I arrived with two mangoes and departed empty handed, heart full, reeking of campfire at the next morning’s unrelated 8AM professional meeting for my day job. I blame and thank two fifths of Denver’s cosmic country band Bison Bone: Brianna Straut (vocals, harmonica, tambourine) and Courtney Whitehead (vocals, guitar, songwriting). Both are singer-songwriters in their own right, currently on tour performing both as individuals but also as a stripped down Bison Bone duo. Brianna is also a member of Denver’s Americana folk group Tomahawk Fox, where she handles vocals and rhythm guitar.
They stopped off at Patterson Alley in Eugene to play the outdoor backyard alley house venue; the backyard that pulls a lot of shows and knows how to host food and drinks with fancy strung up lights and all. Denver’s own King Cardinal has also played here within the last year.
The Beer Pairing
Naturally, the first thing I wanted to know was: What kind of beer best pairs with your music? Brianna infectiously belly laughs, endearing her to anyone in earshot.
She explains: “That’s really funny. We talked about that on the way up here and about making a little flyer for all the shows, and saying with each song of mine, or his, or us together, which beer goes with it.”
Courtney chimes in that as for the band’s sound overall? “Probably some kind of sour.”
More laughter from Brianna, then from Courtney and myself reflexively as a doctor’s knee-hammer at just the right spot on the patella. That the two are sardonically earnest comes through in interview as much as it does in their lyrical content.
Brianna swiftly recovers, reflecting on her own personal singers-songwriter musician sound: “Probably some kind of pale ale.” She specifies: “an Oskar Blues [pale ale but consumed] at a tasting room in Austin, Texas.” Brianna grew up in east Texas and last lived in Austin before her move to Denver. “So a little bit Texas, a little bit Colorado,” she explains. Courtney hails from Oklahoma.
Silence lingers in the air for a moment. “Yeah, sour.” he chimes. More laughter from all.
The Good, the Bad, & the Ass-Busting
It’s a fine line between surviving and surthriving in this world. Musicians often endure this reality acutely. Bless their darn hearts. Brianna and Courtney opened up about it.
Courtney first: “You know, whether you’re creating new music or rotating band members, people don’t realize [the hard work it takes]. They show up in their town and they’re ready to party.”
Yet Courtney and Brianna’s own appreciation for their encountered gains is as blatant as it is poignant.
“This tour has been really incredible and I think it’s always like such an amazing way to see how people respond to this travelling circus we have… The way that they like welcome you with open arms… the last place we were in we were staying at this girl’s house for two days. She hosted us for a night of music. We have some friends that live there that took us out, they bought us drinks, they spent a lot of money on merch… [and this girl] was just constantly leaving little notes out for us and it was just that kind of stuff is like what really helps move us on to the next place. Not only monetarily but just like…”
Courtney pipes in, “... soulfully.”
I sat there thinking, "They brought music and all I brought were two mangoes. At least I brought mangoes? At least I brought mangoes."
Brianna continues, “It keeps our spirits up because it’s really hard whenever you go back you’ve got, you know, we’ve got our bills to pay, we’ve got everything else… you know we have life and society telling us we are doing something that’s so bizarre. But it’s really nice to see what it ignites in people… it opens our eyes up to really great times of people just being really wonderful in a time that’s really hard to see the good in people.”
Brianna and Courtney take their music and that appreciative attitude on the road. I can only hope they see that they themselves embody showing the good, being the uplifting and relatable in the tough times.
Songs like Courtney’s solo performance of Bison Bone’s "Walls,” which is about coming home for the first time after your dog’s died but is relatable in terms of other loss, may not be happy sunshine feel-good uplifting, but people need the real and relatable so hard sometimes and particularly in hard times all the more. We all need the keep-it-realers and these two are expert at it.
Nine times out of ten, someone will appreciate your saying, “sometimes life gives you lemons and makes you eat them rinds and all” far more than “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” on a bad day. I’m not suggesting negative is good, but that real and raw, empathy and emotional insight matter a hell of a lot; Brianna and Courtney are capable of bringing that and it rings loud and true in what they do together and apart. They touch you right where your wounds are in a way that might hurt, but simultaneously cleanses and heals like castille soap on a newly scraped knuckle.
The Band Description
Bison Bone’s band description is that of “a working class cosmic country band from Denver, CO.” Previously, Daniel Mescher of Colorado Public Radio (CPR) and Tom Murphy of Westword both asked Courtney what puts the “cosmic” in the “cosmic country.” Much of it comes down to the psychedelic influences of the 60s and 70s that blend with the country at the roots. I probed the “working class” element.
