When Andy Carlson moved here from Chicago in the mid-2000s he chose North Denver specifically as his neighborhood after years of visiting friends here, many of whom were also musicians.
Carlson had cultivated his music interests back in Chicago, participating at the Old Town School of Folk, similar to Denver’s Swallow Hill. There he learned the history of the jug band and roots songwriting style, valuing story and elements of social commentary while fueling his ongoing songwriting skills.
These North Denver friends gathered for regular Wednesday jam nights, taking turns at each other’s homes and eventually forming The Highland Ramblers. “We entertained many names for the band but ‘ramblin’ in the Highlands’ stuck!” says Carlson. The group has shuffled members just a bit, but there is a great likelihood that you might have had a Rambler as your neighbor at one time or another. They have been playing together and living in or near the Highlands now for about 14 years. During that time their lives have given way to married life and children, recently signaling the term “Dad-Grass.”
If you haven’t been to a Highland Ramblers show you’d be hard pressed not to let yourself get up and dance, or at the very least, tap your toe. Their enthusiastic style is infectious and happy, blending the genres of blues and folk integrated with fundamental bluegrass. When I first saw them they utilized several authentic handmade jug band instruments, including the jug, the washboard and the washtub bass. The presence of dobro, banjo and harp with great harmonies make this a uniquely Colorado band. Their original songs blend humor with the occasional serious subject. The song Lyons, for example, seems to be empathizing with the great losses incurred by the terrible floods during the fall of 2013. Other songs reflect life in the Highlands, becoming parents and the effects of gentrification.
They are a humble, intentional group of guys who don’t like to take things too seriously. “Sustainability has been one of our goals as a group. Our personal lives come first and if a gig does not receive a unanimous ‘Hell yes!’ then we don’t do it,” reflects Carlson when asked about their longevity. Sustainability includes the fact that they are all good friends and are connected to this area. The Ramblers often play fundraisers, such as Brown Gets Down for Brown Elementary, where they connect with other local musicians. “We hope to keep alive the mindful community that attracted us to this neighborhood in the first place, despite all of the changes,” adds Carlson.
The Ramblers keep things fresh by constantly creating new material, recording and playing at new spots. Keeping things light is a priority. A philosophy of “strong and wrong” holds things together–embracing imperfections as part of the creative process and keeping stresses low.
They all enjoy playing outdoor venues such as Music in the Park in Jefferson Park. The Ramblers played a free show during the pandemic at the neighborhood Art Walk North Denver event in 2020, drawing an appreciative, live music-starved crowd. Favorite neighborhood venues include Local 46 and The Grateful Gnome. Some of their original gigs happened late night at Highland Pacific, now closed, where they were known for passing around the mic and providing the audience with instruments. They remember great times at the Tennyson Tap, which closed during the early pandemic.
Carlson expressed great appreciation for the bands’ opportunities over the last decade and a half and wants to spread the love by helping promote the rest of the talent in the neighborhood. They enjoy shows shared with local musicians Old Fuss & Feathers, a bluegrass-inspired duo, and Odessa Rose, a swing-jazz group with a western bent.
While COVID can limit their live performances, The Highland Ramblers continue to work on their craft and write new material. Carlson is also enjoying fostering his almost 12 year-old daughter’s interest in playing the ukulele and the guitar. We might have a Highland Ramblers
Check out the Ramblers at a North Denver venue or online at highlandramblers.com.