Presenting their inaugural Grandoozy festival lineup in mid-September, the organizers also behind Bonnaroo and Outside Lands did a whole lot more than bring an eclectic group of artists to Denver for an immersive experience in a relaxed, almost pastoral-like setting.
They established solid roots with the Mile High City by putting a national spotlight on several buzzworthy Colorado-based bands that were flying under the radar after takeoff. The Drunken Hearts, five outsiders who somehow found each other in the Denver-Boulder area, are one of those groups still circling, eager to spread their wings.
After performing a 30-minute set during a scorching-hot Sunday afternoon in the dog days of summer, the entire cast of characters met for a sit-down interview in the Grandoozy press tent. It was, at times, raucous, revealing and downright entertaining, just like their assertive mix of hard-driving Southern rock, arresting outlaw country and mix-and-mash-up alt-Americana.
Photo by Michael Bialas
Guided by lead vocalist, acoustic guitarist and founding member Andrew McConathy, a Shreveport, Louisiana, native who eventually settled in the Gunbarrel area of Boulder, the group now includes four other players who joined in the past five years and all live in Denver. The life of the party might be Kory Montgomery, a late arrival to this interview who was introduced as “The Rude One” by McConathy.
Montgomery, a sharp electric guitarist from Fayetteville, Arkansas, was added to the mix as the Drunken Hearts morphed from an acoustic trio — that originally included upright bass player Derek Shields and drummer Ted Welles — to the funtastic five.
Rounding out the four are: Cody Russell (pedal and lap steel, banjo), another zany ex-Arkansas resident who, like Montgomery, is a diehard “Go Hogs!” Razorbacks fan (our condolences); Jon McCartan (bass), the quiet one from upstate New York via Vermont; and Alex Johnson (drums), formerly an architecture student at the University of Colorado-Boulder who grew up in Chicago suburbia and seems to serve as the cordial and efficient company spokesman, at least during this interview.
More than once, he needlessly apologized for some of his bandmates’ rowdy behavior, but guys just wanna have fun, too.
They certainly don’t lack for confidence. When the inevitable question — Where do you rank among the current Colorado-based bands? — came up, one of them actually barked out, “At the top!” while the others laughed.
Johnson, ever the voice of reason, took the high road, saying, “We try to think of this as a huge community, really. Like we all sub for each other. if someone’s got a wedding or gets sick or — I’ve played in bands where the drummer broke his arm and, at the last minute, I jumped in the band. I think it’s more of a huge family and we’re all like siblings of each branch and not as much like. … “
Just to stray off the company line of thinking, they were facetiously asked, “Yeah, but who do you hate?”
Some of them took the bait.
- Alex: “We hate … “
- Kory: “Each other.”
- Cody: “Kory.” (everybody laughs)
Photo courtesy of Grandoozy by FilmMagic
But seriously, folks. Johnson brought the Marx Brothers-like flurry of punchlines back to normalcy, adding, “No, it’s really, actually, super-fun being here. Like we saw Tennis, and Dragondeer is playing right now. and a bunch of bands [including Gasoline Lollipops, Flaural and Head for the Hills] from around the area [are here]. … And it’s just really cool seeing … it’s almost like a family event. … The Colorado music scene is really, really incredible. It’s very supportive. Yeah, no one is kind of like hating on everyone. It’s really just like everyone wants to see everyone succeed. It’s really special.”
That may sound quixotic on the surface, but appears to be soaked in authenticity. As an example, McConathy referenced the Drunken Hearts’ appearance on a bill the previous day with String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band at Planet Bluegrass’ spread in Lyons, north of Boulder.
Called the Colorado Kind Festival, it was presented with Mountain Sun by the same fine folks of Planet Bluegrass, the esteemed organization known for running the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, RockyGrass and the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival every summer in Colorado.
“The core of the bands they had out at the [Colorado Kind Festival] all kind of had their start at the Mountain Sun’s pub in Boulder,” McConathy said of the company that celebrated its 25th anniversary over that weekend and has expanded to other locations in the area. “Sort of the general idea was the bands that were playing all had some sort of roots at playing those venues. And the same goes for the Drunken Hearts. We used to play there.”
Though the Drunken Hearts have appeared at unsanctioned events during Telluride Bluegrass, the Colorado Kind Festival was their first Planet Bluegrass event, and they’re hoping it gets them in the door for more. “Telluride Bluegrass is probably the finest one out there,” McConathy offered.
Photo by Michael Bialas
McCartan, the bassist who joined the Drunken Hearts in January 2014, said the band members also reserve a special place in their hearts for Mountain Sun, which helped them honor the all-too-brief life of Welles, an Ohioan who had settled in Boulder and died suddenly on October 25, 2014, at the age of 34.
“Mountain Sun allowed us to take over for a night and throw a celebration of Teddy with the band and our good friends and anybody who felt a connection with him came down,” McCartan said. “There were people from Leftover Salmon and String Cheese and all these very great Colorado-based bands.”
