Elk Range, a local bluegrass group that went viral after entertaining winter commuters stuck in the Glenwood Canyon earlier this year, will compete in the 2023 Telluride Bluegrass Band Contest on June 16-17.
Hugh Phillips, bassist for Elk Range and leader of the Hugh Phillips Band, explained that Elk Range unexpectedly received a band contest ticket when another band had to withdraw due to a mishap. The band happily accepted the windfall, and Phillips chuckled about the twist of fate, saying, “The universe must really want Elk Range to perform at the band contest, telling us, ‘Get your butts to Telluride, get on stage and do some good!’ So, no pressure.”
Elk Range is one of 12 bands performing in Friday’s preliminary round, of which four will advance to the final round on Saturday.
The band consists of Phillips on upright bass, Curtis Fiore on acoustic guitar, Ken Gentry on mandolin and Betty Hoops on harmonica. Their motto is, “If it ain’t fast, it ain’t Elk Range,” and their live performances will put some pep in your two-step.
Participating in the Telluride contest has been a consideration for the band for years. Still, Phillips said, “We were hesitant to commit 100% to it because we had a busy show schedule, and going to Telluride is an expense.”
They recognize the exceptional opportunity that winning the competition can bring. Previous winners, like The Dixie Chicks (now known as The Chicks) and Greensky Bluegrass, saw their careers take off after winning the contest.
Carbondale’s Jackson Emmer is one of 10 finalists in the “troubadour” category for singer-songwriters, “so we’ll have quite the Carbondale representation there,” Phillips said.
The first-place band winners receive an EP recording package, a cash prize and a mainstage performance to open the 2024 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The contest also attracts music executives and industry professionals scouting for new talent.
Elk Range was formed in 2015 by Gentry and home-grown Carbondalian Fiore. About five years ago, they met Hoops at an open-mic night at Aspen’s Red Onion, and afterward, she began joining in on their jam sessions, accompanying them on harmonica. Two years ago, Phillips was enlisted to play bass to complete the quartet.
Phillips acknowledged that while he owned an upright bass, he didn’t know how to play it at the time. But, he shared, “there was a need, so I filled it.”
Originally from New Jersey, Phillips spent his formative years in Carbondale and is a 1987 graduate of Colorado Rocky Mountain School. He said, “In 1989, I moved to Durango and pretended to attend college.”
After living in Portland, Oregon and owning a used car dealership in Grand Junction, Phillips and his wife, Kelly, moved to Missouri Heights about five years ago. Being back in the Roaring Fork Valley, “just makes my heart really happy,” he said, “like when the hay is cut and it’s all stacked.”
The Hugh Phillips Band and Elk Range “are taking off immensely quickly,” he shared. His solo career has led to an artist development deal with a Nashville record label and he has already been to Nashville three times this year, writing and recording. He co-wrote a song with a Nashville artist that will “soon be pushed out to commercial country radio, so that’s a really big deal.”
Radio continues to reign supreme for many country music fans. As Phillips explained, “People on their tractors or driving to work don’t want to mess with streaming on their cellphones to listen to country music, so they turn on the radio to hear what’s going on in the hog markets, and then they want to hear a great country song.”
As corporate conglomerates dominate the broadcast radio landscape, “those pre-made playlists, beamed in by satellite, to stations with no phone numbers to call or DJs to take listener requests have lost the personal touch. But when you call our local radio stations, the DJ is right there talking with you,” Phillips explained.
Phillips credits local community radio stations for introducing listeners to his music. As a professional musician, he acknowledges that “DJs are really the unsung heroes of music and airplay.” He added that he’s thankful for DJs like KDNK’s Amber Sparkles (Spinstress Sparkles) and April Crow-Spaulding (Ape on the Dink), “who spin my records and are just great, great folks.”
Last June, Phillips was one of the artists participating in the CMA Music Festival, Nashville’s annual gathering of country musicians, including established and up-and-coming artists.
He attended the multi-day festival solo, spending time meeting and visiting with country music fans. His booth faced singer-songwriter Kasey Musgraves, and they both interacted with attendees, handing out music and signing merchandise. He remarked, “She’s slightly prettier than I am, so she had a longer line.”
While that anecdote reveals Phillips’ self-deprecating sense of humor and his down-to-earth nature, he was back at CMA Fest at the beginning of this month — a sign that his star continues to rise. With Elk Range’s participation in the prestigious Telluride competition, this may be the added momentum that propels the band to country music stardom.
For more information about Elk Range, visit: www.elkrangemusic.com
For more information about the Hugh Phillips Band, go to: www.hughphillipsmusic.com