Their grass is blue 

Swimming upstream with Bozeman's Kane's River

It seems that Bozeman’s cultural landscape is more potent than it appears. In fact, if Kane’s River is any indication, our sister burg to the east may soon grow beyond its status as a refuge for glitterati and silly Bobcats.

Not surprisingly, four of the five members of Kane’s River hail from parts beyond our border (including a Canuck), but the band does boast a native Montanan in Julie Elkins, the sweet-voiced banjo player. And three of the five now call the Bozeman area home, where they occasionally host the other two: an Idaho resident and a denizen of Florida (that’s the aforementioned Canuck).

In any case, the current incarnation of Kane’s River has been around for several years and two critically-acclaimed albums, 2000’s eponymous effort and this year’s The Same River Twice, a mover and shaker on the Americana Music charts for the last month or so.

Dip your toes into The Same River Twice and a number of things become immediately apparent. First, Kane’s River is a straight-up bluegrass band, a classic five-piece alignment of guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and fiddle. Second, the band’s traditional style is balanced by an ambitious originality. Eleven of the 15 cuts on Same River are self-penned—a refreshing ratio in a genre dominated by cover tunes and remakes. Third, the members of Kane’s River can flat-out sing. And fourth, all this adds up to a remarkable bluegrass experience, made even more special by the distinctly Montana touches to a form not indigenous to Big Sky country.

Take the instrumental “Upstream,” for instance, written by bass player David Thompson. Described in the album’s liner notes (somewhat presumptuously) as “the official soundtrack for a perfect day out on the river,” the tune is, in fact, just that. Beginning with a delicate, lazy swirl of guitar, fiddle and mandolin that evokes aural visions of a meandering eddy, “Upstream” kicks in with a gorgeous yet restrained melody that sparkles with the intensity of a sunlit riffle. Thompson ran a fly shop in the Boston area before he chucked it all a decade ago to ply Montana waters, and “Upstream” shows that his time has been well spent.

The album’s title track draws its inspiration from a horrific car accident that killed several Bozeman teens a few years ago, and the song is a potent eulogy indeed. Anchored by a tight bass/mandolin groove and pushed skyward by a heartbreaking fiddle, Elkins’ soaring vocals seem both mournful and hopeful as she entreats those devastated by the incident to “Jump on in/Heart first every time/Life is never the same river twice.”

“We wrote this thing trying to pull something good out of something bad,” says guitarist and band co-founder John Lowell, speaking from Louisville, Ky. Louisville is the site of the annual International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass convention, and Lowell is representing the band at what he calls a “pretty ritzy affair” hosted by Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski.

“It’s definitely the biggest such gathering in the world,” he says, “and schmoozing is certainly the operative term here. It’s a week-long thing, with nonstop seminars and showcases. But it’s pretty amazing to see all your heroes. Just walking down the hallway of the hotel, I’ve run into people I’ve admired my whole life.”

Wide-scale jamming at a bluegrass convention is as inevitable as hackey-sack circles at a Phish concert, and the IBMA gala is no exception. Bands sign up to play short sets in a number of designated hotel suites, and those mini-concerts are followed by marathon jam sessions.

“One of the guys I was picking with last night, I saw him early this afternoon and he was still picking, hadn’t gone to bed,” laughs Lowell. “I could do that in my younger days, but I ran out of steam around 5 a.m.”

The circle of pickers in Louisville is so wide that Lowell has gone two days without seeing Fragment, a bluegrass band from the Czech Republic befriended by Kane’s River last year at the Bitterroot Valley Bluegrass Festival. For Lowell, the members of Fragment are true bluegrass heroes.

“Before the Cold War ended, these guys had to play bluegrass music underground, and actually risked going to jail if they were caught,” says Lowell. “I can’t imagine those kinds of restrictions. Come to think of it, I can’t imagine how a group of Czechs fell in love with bluegrass. But they’re awesome musicians, and we’ll be hooking up tonight to play a little music.”

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