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Rolling with Red Dirt Hill

Cynthia McCoy
This Side of Berthoud
Red Dirt Hill covers rock, bluegrass, jazz, Motown, and country, and plays everything from originals to Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beatles. Pictured (L to R) are Michael Turner on guitar, Tim Miller on upright bass, Miller's son Aaron as sit-in percussion, and Sarah Clements on fiddle.
Cynthia McCoy / Special to the Sky-Hi News |

Between work and family, it’s a surprise Mike Turner has time for much else. Yet I was blessed with a Sunday-morning visit over coffee to ask him about “newest project,” Red Dirt Hill.

How does one add in a new venture — a band nonetheless — with a wife, high-school kid, television station, and wedding/sound business? “Life is short,” he said. “Make the most of it.”

“Music is something you can enjoy throughout life,” his mom always said. “You (always) get something out of it.” She had given Turner his first guitar at age 10, and he had picked it up and put it down, back and forth, for decades.

He’s seen some pretty big changes in the music scene since the “wild” days of bras hanging from rafters at Evergreen’s Little Bear, playing bass with “Ronnie Boy” Fruge and the Boudin Kings at Mardi Gras; and providing sound heydays at The Slope in Winter Park.

“We just want to play as much as possible. … As long as you have fun, and have it in your heart because you love it, and just want to share it.” Mike Turner Red Dirt Hill

With 30 years of music under his belt, Turner is now getting his hands dirty with “a group of working stiffs.” He plays lead guitar and harmonica, and is an animated front man for the band (lead vocals). Other central performers are Tim Miller (upright bass, vocals) and Sarah Clements (fiddle, mandolin, vocals).

Like the clay from its namesake, the band has been a malleable form. It shapes into various venues and genres, with “pockets of people” playing around town. Pick-up percussion includes Miller’s son Aaron, Matt Raynek, Vinnie Troccoli, and Rusty Thompson. “Banjo Dave” Sauerman from Alaska also joins in. “We are always looking for other players to keep it interesting,” Turner says.

Turner was exposed to bluegrass in the early ‘90s, when he met Clements, and the two backed up county bands. He met Miller through a mutual drummer friend. Miller, who also plays mandolin and guitar, and with at least two other bands in the county (BlueCat and Bad Water), is the IT director at Granby Ranch. He and his wife have two children. After “life-changing” events, Turner reached out to Miller and Clements about forming a Western swing band. They got together, “and it morphed into Red Dirt Hill.” The name? Turner lives on Red Dirt Hill, where they usually practice. They play everything from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Pink Floyd, the Cars and Beatles, and cover rock, bluegrass, jazz, Motown, and country. “I had always been a back line player because of lack of time, so fronting a project is new to me,” Turner said. “I just want to play and have fun.” He said a band is like a relationship; they come and they go. “Why not surround yourself with people you want to hang out with?”

“It’s fun,” Clements said. “I like Red Dirt Hill because we put our own spin on an array of … original, traditional rock and blues — rock and roll, bluegrass, and jazzy tunes.” Clements is a lift operator at Winter Park Resort, she teaches violin, mandolin, and piano lessons; and she plays with local Irish band Claddagh.

“Funny thing is: we have rehearsed as much as we have played out,” Turner said, adding that the band continues to “tighten up”. During practice, “Sarah said ‘I don’t want to sit around and play. Let’s go get some gigs’.”

They only had one rehearsal before the band’s first official performance. Members of the Grand County Historical Association had heard them play and asked if the band would play at an upcoming charity event. Since, they’ve been coasting on their laid-back approach success. They don’t make it about the business; they perform because they love to. “These days you play for a little food, cash and a couple of tips,” he said. “If you can touch one or two (people), then you’ve done good.”

“We’re working stiffs trying to pay the mortgage,” Turner said. “We just want to play as much as possible. … As long as you have fun, and have it in your heart because you love it, and just want to share it. … “You can sit around playing on couches and develop all these great sounds, but if you don’t get out and get people into it,” he said, then what’s the point?

Turner, whose influences include Black Sabbath, Little Feat, Led Zepplin and Santana; is working on several original pieces. He has “tons,” with “folky tones” and jazz intertwined. “It comes in waves of life,” he said about songwriting. About six “solid” works are ready to one day grace a solo album.

Audiences can now see Red Dirt Hill at more than a handful of live performances throughout the county. The band plays at the Crooked Creek Saloon (this week — February 19, 8 p.m.) in Fraser, and there again, if you missed ‘em, after Rock the Ranch at Granby Ranch March 12.


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