String Cheese Incident member Kyle Hollingsworth looks out the window at leaves blowing in the wind, reflecting on how the band’s Colorado roots led to the production of their unique music. “To me, it’s as if Colorado talks to our souls, “starts slowly,” and then kinda goes out through our fingers and through our creativity. Being here…Oh my God! Constant sunshine and beautiful days over a mile high. It drew us to the country in the first place, and it inspires us to be musicians and be creative.”
Hollingsworth has been playing the keys of the six-piece band – with Bill Nearchi (guitar), Michael Kang (mandolin/violin), Keith Mosley (bass), Jason Hahn (percussion) and Michael Travis (drums) – since their debut 28 years ago, And it’s gearing up for what might be SCI’s biggest party yet: the Rocks n Roses event, a three-night show at Red Rocks, July 15-17. The band will play groups with fellow Colorado Music Hall of Fame Yonder Mountain String Band (Friday) and Leftover Salmon (Saturday). The race culminates with a performance by gritful bassist Dead Phil Leech on Sunday, dubbed The Phil Leech Incident. Knowing the cheese, there is bound to be a moment when the members of all the bands gather on stage.
“Rocks n Roses is totally up to Phil. Every band we play with, we honor every day,” says Hollingsworth. “Rocks n Roses will include special songs and collaborations throughout the weekend.”
And it’s a whole moment, he adds, as the cheese rose in popularity around the same time as the Colorado staples Leftover and Yonder. “In the early days, we used to make festival packages where we would drive around the country together,” he recalls.
Hollingsworth credits Yonder, whom Cheese has toured over the years, for helping to craft some key aspects of his style. “It’s always exciting to watch them play,” he says. “For me, it was like, ‘How do I interpret bluegrass on the piano?’ Mark Fan and I, a banjo player who sadly passed away, at one point sat on tour and discussed what I could do on the piano to replicate the banjo. Certainly in those early days, We were learning and growing together.”
While the presence of families and conflicting flight schedules put an end to those old-school impromptu sessions, the friendship is still there, making it all the more exciting for the musicians to get together again. And they’ll rally at the most iconic venue in their state: Hollingsworth estimates that Sunday will mark SCI’s 48th Red Rock Show.
“We are in a daze every time we play there,” he says. “We have great respect for this place and its history.”
And the fact that three of the bands are inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame? “It’s amazing amazing!” Hollingsworth cried. “I’m so excited about having this program, and now the fact that we’re recruits—the cherry on top. It’s huge.”
The Phil Leech incident is another cherry. This isn’t the band’s first time playing with the famous musician, but like playing the Red Rocks, it never gets old. Hollingsworth has known Lech for a long time, “I’m really excited to be back with the family again, to get that vibe back,” he says.
Leech recalls: “In the summer of 1999, I connected to the String Cheese Incident at some magic show at Red Rocks as part of the Summer Tournament, and it was a blast! They’ve become very dear friends of mine, and I’m happy to make more music with them on the rocks. We’ll celebrate. As if it was 1999!”
Hollingsworth and his colleagues have always been at the heart of the dead. “The Grateful Dead and their jams, how they improvise on stage, quiet spaces as well as rocking spaces—we were looking at them as a template to become musically intuitive with each other,” says Hollingsworth.
Cheese also reflected the school bus tours of the Dead that had characterized her decades-long career, when the Deadheads followed a masters-bred religion across the country to attend every show. SCI was making hoops in the back of the bus and giving them away to fans, a tradition that started at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
“We got on a school bus, and we drove across the country,” Hollingsworth recalls. “When we ended up on the West Coast, that scene started calling us in the late ’90s. We were hanging out with John Barlow, who wrote the lyrics for Bob Ware; Robert Hunter, who wrote the lyrics for Jerry [Garcia]. We adopted this Merry Pranksters scene. For me, playing with Phil in 1999 was just the next step for us.”
“Listen more, play less,” recalls Leech passing on the wise advice. And Hollingsworth wants his SCI to mimic the way members of the Grateful Dead were able to “read each other’s thoughts,” he says. “It definitely happens with String Cheese. I don’t think it’s as deep as Dead went, but we’re striving to make it happen.”
While SCI celebrates the past, it also has some new projects in the pipeline. “We’ve got a lot of new songs, some playing, some on the shelf, ready to dust off,” Hollingsworth hints. “And we plan to start recording a full album in the fall…Most likely, the album will be released in 2023.”
In the meantime, Hollingsworth offers some advice for those who come to Red Rocks racing. “Just like the weather in Colorado, our music can run a dime,” he says. “Get ready to dance the night away; bring your best dancing shoes. And hula hoops!” After all, this is the only concert where the venue will allow you to attend.
“Colorado are the best fans, and they really are,” Hollingsworth concludes. “It’s not just the jam scene. We live in a country with great musical taste.”
Rock n Roses: The String Cheese with Leftover Salmon Incident, 7 p.m. Friday, July 15; With Yonder Mountain String, 7 p.m. Saturday, July 16; With the Phil Leech incident, at 6 p.m. on Sunday, July 17; Red Rocks Amphitheater, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison. Tickets range from $50 to $225.