The String Cheese Incident: Inside and Out (Relix Revisited)
The early history of String Cheese reads like a typical ski bum’s tale—doing whatever it takes, from restaurant work to carpentry to get time on the mountain. The band’s original four members seem drawn together by fate, as well as quality open-air recreation. Guitarist Billy Nershi spent 14 years honing his guitar skills in the bars of Telluride, Colorado before heading to Crested Butte for a change of scenery. In 1993, he fortuitously parked his blue school bus in front of the home of drummer Michael Travis. Bassist Keith Moseley, who at that time played bluegrass guitar with the Whiskey Crate Warriors, lived nearby, while fiddle and electric mandolin player Michael Kang—according to Moseley—“spent most of his time couch surfing around town.” Everyone interacted and played together to some degree and picked up odd gigs where they could be found. Moseley rode with his acoustic guitar on the Ski Town bus, entertaining skiers on their way back to town from the mountain. Kang and Nershi performed slope-side for skiers stranded in long lift lines.
“The catch was we were supposed to play on warm sunny days,” laughs Kang at his earliest gig, “which everybody who lives in Crested Butte knows, is only a couple times a winter. It was kind of a running joke that we were basically a couple of scammers. But we did our part and entertained people.”
Nershi and Kang soon landed an après ski gig at Casey’s Restaurant & Bar for $35 a night. Moseley joined them after he was convinced to switch to bass, even though the bar was unwilling to pay for another musician. “They got paid, and eventually I managed to get a free meal,” Moseley recalls laughing, “but many a musician has played for free food and been happy to get it.”
The Blue String Experience, as they were first called, finally came together as a whole in 1993 for “Local’s Night” at the Crested Butte Center for the Arts. “We heard Travis (who at that time didn’t have a drum kit, but played congas) was back in town,” recalls Nershi. “I had never met him, but the others had played with him. We went over to Travis’ house and practiced for about an hour. Then we went up and played four songs.”
“The response was really… almost overwhelming,” Moseley reminisces. “The crowd loved it. We had so much fun we decided to make the four-piece a reality. We learned more tunes and booked more gigs in Telluride and Crested Butte and started traveling a bit playing more ski towns. That was it; that was the beginning.”
The concept of an incident
The Blue String Experience soon segued into the Blue String Quartet, then the Cheesy Blue String Quartet. (“We were kind of cheesy, so we tossed that on there,” says Moseley.) Eventually, the current moniker stuck and the band began plotting a touring course where the best skiing and mountain biking could be found. The music was initially more of a convenient excuse to go somewhere interesting—and get paid for it—but it built into something more. Their first big break was landing the opening slot at the 1994 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, situated in the town park and surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks.
“I remember playing the set and being overwhelmed looking at the mountains, the huge crowd and thinking ‘we pulled it off,’” Moseley recalls grinning. “There were probably 4,000 people there when we went on stage. We all had the same realization: ‘If we really gave this our all, we might be able to make a career of this.’ That was the moment when I knew we could do it. There were a lot of dark moments between then and now when I wasn’t so sure, but we persevered.”
Nershi recalls the band being “pretty green back then,” with Travis on his first drum kit and Moseley still learning the bass. Anyone listening to early Dead tapes will hear a striking similarity—a raw sound but also incredible potential. The touring experience and crowd reaction proved the band had chemistry; all they needed to do was hone their skills. “I think we have had that sense from the beginning and it was good for us,” explains Moseley of the band’s early lack of musicianship. “It kept us on our toes. Everybody worked hard at their instruments and songwriting. We still push each other. What keeps the band alive is continuously striving to improve.”
Their work ethic also includes long practice sessions almost daily while on the road. “We certainly push ourselves individually, and in the group situation too, pulling off wacky, big epic songs,” says keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth who joined the band in 1996. “It is fun and it doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect. It’s more like ‘Let’s do something new and exciting.’ We have different nights. There are five guys so we go through a band member each night. On my night, I try to think of a cool jam to throw in a song or maybe we all bark like animals from a zoo or something.”
Fast forward a few years, several hundred gigs, five albums and numerous experimental jams later and the String Cheese Incident have mastered their instruments, but see no need to slow down anytime soon. If there is still any weak spot, it is in their vocals, which don’t always match up to the high-quality playing. Nershi has taken some private vocal lessons, while the band has occasionally invited a vocal instructor to rehearsal sessions, though this instruction is somewhat sporadic. Their last “lesson” was more than a year ago. Fans, however, seem unperturbed and continue to show up in increasing numbers. This has caused a rather fast jump into ever-larger venues. String Cheese has pushed themselves harder to fill the bigger spaces with high-energy vibrations. The question is, can they cope with the added pressures that come with playing before 30,000 people, rather than 3,000?
“We just need to put our egos aside and connect as five people who play music with our heart and soul,” Moseley explains. “It is hard not to feel some of the expectations of the larger crowds and to step up our game. It is something I think we will always wrestle with.”
And not everyone loves the Cheese. Like all bands, there is an outer limit to their fan base, and some people actually hate them, although “hate” seems unlikely for such a likeable bunch of guys. Their “problem” may revolve around the music, which for some lacks sophistication and any hint of an urban edge. Or it may revolve around the image of so-called “hippie jambands,” Phish and the Dead, included. The tie-dye wearing (or not) twirling masses grooving to every note of seemingly endless songs, leave some concertgoers cold, unable find the value in what is happening around them. The music doesn’t beckon to them, and neither does the crowd. Others find a freedom of expression that is not available at regular concerts—or in life in general for that matter.
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