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Bear Handed Killers add to local soundtrack

It’s time for a lesson about what is and isn’t bluegrass.

I know the common perception is that there is too much bluegrass in Durango, but I don’t have time to argue that. What I want to convey is that when a band has a banjo in the lineup, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bluegrass band. If there are drums along with that banjo and a fiddle, it may have bluegrass leanings, but Bill Monroe and his modern-day purist followers wouldn’t call it bluegrass.

For example: The Pogues have a banjo player, but no one would ever confuse them with a bluegrass band. Likewise for Mumford and Sons. Both bands have drums, which don’t belong in bluegrass. If there are drums in a bluegrass instrument-oriented band, that is usually the formula for a jam band. And jam bands would flunk horribly the Bill Monroe test.

Sam Swisher used to lead a band called Kentucky Delux. They could have been bluegrass, but they, too, had a drummer. Swisher’s new band is the Bear Handed Killers, and they are a bluegrass band. They’ll play tonight at the Summit. On Saturday, they’ll play at the Durango Brewing Co., then again late night at the Irish Embassy. Opening is Russell Pyle from Albuquerque’s Porter Draw. Some people call them bluegrass, too, but they are more of an outlaw country band; they have got a banjo and a drummer.

The Bear Handed Killers are a four-piece band led by Swisher, who sings and plays guitar. He’s joined by Robin Davis on fiddle and vocals, Rich Riddle on lead guitar and Wally Crockfort on upright bass. But having Davis is like adding an extra member, as he can pick up a banjo, mandolin or anything else with strings and keep adding new sounds to the quartet.

As for tonight’s opener, Pyle – he is the commanding, heavily tattooed, on-stage head-thrashing vocalist (one of three) of Albuquerque’s Porter Draw. His band has gained some momentum in Durango, with a handful of shows at the Summit through the last three years, playing rootsy outlaw country.

He began performing solo in August. It is something that he has worked at knowing that being on stage without a band, there is no one to help mask your mistakes.

“It’s totally different going on stage with just a guitar and your voice than with four other guys. You have absolutely nowhere to hide,” Pyle said last week from Albuquerque. “This causes me to practice my songs enough to gag my wife. When you screw up on your own, everyone hears it. In a band, someone else is always there to cover your ass when you duck fart.”

Playing solo also lets Pyle showcase his songwriting, a craft that at times gets lost behind a five-piece band playing at maximum speed and volume. Like any songwriter, bluegrass or not, a lot of this music is words over instruments – real life stories.

“What I like about playing solo as opposed to with a band is that I get an opportunity to show people that there are real songs behind all this energy,” Pyle said. “Good songs. Songs about people and their lives. That’s important to me.”

Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager.

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