“You better read the fine print/you better learn when to take a hint,” orders MJ Ouimette over the transcendent texture of mountainous mandolin, bass and acoustic guitar.
Those opening lyrics, along with the high altitude and thin-aired timbre, serve as a skillfully sculpted statement that nothing can stand in Tenth Mountain Division’s path towards musical excellence. Their opening track, “Morning Drive,” and debut album, Cracks in the Sky, serve as proof.
On an unusually warm February day, I sat down with Tenth Mountain Division’s mustached drummer, Tyler Gwynn. A Cape Cod native, Gwynn joined the band during his sophomore year at the University of Colorado. The five-man ensemble, founded by Ouimette and Winston Heuga, with the later additions of Gwynn, Connor Dunn and Campbell Thomas, combines elements of bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll and jazz in what the group has coined as “ski rock.”
In an interview with 303 Magazine, Heuga explained how the band’s unique sound is rooted in each member’s respective musical background, including “punk, funk, jam, bluegrass and more.” This sort of repertoire “has made endless possibilities for Tenth Mountain Division’s sound.”
Gwynn shared Heuga’s sentiment in our conversation. He detailed the process of creating Cracks in the Sky.
“Our goal was to make an album that best represented a lot of our backgrounds,” Gwynn said. “Many of the tracks were written as acoustic songs and transformed into a full-band sound.”
Gwynn said the songs changed throughout the process of recording, with “more layering” and the opportunity to think “more about structure.” However, he also noted that the group never lost sight of their roots. Widespread Panic, the Grateful Dead and Leftover Salmon inspired the members of the band in the writing of the album. Cracks in the Sky introduces this rebranded blend of jam-grass to the masses by harnessing the essence of their influences.
This ruminating respect for music of the past, and deep dedication towards the creative crafting of a new sound, sets Tenth Mountain Division apart in the Colorado music scene. Ski rock remains original to its Rocky Mountain core. Tenth Mountain Division speaks the language of Colorado, the language of the mountains.
“Drunk Man’s Blues” is one of the album’s defining tracks. Backed by a bluesy back-room piano riff, the vocals enter to explain the events of a booze-fueled evening. It seems that as the song’s protagonist loses his inhibitions, so does the band. It starts slowly, with only piano, vocals and bass. But as soon as the chorus hits and the “drunk man” approaches the woman on the other side of the bar, the band explodes in a fit of fusion, with mandolin and unison guitar strumming in front of Gwynn’s rock beat. The story continues and the energy doesn’t dissipate. This sees the band dive into a string of solos. Suddenly, the song ends, just as many blurry evenings do.
Tenth Mountain Division’s pronounced prosody doesn’t end with “Drunk Man’s Blues.” Their prayer for snow, “Eskimo,” combines vivid, lyrical storytelling with groovy background melodies, including a funk groove reminiscent of the legendary bass line in the Grateful Dead’s masterpiece “Shakedown Street.” While any comparison to the Dead must come with careful humility, Tenth Mountain Division takes its listeners on a hunt for winter, similar to the Dead’s quest to revive the “heart of town.”
Beyond Dead comparisons, “Eskimo” could serve as an anthem for any powder-hungry skier in Colorado. When Colorado gets warm, they dream of throwing their skis in the back of a truck and hauling it to the mountains. They daydream of snow, of riding thick waves of powder through trees and down steep glades. “Eskimo” captures this breed of daydreaming and the insatiable hunger for snow. “Let me tell you something that you didn’t know/a man can go crazy in a search of snow,” chants the entire ensemble towards the end of the track. They chant it a second time, but the word “snow” disintegrates into a fit of howling, embracing the very craziness they describe.
For those of us who call Colorado and its slopes our home, this feeling of begging for winter weather can occur regularly. Tenth Mountain Division taps into that mentality in a way only they can, by speaking the language of the mountains. “Release my body and my soul,” they chant, hoping for winter to carry them away.
“The process of recording this album was definitely a bit experimental, or educational,” Gwynn said. “I’d say we learned a lot through the process about the songs and what we really wanted out of them.”
The drummer understands that the album isn’t perfect.
“It’s definitely a good beginning, but it leaves a lot of room to grow and change,” Gwynn said in reference to Cracks in the Sky. With so much learning, the only direction Tenth Mountain Division can go is up, towards the mountains they worship.
Almost a year after the release of Cracks in the Sky, the local music community here in Boulder is certainly looking forward to Tenth Mountain Division’s forthcoming sophomore album and summer tour. Only time will tell how these mountainous musicians will do with ski rock and how they will translate the language of the mountains. In the meantime, locals can experience ski rock first hand at Tenth Mountain Division’s April 27 show at The Fox Theatre.
Noah Stein is a student in a Writing on Music writing class and originally wrote this story for that class. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.