Photo by Michael Bialas
Russell, seeing the Drunken Hearts open a Halloween show for Cornmeal the first week he moved to Denver in 2012, met McConathy that night and told him, “I’m gonna join your band one day.”
Adding the frontman to his list of cellphone contacts (“He still has my name misspelled,” McConathy pointed out), Russell followed up about a tryout in the spring of 2013 after another job possibility didn’t work out and played his first show with the Drunken Hearts three days after passing the audition.
Johnson, brought in as a substitute drummer at the Vine Street Uptown Neighborhood Block Party in Denver in September 2014 (“the only time we had played without Ted,” McConathy noted), eventually earned the full-time job and is the band’s most recent addition.
“That whole thing was kind of like the spark that made us really take it extremely seriously and wanting to make this our lives,” said McConathy, whose song “Love & Thirst” on the 2016 EP of the same name took on new meaning with Welles’ passing.
“Ted’s death sent us reeling. … However, through that loss we gained new purpose; and ultimately a renewed musical drive and thirst to take the band to the next level,” McConathy said in a 2016 article for Liveforlivemusic.com.
In a subsequent email through their publicist asking about the circumstances of Welles’ death for this article, McConathy wrote, “We’d rather not discuss the details … other than it was tragic and very unexpected, and that it had a profound impact on the band’s commitment and musical path.”
Photo courtesy of the artist
The Drunken Hearts, who have taken over the hosting duties of YarmonyGrass, the mountain festival that began in 2006, continue to benefit from their hard work, determination and Colorado connections. They will close out the thrilling year by opening for the Infamous Stringdusters on December 30 at the Ogden Theatre in Denver.
“They’re the cream of the crop when it comes to technical musicianship,” said McConathy, who called the recent Grammy winners “some of the best dudes we know,” including a couple of Denver-based players.
A previous career highlight for the Drunken Hearts was being on a bill that featured No Doubt, Jimmy Cliff (and included Dragondeer) at Jazz Aspen over Labor Day weekend in 2015. And just this August, they shared the Boulder Theater stage with Gasoline Lollipops for a late night show following the Grapes & Grass Festival.
Photo courtesy of Grandoozy by FilmMagic
Russell sang their praises, particularly GasPops frontman Clay Rose, whose mother (Donna Farar) co-wrote the hit song “Last Thing I Needed First Thing in the Morning” recorded by Willie Nelson and later covered by Grammy-award winner Chris Stapleton.
“His mom was like a prolific songwriter in the industry,” Russell said of Rose. “He has that lineage of songwriting. So he definitely knows how to write a song.”
McConathy & Co. also know how to make their numbers count, too, having released The Prize, a 10-song illustration of their professional potential, in March, with more on the way. (See “Lightning Round” below for details.) They kicked off their Grandoozy set with the rave-up “Broken Things,” propelled by McConathy’s brawny vocals, Montgomery’s searing licks and Russell’s heavy pedal metal.
Just a week before Grandoozy, the Drunken Hearts were the opener for another impressive act — the Colorado Rockies. They performed on the baseball team’s broadcast before the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Coors Field on Sept. 8. That bit of good fortune came as a result of the band playing at a wedding party a couple of years ago for Doug Marino, who produces the pregame show for AT&T SportsNet.
“He had remembered us from his wedding party and threw our name into the hat,” McConathy said. “It got approved by the Rockies and was just a very … full circle kind of deal to be able to play. It was kind of a coincidence that this guy whose wedding we played was the producer.”
It turned out to also be a triumphant move for the Rockies, who beat the Dodgers 4-2, then after stumbling briefly on the road, went on their current seven-game winning streak during the stretch run to the postseason.
As good-luck charmers, McConathy’s super-troupers were also pleased to be a part of the winning lineup at Grandoozy, which he complimented for its sound and “amazing” production.
“I think we’re all in agreement with that,” he said. “If we could have it like that every night, everything would be a whole lot easier. That [production] itself is, I think, so far for us, is what’s setting this festival apart from everything else.”
A lively discussion of all-time best bands to come out of Colorado also produced a variety of answers that included Leftover Salmon, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, the Samples, Yonder Mountain String Band, String Cheese Incident, the Lumineers, Elephant Revival, Cracker, Paper Bird and even the Fray, who they remembered for “How to Save a Life”.
Photo by Michael Bialas
Montgomery’s response to who’s the best — “John Denver” — was shouted down with bursts of laughter because (1.) Even though Denver wrote “Rocky Mountain High”, he’s not from Colorado; and (2.) unlike Blondie, Denver wasn’t a band.
One brave soul (maybe Montgomery, the resident joker in the deck) even yelled out his Colorado favorite — “Us” — which again drew a few more yuks.
As long as they keep having fun while taking their music seriously, the Drunken Hearts may one day be the correct answer in their quest to be the best in Colorado.
