Drunken Hearts’ designated driver

Andrew McConathy talks loss, the Center of the Universe and new music

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Courtesy of Drunken Hearts

YarmonyGrass turns 10 years old this summer, almost old enough to wander off on the grounds of Rancho Del Rio without direct supervision, and founder Andrew McConathy just published the lineup for the annual high country stringpalooza August 13-16 with headliners The Traveling McCoury’s with Bill Nershi, Rebel Alliance Jam and Head for the Hills atop a lengthy marquee. One of Colorado’s most essential and quirkiest ’grass fests, the event will be stationed at The Center of the Universe… but more on that later.

For the time being, McConathy has been preparing for his other main enterprise: his band The Drunken Hearts’ blow-out gig at the Fox this Saturday night. Tim Carbone, longtime friend and mentor, and Derek Trucks will be featured guests, along with current Yonder Mountain String Band violist Allie Kral and Leftover Salmon’s ace banjoist Andy Thorn, who was once McConathy’s roommate.

“We got some heavy hitters with Tim and Derek Trucks,” McConathy told us last week, “as well as Ally and Andy, plus some serious surprises in there, too. Actually, it’s all been a little nerve-wracking, but we’re ready for it. It’s going to be a burner.”

And in some sense, surrounded by friends and supporters, this may be a kind of defining moment for the quintet, one of those rare landmark gigs that defines or redefines a group. The last six months, the band has faced the kind of challenges no band should ever have to endure. Founding drummer and longtime friend of McConathy, Ted Welles passed away last October two weeks shy of his 35th birthday, in between sessions in which the band was working on the long-awaited follow-up to their debut Carbone-produced debut album.

“It was a big hurdle for all of us to get over this and make sense of all of it, which you really can’t make sense of something like this,” McConathy reflected. “Just trying to pick up the pieces, but the one thing that came out of that was we woke up that day, and everything had changed in terms of what music now really embodied to us. And now for us, taking it to the next level is all the more important because we knew that’s what Ted wanted to do.”

Under other circumstances this concert may have been a CD release party on the cusp of festival season, but McConathy says the new material is progressing slowly and deliberately. No one is trying to beat the clock on this one.

“This album is dedicated to Ted. He was and is such a huge part of who we are as a band and as people. … Making sure it stands the test of time is of the utmost importance to us,” he said. “We think this album is the most genuine way that we can collectively serve Ted’s legacy and everything he stood for. We want to make sure we do it right.”

And it’s unclear whether the album will even be ready in time for the Drunken Hearts’ set at YarmonyGrass, although McConathy indicates that a couple of digitals will probably be circulating by then.

McConathy’s actually been doing YarmonyGrass longer than he’s played in his own band.

“I grew up in the Vail Valley,” he explained, “and my parents’ old ranch, Yarmony Creek Ranch, is just about two miles away as the crow flies from Rancho, between Bond and McCoy. … All the stuff around there — Yarmony Bridge, Yarmony Rapid, Yarmony Mountain — was all named after Chief Yarmony, who was a Ute Indian Chief in the Kremmling area.

“But that’s where the festival was originally conceptualized. It moved down to State Bridge, which burned in year two, then we moved it over to Copper Mountain, and then it came home to the Center of the Universe.”

For the uninitiated, that’s Rancho Del Rio, the ramshackle guest resort planted along a sandy bottom on the Colorado River between Kremmling and State Bridge. During most of the year, the small overnight resort hosts some log cabins and provisions shuttles for river runners doing the Pumphouse segment of the river, a 10-mile stretch that drifts through high country scrub and peaceful ranches, punctuated here and there with Class III rapids, a place seemingly pasted from a Colorado Tourist Board brochure designer’s fevered dream.

On a YarmonyGrass weekend in August, The Center of the Universe is packed riverbank to cliffside with domed tents, from above looking as if the otherwise sullen gray and green riparian environment has caught an inexplicable localized dose of kaleidoscopic polyester psoriasis.

“We’ve thought about finding a more convenient location,” McConathy says, “but it would just lose all the magic, to my mind.”

The gritty charm. 

“Yes, and there’s some seriously gritty charm out there.”

ON THE BILL: The Drunken Hearts featuring Tim Carbone & Duane Trucks with special guests Allie Kral & Andy Thorn. Doors: 8:30 p.m. Show: 9 p.m. Saturday, May 9, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder, 720-645-2467All ages. $15 advance, $18 day of, plus $2 for under-21