On paper, Brendan Shafer is a musician. A banjo and fiddle player who does time in two different bands: The Six-Dollar String Band, Durango’s old-time outfit that explores acoustic music that predates the term “bluegrass,” and The Badly Bent, Durango’s long-running bluegrass band that features Shafer on fiddle.
But beside the “on-paper” title, his role as an old-time musician also defines him as a historian, documentarian and storyteller, someone using music to communicate history. It’s a musical role that goes well beyond that of writing songs and traveling to venues and festivals to play music. He’s a history professor and music educator, an entertainer and keeper of a musical tradition where current events were relayed via song. It’s like he’s a news anchor with a banjo.
“One of my main interests in music is old sounds and lore; ballads, shantys, that old sound. I really like that – someone who would just sing unaccompanied to tell a story of an event. Traditionally, that style of communication was used, people would tell stories or give cautionary tales about things,” Shafer said. “So, my interest is researching that stuff and composing music to make it sound a little more modern. I don’t know, I just like to compose music to stories.”
Shafer is currently in the throes of a Kickstarter campaign to fund his latest release, “Colorado Clawhammer.” While very much a solo album, Shafer is keeping the company of his regular band to back him on the project. There’s no need to recruit new musicians when your current co-workers are skilled at their job and well-versed in Shafer’s intent. It’s a solo effort because Shafer is the one calling all the shots, from what songs are recorded and the order they appear on the album, all the way down to who is paying the bills.
“It’s tough to call something a solo record because obviously, there’s a ton of really talented people that work hard on it. The reason we referred to it that way is because it’s kind of your chance to put your signature on something you played producer on, which is fun to do,” he said. “I like trying that role and making track selections and arranging things, picking the personnel and seeing the project through to the finish. That’s a fun thing to do, and that’s why you call it a solo project. And in this case, I’m also organizing the funding for it, so yeah, it’s a solo project as I make air quotations.”
Shafer’s approach to making music is rooted in an art and punk-rock mindset. His first solo effort, “6th and 1st,” was lo-fi field recordings recorded in his former home on Durango’s south side. His second solo effort, “Shafer’s Lumber Wagon,” was similar to his current project; Shafer did all the heavy lifting while Six-Dollar String Band recorded feature tunes mixed in with recordings of ambient sound, resulting in a collage of natural audio and music from the public domain.
Credit the styles of music and recording approach to Shafer’s upbringing, as he was a kid brought to music festivals by his parents while digging into below-the-radar punk rock. It was the minimalist mindset and approach to the music by both that stuck.
“I was about 17 and I started listening to an old fiddle player, you know, secretly. And then I really listened closely to it and I got really into it. Something at the end of my punk-rock career spoke to me about old-time fiddle,” Shafer said. “A lot of the stuff we’ve done as the Six-Dollar String Band has taken on an artsy kind of tone. So that is definitely related: We’re kind of exploring new territory and self-expression. They’re all tied to the same ethos that punk music is also rooted in. So, there’s a connection there.”
The Kickstarter campaign to fund “Colorado Clawhammer” runs until Dec. 4.
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at email@example.com.