Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams
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Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams

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Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams @ Private Party

Livingston, Montana, USA

Livingston, Montana, USA

Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams @ Murray Bar

Livingston, Montana, USA

Livingston, Montana, USA

Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams @ Fruita Fall Festival

Fruita, Colorado, USA

Fruita, Colorado, USA

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The best kept secret in music


Who? Holden Caufield? No, Halden Wofford ... and the Hi-Beams. They're a different story altogether.

The Hi-Beams play real country music, and they're pretty darn good at it. Now that the flushing sound finally has dissipated from the Red River Saloon, it should be safe to get excited again about country music downtown -- real country, remember.

If you missed Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams when they stomped through here this past March, then it's excusable to be out of the loop on how fun their shows are. If you choose to miss them again, then just affix those blinders to your head permanently; we can no longer help you.

The Hi-Beams' forté falls under "vintage-minded" roots country, broadcast through a classic yodeling tenor in highly danceable form. As opposed to that of many modern commercial country acts, the Hi-Beams' honky-tonk swing sound seeks to capture the essence of the old-time country music that started it all. The band likes to think of its music as an original reflection of the past, rather than a copycat regurgitation of the golden era.

Wofford won the 2003 "Best Traditional Country Vocalist" prize from Denver's Westword, the third consecutive honor for the band in the Front Range bluegrass and country arena. Accompanying Wofford on stage is guitarist Greg Schochet, upright steel guitarist Bret Billings, upright bassist Ben O'Connor and drummer Damon Smith. The western quintet formed in Denver in 1999 and has been romping aggressively across the Rockies and beyond ever since, spreading the true sound.

Halden Wofford doesn't dilly-dally when zeroing in on the Hi-Beams' influences and style. Wofford cites classic heroes like Hank Williams Sr. and Jim Lauderdale as having contributed to the Hi-Beams' sound, as well as some contemporary greats like Gillian Welch.

-- Matthew Schniper - www.csindy.com/csindy/2005-06-23/sevendays3.html

Halden Wofford & the Hi Beams play retro country better than just about anybody in these parts, and their live shows feature covers of old favorites by the likes of Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and George Jones. For this debut studio album, however, the band has wisely chosen to focus on its superb original material. (There's not a cover in sight.) Most of the disc's twelve songs, including such gems as "ABC" and "Little Sue," come from the pen of lead singer Wofford, with guitarist Kevin Yost and steel guitarist Bret Billings also contributing strong numbers. It's infectious stuff, from the bouncy rockabilly of Wofford's "Bye Bye Baby" to the tear-in-your-beer wail of Yost's "Long Gone." The Hi Beams (let's not forget bassist Ben O'Connor and drummer Justin Greville) are a tight and talented bunch, but Wofford's twangy, heartfelt tenor is the star attraction. (Halden Wofford & the Hi Beams perform Friday, May 9, at Avogadro's Number in Fort Collins; see www.hibeams.com.) - Westword Magazine, Denver

Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams
(4.5 flowers [out of a possible five])

Some years ago, I dropped by a workshop being given by Mark O’Connor and someone asked what guitar he’d recommend. His answer was Ovation and when the room gasped in shock and horror, he explained, “If the airline loses it or it gets stolen or broken, you can go to a music store anywhere in America and buy another one just like it. You don’t get attached to them.”

The human equivalent of Ovations, cutting across all musical genres, is Local Heroes. These are the acts that nobody outside city limits, or anyway the county line, has ever heard of, and they never will because you can go to any venue anywhere in America and hear another one just like them. In many ways this is good thing, it would be a pretty sorry town that couldn’t produce and support at least one halfway decent country dance band, bar blues band and singer-songwriter, but there’s no demand for them anywhere outside their home base. Or for their records, which may be competent enough, but, well, you don’t get attached to them. Like Ovations, they’re simply too generic.

Local cover bands may well be the biggest single segment of country music—if you could assemble all the paying and drinking customers spread out in dancehalls, bars, VFWs and so on all over America any given Saturday night, every Nashville star would drool, and if you added up all the miniscule record sales from those places, you’d likely get a very interesting total—but outside local papers, they’re invisible. Nobody cares about them because they operate in an area where originality is not a necessary, or even particularly desirable, attribute. Often fronted by people who took an unsuccessful run at Nashville back when, they may slip an original or two into the set, but that’s not what they’re paid for, and, to be fair, most of them make very nice money cranking out covers.

