It’s hard to imagine putting out your first record in the middle of a global pandemic, but then again, it’s hard to imagine entering the Telluride Band Contest at the last minute and winning.
Boulder’s bluegrass quintet Bowregard has done both. And the band’s barely two years old.
The debut record, Arrows, is just another testament to Bowregard’s collective talent, funded by a Kickstarter campaign that well exceeded expectations. A collection of reimagined bluegrass classics mixed with original material, Arrows showcases the quintet’s virtuosity and eclectic musical tastes — the exact qualities that made them champs at Telluride last year.
This summer was supposed to be a victory lap of sorts for Bowregard: the band would launch a Kickstarter campaign in early 2020 to fund the record, which would come out sometime in the spring. Then they’d hit the main stage at Telluride in June.
But if you want to make god laugh, tell him about your plans.
“As we were kind of realizing that [the pandemic] was shutting everything down, we didn’t think that it was appropriate to be releasing a Kickstarter campaign,” says guitarist and vocalist Max Kabat. “People were worrying about their family members and their health, and we didn’t want to ask them for anything.”
When it became clear the virus had taken off its coat and planned to stay awhile, the band decided it was time to ask.
Turns out folks were eager to help, seeding the Kickstarter for Arrows with nearly $42,000, twice the amount the band hoped to receive.
“We really feel strongly that one of the best things that we can contribute right now is music and giving that in a way where we don’t expect anything in return,” Kabat says. “We just want people to hear our music and feel good, and that’s what it’s all about for us. We’re really proud of ourselves and happy that we were able to release this album in these really strange times, because I think it’s what we all need to be doing. We all need to be giving and thinking about what we can do, what we can give to the collective, even if it is something like giving shit.”
Though it’s said with good humor, the sentiment is earnest; the members of Bowregard have taken this moment seriously, looking at the history of bluegrass music and taking time to honor its roots.
“We all feel this way in our group: It’s really important to remember the roots of the music that you’re involved in. All bluegrass music is basically derived from [the music of enslaved people in] Appalachia, and blues. I think it’s really important to trace everything back to its roots and understand where stuff came from, understand that the banjo is an African instrument, and respect that. There’s an entire industry of music that has been popularized based on the exploitation of black music.”
But on a positive note, music is a medium capable of crossing boundaries, a vessel that has often helped bridge divides that men create based on race. Music is a salve that Bowregard hopes can heal wounds and launch conversations.
It would be hard to expect less from a group like Bowregard, who count among their ranks a Harvard-educated lawyer, a graphic designer, a public relations manager and a real estate agent. They are parents and partners working day jobs to make ends meet. They’re real people.
And maybe because the members of Bowregard are so very real, so down-to-earth and yet so monumentally talented, the universe seemed determined to put the five together.
“[Banjoist] James [Armington] sent me a message one day [several years ago] that said, ‘A lot of my friends have been telling me that we should play music together,’” Kabat says. “I thought that was great because what better way to [meet a bandmate] than to have it be brought forth by all of your friends?”
It wasn’t long until Kabat and Armington were jamming together at bluegrass picks like the one at the now defunct Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub, where they discovered fiddler Colleen Heine and bassist Zachary Smith, who were both just visiting from their home in Savannah, Georgia.
“I remember this moment exactly,” Kabat says, “because somebody at the bluegrass pick leaned over to me and was like, ‘Somebody’s gonna swoop these guys up and start a really awesome bluegrass band.’ And I just remember thinking, oh yeah, that person is me.”
The final piece of the band was dobro player Justin Konrad, who Kabat and Armington had known for years, but who had always been busy with other projects.
“When we asked him, he was like, ‘Well, what took you so long? I’ve been waiting; I’ve been waiting for like four months,’” Kabat says. “So it was really cool to hear him say that.”
While the pandemic may have upended some plans for Bowregard, Kabat says the band is ready to turn to creative formats to share the new album. They’ll be using some of the money from the Kickstarter campaign to purchase the equipment they need to produce high-quality videos and conduct socially distant performances.
As for missing Telluride this year, it’s a bummer, but there’s no looking back.
“We’re all trying to make light of the situation and stay in good spirits,” he says. “We’re going to have this opportunity next year. We’ve already spoken with Planet Bluegrass and we know we’ll be in the same slot at next year’s festival — as long as it happens. Every musical artist and production agency and booking agency is affected by this. So it’s been really helpful for us to kind of put ourselves in that alignment and realize that we’re all kind of suffering right now.”
For now, these five archers have sent Arrows out into the world.
Max Kabat’s Heavy Rotation
Jake Blount: Banjo player and fiddler Jake Blount is a scholar of ethnomusicology, specializing in the music of black and Native American communities in the southeastern United States. In 2016, Blount became the first black person to make the finals at the prestigious Appalachian String Band Music Festival, and the first to win in the traditional band category. Blount’s latest record, Spider Tales, gives voice to the black musicians whose art and voices have been co-opted and shunned from the American roots music industry. “When I listened to [Blount’s record] I was like, holy shit, this is good,” Kabat says.
Bryan Sutton: A flatpicking legend who first came into prominence as the lead guitarist for Ricky Skagg’s band Kentucky Thunder, Ryan Sutton has played with the (formerly known as Dixie) Chicks, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Chris Thile, and currently Hot Rize. “He’s one of my favorite guitar players,” Kabat says. “He’s probably been on 100 records.”
John Hartford: Nobody knew Mississippi lore better than John Crawan Hartford, the singing/dancing/string-playing firecracker of an entertainer whose hit “Gentle On My Mind” went on to be covered by artists as disparate as Glen Campbell, Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin. “You didn’t want to follow John,” Ricky Skaggs once said of Hartford. “If John was playing from 9 to 10, you could forget about playing after that because the crowd was his.” Kabat says band members Zach Smith and Colleen Heine gave their son the middle name Hartford after the late, great entertainer.