by Brian Rill
The blue sky stretches out long over the Colorado Rocky Mountains, sweeping clear onto the eastern seaboard. Then, threading back through the majestic St. Louis Arch and finally, in between towering cliffs that hang silently and over a saintly green valley. High above an obfuscated pass, followed down slowly by devout hermits, a set of frozen, lonely bones lie lost. Deep beneath the light of morning, in an old mine shaft on the mountainside, they are eroding. Spiders spread out their eight legs into the sun and blend smoothly against the melting dawn. One hundred years ago a 350-foot smelter stack bellowed poisonous smoke across the sky of a swanky little mining town called Salida, Colorado. That was when the railroad and screamed wildly through the canyon, carrying coal and mineral ore as it shimmied along the mighty Arkansas River ravine.
Since the first neon tube was installed in the only nightclub on F Street, Salida has been a 20th-century town. This mecca for musicians has supported a universally creative urge for eons. Outlaws and artists have traveled from afar to swarm the streets and fill the entertainment void. Duke and Tami Sheppard of Pint & A Half are among those 21st-century legends that have struggled to the top of a quickly crumbling pyramid known as the Salida music scene. Blue Sky Earth is a testament to that nostalgic time of radical innovation when acoustic guitars and tin cans were all the miners had to hold on to during their jam sessions. When, regardless of social status or class, the citizenry danced together in Riverside Park beyond a crossing that separated the Red Light District from the county court and jailhouse.
Times have changed little as we witness this new musical release, celebrating an old sentimental ideal. Just like the refurbished Model T represents a proud historical tradition, so does the freshman CD from Pint & A Half inhabit a rustic turn-of-the-century style. Blue Sky Earth does not disappoint passionate antiquarians, leaving little detail of style to the imagination. From the old cover photographs to the stripped-down guitar picking of Duke Sheppard, this album rolls straight ahead along an old rail line and down home to join a spicy Cabasa beat struck by Tami as she sings soulfully along with her husband.
Pint & A Half brings a dedicated live custom onto an original audio disk with this country/folk compilation. Fans of live music will smile as the songwriting of Duke and Tami eerily steps out of the home speakers and clearly speaks of bygone glory as if they are singing directly beside the listener. The collection includes 11 spirited live recordings of authentic and original Americana music with a country and western vibe. Dwight Yoakam, Hank Williams and Brad Paisley are among some of the influences within this collaboration of husband-and-wife team. Make no mistake: this album is a successful stamp on the Salida music scene. The hard work is manifest in every note.
I would like to say that I am seeing Chaffee County musicians consistently showing an amazing work ethic and dedication to their audiences, despite being unable to negotiate more realistic economic compensation with venues. Duke and Tami’s creative strength becomes clear when viewed together in context with the society in which they are engaged. Blue Sky Earth is an important step in the right direction of an artistic community simultaneously struggling, not only to survive, but to be born again. Celebrating our history can play an important role in helping to save our own generation from cultural ruin. Even still, outdated economic standards and conservative social mores can threaten to enslave the middle class and condemn the professional artisan to a life of malaise. Thankfully there is a possibility for locals to unite and visualize a better future for all – one that allows competent and experienced artists to prosper in a small town.
Duke and Tami’s vocal harmonies dance together on every track with acoustic guitar and the jingle-jangle of a Spanish Cabasa. Also highlighted on the title track is masterful stand-up bass work from William Boddy, and Kurt Snyder’s traditional banjo playing. Minimal, simplistic and stripped down, this album perfectly recreates the nostalgia of Americana music and is a testament to the simple country song. Original songs on this compilation spotlight Central Colorado’s talent and offer a unique rural experience. Authenticity is the integral thread that runs through Pint & A Half’s new CD, and in the entertainment industry, authenticity is a rare commodity. Emotional honesty and dogged perseverance are the morals we glean from listening too deeply. You will enjoy Blue Sky Earth if you like Alternative Americana style and have a yearning for a time gone by, before commerce and communications were confused by modern influences rife with hubris and overstimulation.
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Brian Rill is a troubadour, composer and poet.