Then there are bands like Denver’s Halden Wofford & The Hi-Beams which aspire to something more than mediocrity, bands committed to real country—an expression this one uses often—and fueled by a blend of talent, creativity, confidence, ambition and attitude. Initially, they pay a heavy price, as bassist and ramrod Ben O’Connor observes. “We got run out of the country bars a long time ago, seeing as how we play actual country music which is not allowed at country bars in Colorado. We’re too stubborn to play anything modern, most of our guys have already done the bar circuit for years, and Halden wants to play his
songs his way.”

Though welcomed by rockabilly bars, mainly the very cool looking Skylark (see Ben’s pictures at www.denverbarndance.com), where “we’re on a first-name basis with almost everyone who comes in the door,” the band decided it had to try to break out of Denver. “What it came down to is that other than the occasional wedding or opening slot for a national
band, we’d been playing for the same 100 people for three years, and we couldn’t keep the band going unless we could find some way to expand the audience. So I got an unlimited long distance plan and started calling every place I’d ever played or even heard about within 6-8 hours of Denver, mostly looking for municipal concert series shows. We caught a break when we played for a Cheyenne Frontier Days press reception,then they hired us to play on the Denver-Cheyenne train during the rodeo.”

Like many before them, The Hi-Beams discovered that it takes way more than a village to raise a roots act, in fact it takes several countries—no roots musician in his or her right mind will be boycotting France and Germany this or any other summer. The obvious way to reach
new audiences and venues is to make an album, so obvious that everyone and their brother does it, an avalanche of dross from which roots writers, DJs, venues and fans try to snatch nuggets of gold like this.

To be honest, what I liked first about the album was Halden Wofford’s name, which sounds like one of the Guys Of The Big D Jamboree. It’s actually his grandfather’s name, his own is Bret Bertholf, and how’s that for attention to detail? What I liked second was his voice, which sounds like one of the guys of the Big D Jamboree. What I liked third was that he writes great country songs. What I liked fourth was that he not only yodels, he mentions Don Walser in Yodelin’ Rhythm & Blues. O’Connor pretty much wrote the review for me: What I love about The Hi-Beams is that we have a distinctive sound. It’s classic sounding, but it’s not a Xerox copy of 50s country or western swing. I think Halden is a major songwriting talent and a great singer.” Amen to that, I couldn’t put it any better.

Denver Joe Vasquez says The Hi-Beams are “My favorite band in this whole rotten, stinking, dirty town.” With this album, they may well become a lot of people’s favorite band on this whole rotten, stinking, dirty planet.

-John Conquest - Third Coast Music Magazine (San Antonio)

For a relatively brief period in the mid-'90s, Halden Wofford drew the assignment of singing Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson covers with a Denver outfit called the Crosstie Walkers.

"It was pretty horrible," said Wofford of those days. Not that Wofford had anything against country music. But the slicked-up, dumbed-down style that gets played on country radio these days is such a far cry from the country sounds that Wofford favors that it makes him weep tears in his beer.

"It all sounds like Celine Dion to me," he said. "It's sad, actually. There are so many amazingly accomplished, soulful musicians in Nashville - and you never get to hear about them."

Instead, Wofford has had to hear about the new wave of country singers who seem to be as focused on how they look on television as how well they write or sing. He brings up a recent front-page story in The Denver Post about country music's resurgence, and laughs sardonically as he notes that a good portion of the article is devoted to the new wave of country artists who are having their teeth fixed.

"It's disturbing what they're talking about," said Wofford, whose conversation is punctuated by frequent, friendly, high-energy laughter. "How they're television-friendly, how they've had cosmetic surgery on their teeth. I have nothing against 23-year-olds who are beautiful and want to be superstars. But you ask them who Bob Wills was, and they don't know. And it's kind of sad."

Wofford, on the other hand, has Bob Wills practically in his blood. Wofford grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, "home of Ernest Tubb, Roger Miller and Bob Wills," he said. "That's where they got their starts, anyway."

As a kid in Fort Worth, Wofford heard his father sing in the church choir, and had Johnny Cash's gospel-leaning material practically shoved into his ears by his mother. What made an even bigger impression was his grandfather who, according to Wofford, "worked in a slaughterhouse, smoked cigars, played dominoes and listened to Lefty Frizzell - the best country singer ever - and Ernest Tubb." None of it rubbed off on Wofford, however, at least not right away. Wofford listened to AC/DC and Van Halen, like everyone else in suburban central Texas in the late '70s and early '80s. "You couldn't escape it," he explained.

