First album reveals a startling depth of thoughtfulness and instrumental composure
By Dave Kirby
Winston Heuga isn’t likely to forget the first time he came to Nashville—Music Town U.S.A.—with his band. It was the week of the 2016 Country Music Awards, and the streets and clubs teemed with big-name artists, producers and other industry heavyweights, gathering for the event like wildlife at an oasis. Timing is everything, they say, so maybe this was Heuga’s lucky shot at making some connections, catching the ear of some titled muckety-muck who could accelerate Tenth Mountain Division’s fledgling career.
Well, maybe not.
“The gig we played was really interesting,” he recalls. “Someone had stripped their entire one-floor house, which had a single bedroom in the back, and a venue and a stage in the front area. The owner of the place said everyone there was working the CMAs in one way or another. There were five bands, and one of them was just a solo guy on a piano, and before he went on stage he put on a glow-in-the-dark skeleton costume. I had to hide in the corner to shoot some video—his singing and his performance was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen. Very weird.”
DEC. 2: Boulder House, Boulder
JAN. 7: Shakedown Bar, Vail
JAN. 20: O’Bannon’s Irish Pub, Telluride
JAN. 21: Balcony Backstage, Durango
FEB. 25: WinterWonderGrass afterparty w/ TMD, Steamboat Springs
MARCH 4: Shakedown Bar, Vail
But this was Tenth Mountain Division’s first real gig out of state. The brief tour that landed them in Nashville followed an appearance at the Summer Camp Festival in Chillicothe, Ill., outside Chicago, this past Memorial Day. One of the Midwest’s prime music festivals, Summer Camp was exactly the kind of gig that TMD was ready for, a lower-marquee slot the band won by scoring top honors at the festival’s traveling tryout competition in Boulder last winter.
TMD didn’t come out of thin air. Regular gigs around town, openers at the Fox or late-night shows at the Lazy Dog have earned the band a growing following in town. The five-piece outfit formed in Vail around a high-school acoustic duo between mandolinist Heuga and guitarist MJ Ouimette. In a natural fit for the Boulder scene, heavy influences of the Grateful Dead and other classic rock bands like Little Feat course through the band’s original repertoire.
If the band’s musical DNA resonates with the Boulder club scene, it should come as no surprise: Ouimette also points to another local outfit as a prime inspiration, a band that got its start years before TMD’s members drew their first breath. “Leftover Salmon is definitely one of our biggest influences,” he says. “All of us, as individuals and as a group, we all grew up listening to their music. It’s like, these guys are just having so much fun with it, but they’re also incredibly proficient musicians.”
Respectfully borrowing the name of the famed Army unit that once trained virtually in their backyard, Boulder’s Tenth Mountain Division is out to prove that songcraft and a good time need not be mutually exclusive.
In a year of milestones, including their first headlining gig in late August at Boulder’s musical altar, The Fox, TMD not only scored their first out-of-state festival, but also released their first album, Cracks in the Sky, in March. The first instinct for any young band is to capture the energy and sticky-floor vibe of their live show on a record—a common trap and often a waste of expensive studio time—as many of their fans already hold digital downloads of the live shows anyway.
“For an upstart band, hours in the studio cost money,” Ouimette says, “but we also didn’t want that to inhibit us from producing [the album]. I once saw a documentary on Hendrix, which I couldn’t help but think about during the whole process, where he said, ‘If you can’t get the track down in three takes, you have no business being in the studio.’ We were definitely prepared. My vision was to create a blueprint of the songs, using the live shows to create whatever we wanted out of them.”
In for the Long Run
For a band that many of its casual fans may regard as a good-time Thursday-night party outfit, the record reveals a startling depth of thoughtfulness and instrumental composure. Heuga’s mandolin, transplanted from its bluegrass roots into a full rock ensemble, weaves and adorns the compositions, softening the attack here and propelling the rhythm there, a textural component that keeps the band’s sound rooted in its grassy origins. Keyboardist Campbell Thomas, a Boulder native and classically trained player, adds a sophisticated harmonic maturity, and the rhythm section of drummer Tyler Gwynn, percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Jack Cloonan and bassist Connor Dunn keep the proceedings tight and punctuated.
The songs, thematic explorations of varying certitude, tease the listener between introspection and Everyman mirth. They range from self-realization (“Morning Drive”) to the tragicomedy of too many beers (“Drunk Man’s Blues”) and a young man’s existential angst (“Camp Hale,” titled after one of the 10th Mountain Division’s now-decommissioned garrison sites in Eagle County) to the absurdities of Colorado weather (“Eskimo”). Darkness and joy ride side by side in this vehicle, even if it seems at times they just want everyone to have fun.
“I understand why people may think we’re a party band,” Heuga observes. “We’ve been playing the Lazy Dog a lot and throwing big parties there. But I think there is a lot behind our lyrics. I think we’re trying to reach for something more. We’re all interested in being in this business for the long run.”
Dave Kirby is an award-winning writer who has covered music for various publications since 1978. He and his wife live in Boulder with their white German shepherd, Saxon, and rescued Carolina dog, Jute.