Courtney explains, “I would say that mostly when we talk about that [the working class element], obviously any band now can say that with regards to the way they work: loading their own shit, buying their own van, running around doing everything, that kind of do-it-your-own. Even if you are playing a thousand-person venue in any city, you know, you’re still doing a lot of that on your own. Creating your own art, creating your own merch… But when I describe it that way [as a working-class band], I’m mostly talking about it lyrically, and somewhat sonically. We write about the stories we know- where we come from, the people we know, and we come from a working-class background.”
The Road Test
Even when it isn’t raining everything is wet, always, in Oregon Octobers; dampness, cold from the inside to the brim of your bones. It lent itself to habitual bouts of guitar tuning this eve. But tuning guitars in different environments is ultimately the first step to tweaking perspective and being self–reflective for these two.
Brianna reflects, “You can only play so much in your hometown. But when you’re playing a different place each night [on the road], to a different crowd, you really get to test out and see new stuff.”
Courtney adds, “Yeah, I like to use the word road tested or lived in… it is different to drive somewhere, show up, load your stuff up, set up, and then you may play a song that you’ve played thousands of times before but it’s going to feel different in that place if it’s your first time being in that venue or geographical location.”
The road, currently, is a way to help the pair try out new tunes. I naively assumed it was about promoting Bison Bone’s History of Falling album, out this past April. The 10-song, approximately 47-minute album is no longer the primary focus. It was initially recorded around a year ago but now, the band is learning from what it was and moving on towards what they want to be(come).
The Artistic Process
Bison Bone’s History of Falling was by and large a live, in-studio recording. Research tells me this is partly a function of preference, partly a function of time and expense. Research, listening, and an interview also tell me the band is highly process and discovery-oriented. They are at once intuitive, attentive, attuned, and insightful.
Courtney resonates, “[A] lot of it, you know, as any artist from any medium- a lot of what you’re doing is taking stuff and throwing it against the wall and seeing if it sticks and adjusting after that, you know.”
As for the storytelling that at least partly drew Courtney to country, it often first comes with a melody. If “it’s a happier melody,” you’re more liable to think of a happy story you know from real life, “but if it’s something sadder, like in a minor key, you’re probably going to write something mad or sad,” Courtney clarifies, the latter being much more of what Bison Bone naturally leans into. But again, Courtney pins down the whole statement by reflecting on the process, and how the melody “kind of does the job itself if you allow it to get out of the way.” It’s a touch and go of inception and discovery.
Note to self: throw the pizza against the wall and see what happens, but don’t stand in the path of the pizza’s trajectory. That’s where art comes from. End essay.
The Relationship Business And Next Big Thing
In an AXS interview “Get to Know a Denver Band” with Alli Andress, Courtney reflected on learning that “it’s not the music business, it’s the relationship business.” That’s a good chunk of what being on the road is about for these two. It’s about the relationship with the people and places they encounter, the relationship to their music, and the relationship between the two and the three back in Colorado.
“Next we’ve got a lot of shows,” Brianna informs, adding, “We’re looking forward to getting a new album out and working on that with the band, coming back with what we’ve learned from tour.” As for the pair, “The biggest impact I’ve seen [on the road] is the way we communicate. Bring tired, being hungry, and working every day, and uncomfortable… that will strengthen us as two friends in our friendship and in our relationship professionally.”
Courtney resonates, “You just learn so much [on the road] and you’re excited to put whatever you learned into practice.” He reflects that since History of Falling, Bison Bone had a great year that followed, playing a lot of great Colorado shows, festivals, and playing in New Mexico.
“Doors were opened and it’s allowed us to keep moving forward... I think that’s what we’re always excited about is when we do something new. When we come back to something a little more normal or routine, we’re going to come back and be way beyond the levels that we were at in most normal situations before. Just more professional, more sonically in tune, just better at all aspects of it; more efficient with all of it and getting a better ear and growing patience and figuring it out. It’s just all problem solving, you know.”
As for what radio stations the band’s encountered on the road and recommends listening to? Podcasts. Particularly, Dan Savage Lovecast, Sword and Scale: A True Crime Podcast, The New Yorker podcast, and KCRW’s Left, Right, & Center podcast.
“Don’t listen to music!” Courtney fervently quipped when asked about radio stations. This time, the laughter was sufficient to garner glances from the gathering crowd at the stage. Really, it was Courtney’s way of saying we all need a break to produce our best when your passion is otherwise your every waking moment. Heed the intelligence.
Thank you Brianna and Courtney for your hard work and stout hearts. Everyone in Colorado check out Brianna at The Jamestown Mercantile this Friday, October 20th at 6PM. She masterfully blends crooning and lullaby, tinged with grace, humor, and aplomb. I can’t say enough about these guys and how much you’ll enjoy them live no matter what mood you are or aren’t in, or your feelings towards and preconceived notions about country generally.
Keep up with Bison Bone here.
All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.