hired on the same day. As day jobs were scarce during this time period, Pappenfort talked Hatfield into raft guiding with him, which is how some of the musicians made a living in the summer. Pappenfort worked in the ski industry during the winter, which came in handy as the Aliens were able to grab work throughout the Ark Valley and then frequented the ski towns. Near the ski hills, they could find venues that would put them up for the night and feed them, unlike many of the Front Range clubs.

Influxes of other talent from abroad came and went through the 1980s and 1990s, but in the 1990s and 2000s some key players in today’s scene started to stick around. From North Carolina, Chris Nasca arrived via Breckenridge, and not long after his college buddy George Mossman descended from the mountains to settle in what they both considered to be the perfect town. Both had music stores at one point, and Nasca’s Broken String Guitars remains a gathering ground for local musicians.

Mossman and Nasca’s relationship has remained strong over the years, and they have collaborated with many bands, including The Critters, The Fractures and Roundhouse Assembly. Both musicians were welcomed into the local crowd and have had roles with Ernie Hatfield’s Little Ernie and the Big Thang, and Mo’ Champipple and the Meso Horns.

Meanwhile, the other side of Salida’s sound was country and western, fueled in the 1990s by Colorado’s bluegrass revival, especially the arrival of Bruce Hayes. Hayes had worked with internationally known rock, blues and bluegrass musicians and had been part of the early formation of The String Cheese Incident and other Colorado newgrass and mountain music collectives.

Then, from St. Louis, Duke and Tami Sheppard arrived with another flavor of original Americana. Duke had played guitar and sung most of his life with his father, and Tami had honed her skills in the opera world. The couple’s love for the Mountain West bled heavily into Duke Sheppard’s songwriting which would result in the duo forming “Pint and a Half.”

In the dynamic country duo category, Salida’s roots music sound also benefited from the arrival of Andrea Earley Coen and her husband Matthew, who bring songwriting, vocals and melody to the group Big Meadow. Andrea does everything fiddle with collaborations like the Icy Mountain Stringwinders, Nine Dollar Shawl and frequent Irish and old-timey jams.

By the end of the 2000s the funk, roots and country sounds that began to remake Salida music were maturing, and a town that was known for the visual arts was becoming a music town. With the help of Alamosa’s Don Richmond at Howlin’ Dog records, some of the bands were recording original material.

Hatfield, who had been writing original music from the get-go, joined new arrivals from Greeley, Shawn Waggoner and Chris Hudson with their band Blue Recluse. This group allowed Hatfield to explore the bluesier and Southern soul sides of his keys with a seasoned blues band and a dynamic female voice.

Trevor “Bones” Davis arrived in Salida fresh off touring with Taos-Boulder-Sante Fe Afro-Cuban band Jaka. Raised by a musician father, Bones has extensive musical interests in everything from classic rock and jazz to Afro-Cuban and other world styles. He not only plays a standard drum kit, but also trombone, marimba, steel drum and probably most everything else. He would eventually found Articipate, establish Rok Skool and teach at Crest Academy, establishing a new generation of musicians in Salida.

Bones’ co-conspirator at Rok Skool, Keri Walsh arrived in Salida with her husband Sam as a member of Denver band The Fabulous Boogienauts, anchoring their horn section. Working at The Victoria Tavern, the Walshes encountered the area’s abundant horn players with bands like Mo’ Champipple and the Meso Horns and The Groove Farmers, some of whom would join Salida’s First Last Waltz horn section directed by Keri Walsh. Walsh swings hard, playing funk and disco in bands, but she has a polish to her performance that may come from her accomplished concert band career. Walsh gets rave reviews as a teacher and director as well.

Fellow educator, multi-instrumentalist and baritone sax player Andre Wilkins brings in some bottom to the Last Waltz horn section and has bolstered the jazz and theatrical element of the Salida music scene. Wilkins is the music program director at Salida High School, directs the high school jazz band and played a key role in bringing musical theater back to town.

Around the core bands and venues of the Ark Valley, there has also coalesced quite a vibrant group of soloists that fill multiple slots at the smaller stages and tasting rooms. In this category is renaissance man T.J. Hittle. A soulful singer/guitarist/harmonica player, T.J. can pretty much fit in to any musical scenario and does.

Newer presences like Aaron Robbins – who came to Salida from Alma and Breckenridge jam bands and quickly became a welcome answer to the bassist shortage with his ability to be both harmony and rhythm section – show the increasing gravity of the Salida music scene.

The live, creative and collaborative nature of this musical family gives a unique sound and draws people in. Special surprise guests at this year’s Last Waltz come from Leadville and the San Luis valley and from diverse backgrounds. This solidly defines this event above many others as an incubator for our growing musical family. That is something for which we can all be thankful.