If you’ve paid attention to the Durango music scene, you’ve likely seen a band or been at an event local musician Pat Dressen has had a hand in.
He helped found The Durango Bluegrass Meltdown, first doing sound for the now annual event and then serving on their board of directors. He did sound for the now-defunct Silverton Jamboree Festival and has been a KDUR DJ since 2012. Most notably, he’s been a busy musician, playing guitar, mandolin or drums in bluegrass, Celtic music and rock bands, his resumé including names like The Wild Geese, Rusty Razor Band, Marmot Mudflaps, Heart & Soul, The Badly Bent, Jack Ten High, Lawn Chair Kings, Six Dollar String Band and Truckley Howe.
Dressen moved to Durango in 1982, but his musical pursuit began when he got a drum kit at age 7.
“It was plastic and it was called, ‘The Liverpool Beat,’” Dressen said. “People my age always talk, ‘I started playing when I saw The Beatles on “Ed Sullivan.”’ That was in February of ’64, right? I got that drum kit three months before that, and I amazed my family by setting it up, and I could already play the surfer beat; but I had been playing that on my lap for so long with my hands.”
Dressen messed around in rock bands in junior high and high school, including time spent in the rebelliously named “Smack,” and the drums soon took a backseat to the guitar. It was around this time Dressen moved toward the music he’s most known for, bluegrass. In 1972, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” an album that remains a respected and revered release in the bluegrass, folk and Americana canon. Loaded with hot bluegrass players of the day, including Earl Scruggs, Norman Blake, Vassar Clements and Doc Watson, it was Watson who had the most impact on a young Dressen, and soon after, he bought his first Martin guitar.
“I had already decided acoustic music was what I loved. Whether it was bluegrass or finger-picking, whether it was Piedmont Blues or Delta Blues, or American Primitive John Fayhee kind of style,” Dressen said. “The wooden tone sounds more organic; it moves my heart. I don’t know why I went to the extreme to say, ‘I’m exclusively acoustic,’ except maybe it was popular in those days to do that, for acoustic musicians to stick their nose up in the air to rock ’n’ roll. And when you listen back now to roots rock and rockabilly and stuff and you hear the real raw, earthy sound in that, too.”
Dressen has chalked up some serious accolades in his years as an acoustic musician. He won the Colorado Flatpicking Guitar Championship in 1990 at the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival, which is now Rockygrass. Four years after the Flatpicking Championship, he won the Rockygrass Mandolin contest, and he’s been in numerous bands that made it to the finals at The Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Contest, including winning the whole thing with The Badly Bent in 2005.
Dressen is still at it. He remains a Sunday regular at the Irish Embassy Celtic Music jam, and continues to play in The Badly Bent, Truckley Howe and The Lawn Chair Kings, the latter of which he plays drums, mandolin and some guitar. Spend a few minutes talking with the guy, and he’ll drop a load of musical knowledge on you, which could include information about hot under-the radar records from decades ago to under-the-radar bluegrass bands making music right now. Dressen’s never been one to tout trying to “make it” in the biz – he’s perfectly happy being part of a local, community-driven scene.
“I believe in musicians being amateur, or part time, local or maybe regional based. I think most musicians who try to ‘make it’ are motivated by ego and the need for attention. They should be doing it for the love of music,” he said.
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.