The quaint, historic town of Crested Butte is tucked away in a remote valley high in the Rocky Mountains and is mostly known as "the last great Colorado ski town." But to String Cheese Incident fans, the Butte is the place where their favorite band got its start playing sets of old bluegrass and acoustic standards in exchange for lift tickets.
Today, String Cheese Incident is a mainstay on the jam circuit because, according to guitarist/de facto leader Billy Nershi, "We aren't scared to take chances and we don't always know what's going to happen. I think that's exciting for listeners as well as for those of us on stage playing."
SCI evolved from those early gigs as Nershi, mandolinist/fiddler Michael Kang, bassist Keith Moseley and drummer/percussionist Michael Travis began pushing the limits of traditional bluegrass and incorporating a variety of other styles, from calypso, salsa and Afro-pop to good old-fashioned jazz, funk and rock. Soon enough, the band was invited to perform its original brew of tunes at any number of clubs, bars and private parties. Sizzling onstage chemistry and encouraging feedback from fans ultimately led to a group consensus: The time had come to play seriously.
After relocating to Boulder in the mid-'90s and booking shows on a more regular basis, SCI was invited to play at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Shortly after that, the labels came a-courtin'.
"We decided that before jumping at any offers, we'd ask around and get an idea of other musicians' experiences with their labels," said Nershi in a recent phone interview. "What we heard was primarily negative."
To maintain the integrity of its music and everything involved in making it, SCI formed its own independent label, Sci Fidelity Records, and released its first album, 1996's Born on the Wrong Planet, described in the liner notes as "a special blend of Funkalatino-afrojazzadelic bluegrass." Pianist and occasional accordion player Kyle Hollingsworth joined the lineup in 1997, and a live release on Sci Fidelity soon followed, showcasing a band that was beginning to stretch its musical legs while further refining a genre-bending style that allowed plenty of room for live expansion and improvisation.
The band has continued to release albums independently throughout its career, and 10 years later, Sci Fidelity represents more than a dozen well-known artists of the jam scene, including Umphrey's McGee, Keller Williams, The Radiators and The Disco Biscuits. According to Nershi, "We're always keeping our ears open" for new talent.
Spearheading its own label contributed to the band's success, but like its Phish and Grateful Dead predecessors, a rigorous touring schedule — 200-plus shows a year — and a commitment to making each show a unique and electrifying "incident" are what earned SCI a dedicated fan base of self-proclaimed Cheeseheads.
"For many, many years, we were playing and making no money, so there was a feeling that we had to put everything we had on the table every night in order to succeed," Nershi said. This no-holds-barred attitude paired with unrestrained creativity, good business decisions, great sound and a dazzling light show also led to the band's rise. It didn't hurt that SCI was always attempting to evolve, to change it up.
"The reason that we're such an eclectic band is that each person in the band has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder," joked Nershi, but adding in all seriousness, "A lot of it has to do with the people in the band coming from different musical backgrounds ... and when we hear things that catch us, we always feel like we can bring it into the practice room. It's fun to try to take some of the elements from different styles of music and incorporate it into our own music." Over the years, this has included electronica, ska, jazz-rap and even prog-rock.
From 1998 through 2001, SCI played hundreds upon hundreds of incidents from coast to coast, and as the crowds and venues grew, so did the feeling of community spirit shared by the laid-back, like-minded, and in some cases, hula-hooping fans. The band, in fact, spawned a sort of hooping craze.
"We used to bring them with us," Nershi explained. "Tie them onto the back of the bus, pass them out at shows, try to collect as many as were left at the end of the show, bring them to the next stop." Hooping caught on because the giddy joy that comes with the hip-shaking activity is, for some fans, a perfect way to express the euphoric mood that SCI's music produces.
The band continues to collect new fans while maintaining the loyalty of old hands by offering reasonably priced soundboard recordings of a huge catalog of live shows, an exclusive travel agency for those who follow SCI from city to city and a ticketing service that doesn't charge outrageous service charges. Recent years have seen the addition of percussionist Jason Hann and a less demanding touring schedule.
This summer, SCI headlined the 10,000 Lakes Music Festival with former head Phisherman Trey Anastasio and Phil Lesh & Friends, played the main stage at its second Fuji Rock Festival in Japan and co-headlined several dates with Bob Weir's Rat Dog. "We had a great time playing with Rat Dog," says Nershi. "But when you go out with another band, you only get about an hour or so on stage. We're excited about getting back to two sets."
The last leg of String Cheese Incident's fall tour hits Florida next Thursday.