- “We were just hobbyists who played one gig a month at a venue called the Bucksnort Saloon.”
“We were just hobbyists who played about one gig a month at a venue called the Bucksnort Saloon in Sphinx Park, Colorado,” says mandolin and guitar player Steve Foltz of the bluegrass-inspired Americana band, whose members hail from Colorado, Wisconsin and upstate New York. “The Bucksnort was an old mining bar in a 150-year-old log cabin, where they had the dollar bills pinned up on the walls and a beer that they made themselves called the Antler Ale. We would play just for fun, really, and for beer. Pitchers and pitchers of it.”
The repertoire back then was mostly covers — original songs only go so far at the Bucksnort — with all the band members switching off on instruments. There were guitars and harmonica for the Neil Young and Bob Dylan covers, an African djembe drum for Talking Heads.
In 2014, the group won the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s band competition, following in the footsteps of past winners like the Dixie Chicks, Front Country and Greensky Bluegrass. They’ve won an Emmy Award for their soundtrack to a Rocky Mountain PBS documentary and, for the past two years, have been named Best Bluegrass Band by their hometown altweekly Westword.
These days, Foltz and his bandmates — Will Koster on dobro and guitar, Bevin Foley on fiddle, Casey Houlihan on bass, and Travis McNamara on banjo — all share singing and songwriting duties. And while their third studio album, Spirit to the Sea, which will be released this coming Friday, is steeped in harmonies and traditional instrumentation, the songwriting and overall feel finds the group drifting away, slowly but surely, from the bluegrass genre’s conventional restrictions.
As with 2015’s Brighter Every Day, the album was produced by Chris Pandolfi of the Infamous Stringdusters, whom the band originally met while taking classes at the Rockygrass Academy.
“It’s like music school for adults — well, people of all ages, actually,” says Foltz. “Chris was one of the teachers — all the Stringdusters were teachers that year — and we just stayed in touch and he’s become more and more close with the band. So when it came to sharing our vision and understanding what we’re trying to do sonically, Chris was absolutely the pick. There can definitely be stressful moments in the studio, and when you have somebody you’re really comfortable with as the producer, you can have fun and be yourself.”
One of the new album’s standout moments is Foley’s song “Loving Is Leaving,” with its lilting Celtic-inspired melody that showcases her violin and Foltz’s mandolin.
“At some point, I think everybody in the band has taken an interest in Celtic music, which is where a lot of the bluegrass music standards we play have their roots,” says Foltz. “We’ve grown a lot since creating our Brighter Every Day record, and we’re starting to allow the song’s lyrics and feel to predicate its form. Some of the jams are longer on this record as a result, and some of the choruses are bigger because of our harmony singing. Lyrically, we’ve all been studying songwriting longer now, and so we’re taking it a step further, writing about things that are more emotionally close to home.”
All of which begs the question: At what point does Trout Steak Revival stop being a bluegrass band and start becoming Railroad Earth?
“Those definitions and boundaries aren’t something we think about,” says Foltz. “I’ve noticed in years past that Railroad Earth and Greensky Bluegrass, just to take a couple of examples, those guys are not playing bluegrass anymore. And I think what they’re doing is beautiful. It feels like every record they’re making is really advancing their art in a way that seems very fitting to them. And as far as whether or not it’s bluegrass, we kind of stopped worrying about that, because it’s nearly impossible to manipulate something that you write and steer it in one direction or another. A song just needs to be what it is. And we’re just trying to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be.”