By Jeffrey V. Smith
Lexington, Kentucky-based bluegrass band The Wooks have found a second home in Colorado. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. They’re musically talented, known for pushing the limits of traditional acoustic instruments and styles, and invoke the spirit of Jerry Garcia as easily as Jimmy Martin. It’s a perfect fit.
The band, which played its first shows as a five-piece in 2014, found immediate acceptance when it performed in Colorado for the first time last summer. A packed room at the Gold Hill Inn provided an exciting welcome to the state, while a first place finish in the 2016 RockyGrass Band Contest—and two second place individual awards—proved their abilities and attraction.
The Wooks have since come back three times, including to this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June where they placed fourth in the very competitive band contest. They’re back in the state again this month to open this year’s RockyGrass festival, July 28-30. The band will return to the Gold Hill Inn, Aug. 4, and perform at Keystone’s Bluegrass & Beer, Aug. 5. Additional shows include Cervantes’ Other Side in Denver, July 27 and dates in Colorado Springs, Glenwood Springs and Paonia.
Although the band’s first Colorado gig was just last year, some of its members fell in love with Colorado’s music scene long ago. Guitarist CJ Cain “grew up” going to RockyGrass Academy, while banjo player Arthur Hancock and mandolin player Galen Green, who attended Colorado College, have spent a “great deal of time” going to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. “When we decided to move more nationally with the band, Colorado was the first place we really wanted to go,” Cain explained. “People like all kinds of music out there. It’s a thriving community. That’s why we went in.”
According to Green, Colorado was a “very obvious” first place for them to branch out. “We played our first-ever out of state gig not in Ohio or Tennessee or North Carolina or Virginia or West Virginia—all those states surrounding us. We went clear to Colorado first and played the Gold Hill Inn,” he said. “That was an awesome show. There were a lot of people up there. It’s a cool room and we just fell in love all over again with Colorado, right then and there.”
For the band’s first visit to the state, members built a small tour around the RockyGrass festival in Lyons, even though they were unsure if they could do the contest. “We had to wait to see if somebody didn’t show up, and it worked out where there was a last minute opening,” Cain said. “Getting to go back and play that stage as a band on the line up is a real dream come true. But it’s also valuable because it’s a market we respect and want to be a part of, and a scene we want to help add to.”
Despite the playful band name and obvious fun members have performing live, these guys take their music and role as entertainers seriously. “For me, my goal is to make good records and go out and expose people to the tunes and inspire them to purchase that record,” Cain said. “The last thing on the list is to make a living doing something that makes me happy and makes me feel like I’m making other people’s lives better in some simple way.”
The effort to make people happy is actually what influences the direction a live show may take. “It’s very malleable with this group of guys. That’s what I love about playing with [them],” Green said. “If we are at a more traditional festival we can play a bunch of trad tunes and be really comfortable with it, or if we’re at a more hippie-vibe festival then we can get crazier and more improvisational and definitely veer away from traditional bluegrass sounds—quiet far—and have fun doing that as well. I don’t mean for it to be a cop-out, but I think the great thing about this group of musicians is that depending on the atmosphere we are comfortable with very traditional to very newgrass.”
The band’s appeal stretches beyond the traditional acoustic and bluegrass scene thanks in part to the contributions of bassist Roddy Pucket, who has spent decades playing in Grateful Dead-inspired bands, including Dark Star Orchestra, among other jamband work.
“We don’t really stay in any one genre, but when we play something [traditional music] fans can identify with, they’re much more likely to follow us into something that Roddy brings to the table, like a Jerry Garcia-influenced sound or a stretched-out song that they might have turned their nose up to if they didn’t already become interested through a tune that… captivates them,” Cain said.
The Wook’s debut album, Little Circles, was produced by Grammy award-winning banjo player Allison Brown and released last year. “Working with Allison was a real treat–being able to work beside someone with that level of knowledge of music and business and great aspects of recording, and working with a great engineer,” fiddle player Jesse Wells said. “She brought a lot to the table for arranging tunes, bringing new ideas we probably wouldn’t have developed on our own as a band. Her knowledge of other musical styles, too, really helped us develop a very unique sound.”
While the album showcases the band’s more traditional side, their live shows are a bit more unpredictable. “I would say our live show is a little more stretched out. There’s more extended jams,” Cain explained. “We have a good deal of material that Roddy brings to the table through bands like the Grateful Dead or Jerry Garcia Band or Levon Helm and The Band. You know, cover material that allows us to play our take on it, but is more improvised material. Depending on the room, there’s considerably more effects and things that are used that are outside what you’d expect from an acoustic band, typically, and a bluegrass band especially. You can tell the crowd and tell what they are wanting to dance to, or have a good time to, and it’s kind of off-the-cuff a lot of times.”
In the end, it’s band members’ goal to “facilitate somebody having a good time and forgetting whatever it is that’s bothering them or stressing them out,” according to Cain. “It’s fun to get people up and dancing and having a good time. Arthur is very engaged with the audience. It’s not the type of show that your meant to sit there and spectate. I mean it’s a thing where the audience is a part of it. They are just a part of the show as we are, and that’s kind of our motive when we take the stage. To have a good time.”
Originally published in the July 2017 issue of the MMAC Monthly