Just a kid with a nylon string guitar

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Jefferson Hamer
J. Elon Goodman/ Courtesy of Jefferson Hamer

Since 2004, Session Americana has been a rotating collective of some of the best, albeit least well known, players in American folk. The Boston-based six-member group is made up of folks most known for playing with notable acts and not for what they do on their own.

Perhaps it’s the humility they glean from the peripheries of the stage that makes them so good together — not worried about making a name for themselves, they acquiesce to the music and everyone has a knee-slapping good time.

Still, a spotlight cast on any member of Session Americana would inevitably yield an immensity of insight into modern Americana music, but while they are in Colorado, it’s Jefferson Hamer to whom our attention should naturally draw. Hamer moved to Boulder County in 1995 and stayed here for 13 years — moving around from CU’s college dorms to Lyons and finally to a little house nestled into Sunshine Canyon.

Hamer says Colorado is where he spent his most impressionable years and that it’s the place that housed him as he went from child to adult, amateur to professional musician.

It was in Boulder that he formed his first band — a jammy type trio with his buddies Jordan Moretti and Ben Kauffman, founding bass player of String Cheese Incident. After Kauffman’s quick and glorious rise to fame, Hamer and Moretti reorganized to form Single Malt with Will Downes. For three years they played traditional American and Irish songs at local venues like Gold Hill Inn and on several tours across the West in their old beater van. 

J. Elon Goodman/ Courtesy of Jefferson Hamer
Americana Session

Since moving back to the East Coast in 2008, Hamer has played a major role in several notable folk projects including a collaboration with Anais Mitchell on the 2013 album Child Ballads and his ongoing Irish folk project with Eamon O’Leary, Murphy Beds, not to mention his five-going-on-six years spent with Session Americana.

He says he’s happy playing his modest part in such team projects, but there’s something in his voice that begs to differ.

“There is nothing more satisfying than when people respond to your own original song,” Hamer says. “Maybe it’s because it appeals to your ego or maybe it’s because it validates this whole life journey that you’ve been on. I want that, I really do, but it’s hard for me.”

He struggles a bit to explain why. Maybe it’s because he’s better at arranging songs than writing them? Maybe he lacks the confidence and/or lyrical prowess to think what he writes is any good? (It is.) Maybe he’s timid about being alone and at center stage?

Maybe. But something he says strikes a chord of sincerity that none of his other theorizing manages to achieve, and it has nothing do with what he’s good or bad at — it’s just about who he is and who he’s been all along. It’s a little story, a single string being plucked from the song that is his life.

Growing up, his mom, the organist at her Methodist church, seemed to be the only one in the family with so much as a musical bone in her body. Sure, Hamer spent about a year singing in a choir and just as much time noisily fumbling on the trumpet and the piano, but nothing stuck.

What did stick was a nylon string guitar that had been sitting in a corner of the house for years, collecting dust more like a household trinket than an instrument. He’d never seen anyone play it until that one fated day he decided to pick it up and asked his mom to teach him a few chords, a request that he says is “the most proactive and important thing I did in my whole life.”

Unlike the piano, which he had to play in the living room, or the trumpet that he had to practice oh-so-loudly, the guitar felt infinitely more private, and for the reclusive young Hamer, that intimacy was where he found his love for music resided.

“When I was 13 years old, I was just a kid with a nylon string guitar, a boombox and microphone hanging out, all alone, in my bedroom,” he says. “I would push record and try to make up songs — it was so simple. I wasn’t doing it for fame or fortune. I just did it because I loved it.”

For Hamer, music still has (almost) nothing to do with grandiose ambition, fame or center stage. Rather it’s about the artistic journey the music takes you on over the course of a lifetime. Soon, he’ll release a record of original solo songs that’s been 10 years in the making and maybe, just maybe, it’s Hamer’s way of trying to connect the dots between who he was as a kid and the man he is today.

On the Bill: Session Americana with Jefferson Hamer. 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25, Gold Hill Inn, 401 Main St., Gold Hill.