IGNACIO – The driver – he’s the bass player, too – backs up the truck to the dock, and the roadies – later they’ll form the rest of the band – begin to unload.
From the trailer, decorated in The High Rollers’ four-aces logo with black background, the speakers, amps, mic stands and sound board gradually make their way into the Sky Ute Convention Center.
“The playing is fun,” says the driver, Andy Janowski, as he helps unload. “This is when you earn your money.”
It’s 2 p.m. on a recent Friday. The band, which Janowski formed 20 years ago, won’t begin playing until after 7 p.m., but the itinerary is typical, as any of Durango’s aspiring bands will attest: Setup. Soundcheck. Dinner. Wait till the stage is clear. Play till 10 or 11. Pack up the trailer. Drive home.
On this night, the quintet of diverse musicians with a century-plus of combined experience is playing a company party. They’re still serious about their day jobs, but maybe a whiff of the big-time is enough to keep them rolling.
The locally popular country band shows up anywhere from Durango’s Wild Horse Saloon to the Sky Ute (they’ve opened for Dwight Yoakam and Uncle Kracker) to festivals as far-flung as Grand Junction’s Country Jam, Montana’s Headwaters Country Jam and Spain’s Santa Susanna, held up the coast from Barcelona.
It wouldn’t be right to dub the High Rollers’ music “country” and leave it there. The influences are all over the board. At this party, they’ll transition straight from Janowski’s country anthem “Colorado Girl” to the Spanish-influenced “La Bamba” to the classic rocker “Rocky Mountain Way.” They also play “Stayin’ Alive,” a disco classic.
“I’m gonna quit in a minute,” says Red Corbin, the band’s true roadie, who started helping one night and was ultimately “hired.” It’s a running joke; Corbin quits at least once a gig, then they have a good laugh.
When Corbin and the band members have everything in place on stage, it’s 4:08 and time for the soundcheck. Scott Smith, who recorded and mixed the band’s third and latest CD at his Scooter’s Place studio in Durango, mans the baffling panel of switches and dials and knobs known as the soundboard. It’s “a giant volume knob that you route things to,” he says. He travels with the band when possible.
After soundcheck comes a long break. They wait for the partygoers to arrive, get settled at the dozens of tables set up around the huge room, load roast beef and shrimp on their plates and talk about the company’s successes.
Finally, at 7:02 p.m., the band kicks off with Pure Prairie League’s “Amie.”
That’s Jeff Johnson playing the sweet fiddle lead. Johnson, who triples on fiddle, acoustic guitar and banjo, grew up with performing parents – a singing mother and a drumming dad. He once pursued music as a career, but these days is director of operations for Rail Events, a sister business to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The morning after this show, Johnson will fly to London to make sure a couple of English rail lines are running their Polar Expresses up to snuff.
Janowsky, a native of western Kansas, is a fascinating mix all by himself. He’s a former Durango city policeman who loves mountain biking – he helped form the force’s original mountain bike patrol – and now works as a private investigator.
“Good music is good music no matter what genre it comes from,” says Janowsky, who once studied songwriting and spent time in Nashville. “We slowly built our songlist to where anybody would like it.”
For Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Ryan McCurry nails the trumpet part on his keyboards. With his long beard and sunglasses, this jazz aficionado, whose early background was in musical theater, easily looks the part of country musician.
McCurry teaches at the Stillwater Foundation and Katzin Music and is in a couple of groups that aren’t country, including the Jelly Belly Boogie Band. “There’s not much crossover,” he says.
Lead guitarist Garrett Valencia begins “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” and plays a soulful break on the classic Dylan song. Valencia works for the La Plata County sheriff as a captain in the special services division. He was born and raised in Ignacio, and developed a love for Spanish music. And rock. You might hear Eddie Van Halen in his style a little more than Brad Paisley.
“My guitar sounds not country by any means,” says Valencia. “(But) country’s where it’s at in this business.”
Drummer Steve Dejka, the band’s newest member – not counting his stint in 2008-09 – takes the last beats of “Knocking” and skillfully turns it into “Pretty Woman.”
Stillwater’s music director was a “metal head” during his youth, and his tastes run from Boston to Gordon Lightfoot to Loreena McKennitt. A veteran touring musician, Dejka knows that Friday’s post-work crowd won’t be quite as wild as Saturday’s audience, which has all day to rest up for getting rowdy.
The latest of High Rollers’ three CDs is “Kick It Boy,” released in 2014. You won’t find it in the Billboard 100, but you will find it (this is going to sound like a plug, my apologies) at Southwest Sound and at CDbaby.com (an outlet for independent musicians). And you’ll hear it on local country stations.
Their biggest hit is “Colorado Girl,” which, after its 2012 release, exploded in popularity from Farmington to Grand Junction.
Don Kirk, program director at Farmington-based KISZ-FM, says “Colorado Girl” is “by far and away the most requested song during my (nine-year) tenure here.”
Kirk emceed the Yoakam show in Ignacio in 2012, and was concerned that The High Rollers had the crowd so jacked up that it wouldn’t have anything left for Yoakam.
Simone Crouchelli took over as morning DJ at Durango’s KRSJ-FM in early 2011, and says “Colorado Girl” is the most popular song she’s had.
“All of a sudden, people were calling in at all different times of the day saying, ‘Hey, I want to hear Colorado Girl,’” she says. “It’s just such a fun hook.”
Making it big, to the point where you quit your job and hit the road full-time, is a musician’s dream. But Janowski has mixed feelings.
“Durango’s such a terrific place to live. You’d have to give up on some of that,” he says.
This year’s schedule isn’t fully set, but a trip to a festival in Bordeaux, France, the Country Jam in Grand Junction and Santa Susanna are on the slate. It’s exciting and scary that the band is a break away from even bigger things.
“I don’t know where this is going,” Janowsky says, “but we’ll enjoy the ride.”