Wofford has played piano and drums from an early age. But by the time he was a young adult, he had moved in a different artistic direction. Wofford studied fine art at the Rhode Island School of Design. He moved to Colorado in 1988 and spent most of a year as an artist-in-residence at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, where he studied painting. But he soured on the visual art world: "It had a lot to do with money, and how galleries worked," he said. So Wofford turned his attention back to music.

This time, country music was speaking to him. "It just had such a resonance - Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Sr. - there was such a punk-rock following of that kind of music," he said. "It was the emotional purity of the music. It's straightforward, no messing around. It was like hearing the Ramones or the Sex Pistols for the first time, but in a more American way.

"I started going to this place, Ralph's Top Shop, a cabinet shop. And one room was devoted to bluegrass, with all these old guys sitting around. We played Ray Price and Buck Owens tunes all night long."

Wofford began playing folky, country music in bars around Denver, and eventually drifted into the nightmare gig with the Crosstie Walkers. After the inevitable demise of that band, Wofford picked up the pieces and created a rootsier, more original band, Halden Wofford & the Hi-Beams. (Until then, Wofford had gone by his given name, Brett, which he still uses offstage. He took the name Halden from his grandfather, in a tribute to his country music roots.) The Hi-Beams started as a drummerless quartet, playing bluegrassy versions of country songs. Three years ago, the band added a drummer and adapted a more traditional country sound. The band has one album, an eponymous CD from 2002, and is at work on a second.

Wofford says the Hi-Beams - who headline Basalt River Days, with a festival-closing set on Sunday, Aug. 15, at 5:30 p.m. in Basalt's Arbaney Park, following last month's main-stage gig at Carbondale Mountain Fair - play a sound that leans far in the direction of Western swing. If you play Western swing, the association with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys is unavoidable. But Wofford says a more apt comparison is to Wills' lesser-known brother, Billy Jack Wills, who played a wilder brand of country that hinted at early rock 'n' roll.

"We love that period when Western swing and honky-tonk were just bordering on rockabilly," said singer and rhythm guitarist Wofford, who has assembled a Hi-Beams lineup - steel guitarist Bret Billings, bassist Ben O'Connor, drummer Damon Smith and lead guitarist Schochet - that has been steady, and increasingly busy, for nearly a year. "Ther - Aspen Times

By Autumn Phillips, Pilot & Today Staff

Friday, January 23, 2004

Modern, top-40 country music is as appealing to me as the social ills it glorifies, which is why I was skeptical when I put "country band" Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams in the CD player.

But what came over the speakers wasn't the whine I expected. It was the sound of early country -- of Hank Williams and Bob Wills -- when singers told stories and their music reflected life outside of the Nashville music machine.

"That's what the whole band is really interested in," lead singer Wofford said. "And in Denver, there's this enthusiasm for that music from these old punk rock guys who got to be 30 years old and realized it was too hard to still be punk rock. Someone like Hank Williams Sr. has a real similar vibe. He's a guy with a guitar and no (bull)."

Though Wofford is playing an afternoon gig at Soda Creek Western Mercantile and playing at the Hilltop Bar and Grill as part of a two-month country music lineup, he and the band don't usually do well in country bars.

"If they are expecting to hear a cover of the latest Garth Brooks tune, we don't do that," Wofford said. "We encountered resistance at the country bars, so we usually play the rockabilly scene."

The band is an advocate of what they call "real country" music, and the band's upright bass player, Ben O'Connor, is the Webmaster of a site www.denverbarndance.com, which promotes Denver's growing number of "real country" bands.

"For us, 'real' is firmly rooted in tradition -- honky-tonk style. Top-40 country music sounds more like Celine Dion," Wofford said. "We like more hard-core traditional sounds."

The Hi-Beams draw inspiration from Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash and Wayne Hancock.

"Hank Williams Sr. was playing to post-war America," Wofford said. "It was an amazingly interesting time. All these people were returning from the second World War. They've been to Europe. For some, their wives had left them. Some of them were kind of messed up or had the wanderlust. There was real unrest.

"That's when the honky tonks really flourished and there was this weird existential crisis in music. That's where those sounds come from -- lonesome-sounding cheating and drinking songs."

When they aren't touring, the Hi-Beams play regular gigs at a rockabilly hangout on Broadway in Denver called the Skylark Lounge.