Each of the Drunken Hearts — Andrew McConathy, Cody Russell, Kory Montgomery, Jon McCartan and Alex Johnson — participated in three freewheeling rounds of this quick Q&A session that may reveal everything (and more than) you ever wanted to know about them.
Andrew: You’ve probably been asked this, but does your name get confused with Matthew McConaughey’s?
- AM: Good question. Yes.
- CR: That’s actually how it’s spelled in my phone. (everyone laughs) He told you earlier it’s still misspelled in my phone. That’s it.
Jon: What’s your claim to fame: What got you here?
- JM: A lot of text messages telling me to get my butt to Colorado, I guess. .
Cody: What’s a secret you’re finally well-adjusted enough to share?
- CR: I’m not well-adjusted at all. (Others laugh)
- AJ: Next question!
Kory: You’re on the clock to make a Shameless Plug about the Drunken Hearts for 10 seconds: Go!
- KM: DrunkenHearts.com. (long pause) Oh yeah, we got a new album out right now and we have one that’s gonna be coming out in the foreseeable future that we just finished with Mr. Tim Carbone from Railroad Earth. Dropped a name, I think that’s pretty shameless.
Alex: Preferred festival footwear — flip-flops, sneakers or Crocs?
- AJ: If I had to pick one of those three, sneakers. (You can make another choice.) Leather boots, that’s what I wear.
- Others: That’s what we all wear.
Andrew: What’s your greatest athletic feat?
- Others: Say it!
- AM: I won the Junior Olympic super-G in ski racing when I was like 15.
- KM: Back when he cared.
- AM: I was a Division I ski racer in high school at Vail Mountain School, my alma mater.
Jon: If you could go to dinner and a movie with another Grandoozy performer, who would it be, what would you see and why?
- Jon: Well, unfortunately you can’t really go to see a movie with Stevie Wonder [who closed out the festival Sunday night]. (everybody laughs) I really want to. So, actually, honestly, I’d love to go to a movie with Kendrick Lamar [who headlined on Friday]. He’s a guy, I would love to pick his brain. How he works with such a broad variety of artists. You know, everyone from Thundercat and everybody he brought onto his album. The man is a genius. And I would love to pick his musical brain, for sure. I didn’t, unfortunately. I had to go to dinner with my mom. But that’s a valid excuse.
Cody: When you perform, is it business or pleasure?
- CR: Oh, man. It’s business. You gotta get down to business when you’re up there.
- AJ: But business is pleasure.
Kory: I think we know the answer to this question. Who’s the craziest member of group and why?
- KM: Me. Because I’m the wild card. I’m the wild card. You never know what you’re gonna get. What day it is, Tuesday? Oh shit, watch out.
Alex: Who did you want to be growing up?
- AJ: I wanted to be Carter Beaufort growing up, with the Dave Matthews Band. Because he had a huge drum set and they have amazing music.
Andrew: If you could take one record from your parents’ record collection, what would it be and why?
- AM: I took it from my parents’ record collection. It’s the Beatles’ White Album. I was listening to it two nights ago.
Jon: Vinyl, mixtape, playlist or streaming (and why)?
- JM: Vinyl. Man, who just can’t get any better than the warm crackle of vintage vinyl. I like the way it feels in your hand, you pull it out of the sleeve, large format pictures, album art, everything, all about it. I’m waiting for the day when we finally get that test pressing of our own music on vinyl. (What’s your prized possession on vinyl?) I have a second pressing With the Beatles from Apple Records. It’s probably worth $400.
Cody: Which movie do you identify with the most and why: A Star Is Born or Almost Famous?
- CR: Almost Famous. I do love that movie. That movie’s great.
- AJ, mentioning a line from the film: His aura is purple. (Someone starts singing Elton’s John’s “Tiny Dancer,” which was heard/sung on the fictional band Stillwater’s tour bus during a key scene in the film.)
- (You can mention another film.)
- Others: Blazing Saddles, The Big Lebowski.
- CR: Or anything with race cars in it.
- AJ: What’s the one with Tom Cruise?
- CR: Days of Thunder.
Kory: Ski, snowboard or après-ski?
- KM: I stay off skis. I try to stay off anything where I can possibly break something. I’m clumsy crazy. I don’t need to be on ice and skis. (So après-ski, maybe?) Oh, yeah!
- AJ: He didn’t know what après-ski was. (26:30)
- KM: Drinking at the bar. That’s my kind of skiing.
Alex: Fill in the blank: My eyes are on _____________
- AJ: The Prize (the name of their most recent album). Easy. Tee it up, I’ll hit it out of the park. (everybody laughs)
- KM: Available on Spotify, Apple Music. New one coming out next year.
- AM: DrunkenHearts.com
Michael Bialas is a journalist and photographer who enjoys writing about entertainment and sports for a number of online publications, including PopMatters and No Depression. Follow him on Twitter: @mjbialas
See more photos from Day 3 of the Grandoozy festival in Denver.