Bluegrass Swagger

Fresh from the Wintergrass International Music Festival in Bellvue, Wash. — and with a new CD under their belts — members of Eight Dollar Mountain are excited about the band's direction.

"We're straight-ahead, traditional bluegrass players," says bassist Peter Koelsch. "We strive to sound like our influences, but we also want to give our music its own swagger.

"Bluegrass is always evolving," he says. "We embrace its characteristics and like to promote its history. It's important to know where you came from before you break into something new."

Eight Dollar Mountain will celebrate the release of "Riverboat Gambler" at its Saturday, March 3, show at Caldera Tap House, 31 Water St., Ashland. Music starts at 9 p.m. The cover is $5.

Koelsch cites Blue Highway, The Infamous Stringdusters and Steep Canyon Rangers as the band's top influences.

"The Rangers have played with comedian Steve Martin for about two years now," Koelsch says. "They won Entertainer of the Year in 2011 at the International Bluegrass Music Awards."

There also are Grateful Dead influences to Eight Dollar Mountain's approaches to jams. "Improvisational qualities go hand in hand with bluegrass," Koelsch says.

The band attended Wintergrass last weekend, playing with Renegade String Band, Wayward Vessel and dobro player Chris Funk (Black Prairie, The Decemberists) of Portland and Eugene's Green Mountain Bluegrass Band with banjo player Charles "Chainsaw" Holloway.

"We didn't sleep much," Koelsch says. "It was four days of intense pickin' and grinnin' with some of the Northwest's best players until about 5 a.m. We wanted to preview our new album while we were there, and we received some positive responses.

"Bluegrass has drive," he says. "There's a solid, steady rhythm that pushes the music and makes it exciting. There's also jam qualities to it. Lead players can play over the rhythms, with breaks in between."

Darren Campbell (guitar), Stu Green (banjo), Phil Johnson (mandolin) and Mark Lackey (resonator guitar) round out Eight Dollar Mountain.

Koelsch keeps the string band's rhythm going on a Warwick Triumph electric, upright bass. The instrument's appearance belies its heavy sound.

"It creates a sound that is ideal for bluegrass," Koelsch says. "Our percussion is created by the offbeat strum on the mandolin, and Phil's chop is strong enough to cut down an oak tree."Koelsch moved from Salt Lake City to Ashland in 1999 to study journalism at Southern Oregon University. Campbell hails from Pennsylvania, Green is from Virginia, and Johnson is from Austin, Texas.

"Mark is from the Ozark Mountains of Missouri," Koelsch says. "He gives us some street cred. Each player brings so much to the band. When we get together, it's pretty magical."

While Koelsch studied at SOU, he met friends who were as addicted to bluegrass as he is, he says. He and Johnson formed The Mighty Lonesomes with Patrick Connell and Thad Jacobson. The members played around Ashland before going separate ways. Eight Dollar Mountain formed when Koelsch and Johnson attended a jam at Greensprings Inn.

"Mark, Darren and Stu were at the same jam," he says. "There was an instant connection. Two years later, we're still going strong." The group finished "Riverboat Gambler" in late January, working with Ashland musician and sound engineer Bob DiChiro at a recording studio at Ashland's The Grove. "Ashland is the coolest town," Koelsch says. "It even owns its own recording studio."


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