It’s comical, the notion that a group of people, regardless of prior experience, could start a band at their whim. Surely much crappy music has sprung from the statement, “Let’s start a band”—or a less colorful variation thereof. But plenty of good stuff has come up similarly, as with local bluegrass up-and-comers Gift Horse.
Gift Horse’s story begins nine years ago. Orem businessman Russ Evans is sitting in his office at his Evans Frontiers Store, listening to a taped edition of KRCL’s Bluegrass Express. A customer, Blaine Nelson, strikes up a conversation …
Remembers Evans, “He asked me if I was into bluegrass and I told him I liked it and didn’t know a lot about it. He said he was a banjo player and would stop by some day and play for me.” A week later, Nelson showed up as promised, hand-built Coulson (that’s Leonard Coulson, of Salt Lake City’s Intermountain Guitar & Banjo) banjo in hand and commenced a-pickin’.
“It dawned on me that I had never seen a banjo in person until he opened his case,” says Evans. “It was beautiful! It was powerful. Blaine could play like nothing I’d ever heard.”
The two became fast friends, attended bluegrass festivals with their families. A few months after their initial meeting, Nelson suggested to Evans that they should stage their own festival on Evans’ 200-acre ranch in Fountain Green. Their two-day Birch Creek Bluegrass Festival debuted in 1999 to a crowd of 5,000 [not counting a cyber-crowd of 35,000] and featured local and national bands (including KRCL fave Kathy Kallick), music workshops, artisans, kids’ programs and overnight camping. “We were the first bluegrass festival in the world to offer live audio/video over the Internet. The server was overwhelmed and we got e-mails from many different countries. One that stands out was from Japan. It simply stated, ‘I lika you bluegrass.’”
Evans lika the bluegrass, too. Within a year, he’d sold his stores, bought a mandolin and, at 44 years old, began a second life, working to become a musician. He studied a year with Laura Dupey at Acoustic Music, then called Nelson to see if he’d be interested in woodsheddin’. Evans recalls the more experienced musician “exercised lots of patience with me and gave lots of encouragement.” Two years later, Evans’ wife Sharron “joined the noise,” playing a 1939 Kay upright bass. The baby trio began writing tunes “just for fun,” and played a few small gigs “here and there,” while developing their own sound and style, which Evans likens to the gather-’round-the-microphone style of fictional O Brother, Where Art Thou? band the Soggy Bottom Boys.
At the time, says Evans, Gift Horse weren’t serious. Everyone had “real jobs” and were just making music for a good time. Nevertheless, tracks from the band’s self-released Sanpitch Serenade received airplay and applause from Bluegrass Express host “The Old Man” (a.k.a. Tony Polychronis). Polychronis invited the band to play a 30-minute set on his show, which gained the band fans and a couple of new members: multi-instrumentalist and 2001 Mandolin & Fiddle Champion Bill Sprunger and fiddler Drew Williams of Long Gone. At that point, Gift Horse got serious.
“We had to change our set list for that show because we were getting requests,” Evans marvels. “People out there knew our tunes by name and we started getting gigs from that show. That felt pretty good!”
Gift Horse also continues to tickle ears in new areas. Evans relates an experience when he was in Texas on business earlier this year. “I’d found a bluegrass station on the radio and a tune came on that I was familiar with. It took five or 10 seconds before I realized it was our band. That was totally weird! The host referred to the band as ‘Sanpitch Serenade,’ but what the hell—never look a Gift Horse in the mouth.”