They started playing outside of Denver last summer and this will be their first time in Steamboat Springs. - Steamboat Pilot and Today

Originally published by Westword 2006-08-17
©2005 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

Halden Wofford & the Hi-Beams
Midnight Rodeo (Self-released)
By Michael Roberts

The Hi-Beams' take on twang is decidedly retro. Halden Wofford has that high-and-lonesome vocal sound down cold, and instrumentalists such as dobroist/pedal-steel expert Bret Billings and upright-bassist Ben O'Connor swing in ways that modern Nashvillians eschewed long ago. Fortunately, though, the combo's latest disc is anything but musty. Country music doesn't get much livelier.

Some of the tunes here tilt toward novelty, including "Betty Boop," which also name-checks Shirley Temple. But the willfully silly "Cajun Fair," about a woman in a "neon sweater" and "alligator underwear," rollicks right over gripes about superficiality, as do aural gags à la "Hippie in My House." Even better are comparatively substantive tunes like "Blues Fallin' Down," replete with several thoroughly charming guitar breaks, and "Don't Care If I Do," a cheerful lament featuring such bons mots as "Your name fits 'round my neck just like a noose."

Yes, Midnight Rodeo is a throwback. But the pleasure it provides is as current as today. - Westword Magazine, Denver

Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams

Another local favorite that deserves attention this weekend is Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams. Wofford is a skinny, gangly, bespectacled singer/guitar player who is quite obviously suited for nothing but twanging out old-school honky-tonk/early rock songs in the vein of Buddy Holly or Hank Sr.

Thankfully, he overcame the geographical and spiritual handicap of having been born in Los Angeles by moving almost immediately to Texas, and later to Northern Colorado. Somewhere along the way, he developed a passion for honky tonk.

The goatee Wofford sports on the band’s Web site can’t hide his remarkable physical resemblance to Holly, which, in combination with his tight-throated tenor vocal style, is downright eerie. The band’s song “Jealousy” from their latest CD Midnight Rodeo could be a lost Buddy Holly track, a tape that got burned up on that fateful plane ride with the Big Bopper.

Wofford is backed by some luminaries with the Hi-Beams, although some of them came the long way around to his style of music. Drummer Damon Smith for example comes out of the art-hardcore band Someday I, whereas steel guitarist Brett Billings lists among his influences bands like Poco and the Eagles.

Despite, or perhaps because of, that kind of diversity, the band has found its own groove, musically, even catching the attention of Garrison Keillor and The Prairie Home Companion when the radio show was broadcast from Loveland in May. The songs on the new record are solid, respectful of tradition but unafraid to explore—and a damn good honky-tonkin’ time to listen to.

—KB - Fort Collins Weekly


Midnight Rodeo (Release date May 2006)

Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams (2003)
Airplay on approximately 150 stations worldwide. #1 for two consecutive months on Freeform American Roots (FAR) charts in 2003.


Feeling a bit camera shy


“I shoulda quit you,” Halden Wofford half sings, half screams to a pack of dancing fans at a pub in northern Colorado, “a long time ago!” Three hours ago the dance floor was empty and patrons gazed quietly at the quintet plucking and yodeling from onstage between casual sips of Guinness. But song after high-energy song, folks from the very young to the very old rose from their chairs like they had seen the Holy Spirit and started spinning and stomping on the hardwood dance floor. Such conversion is not uncommon at a Hi-Beams’ concert, as crowds catch on to the honky tonk craze that is slowly but surely sweeping the American West.

Those unfamiliar with Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams are often as shocked by the band’s rootsy, honky tonk music as listeners once were by the Beatles’ shaggy hairdos or Johnny Rotten’s snarling lyrics. But just as old-time beers like Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller High Life are again topping the drink charts, classic honky tonk is back in style with a force. The echoey twang of the steel guitar, snap of the snare drum, thump of the stand-up bass and rippin’ electric guitar solos mix with Wofford’s distinctive vocals to create a solid sound that is familiar yet purely original. Not unlike hard-core bluegrass, the Hi-Beams’ style of honky tonk has a language and culture all to itself, but only takes one quick lesson to learn how to love for a lifetime.

“We’re trying to bring back the roots of the music that commercial country has left behind,” says Wofford, the lanky, bespectacled singer from Texas who leads the Denver based honky tonk powerhouse.

And the Hi-Beams are succeeding in doing just that, armed with some of area’s finest musicians including Ben O’Connor on bass, Greg Schochet on guitar, Damon Smith on drums and Bret Billings on the upright steel guitar. The band’s first CD was released in 2003 and is soon to be followed by a second album, Midnight Rodeo.

Their simple yet creative approach has gained the band critical acclaim since they formed in 1999, landing a cover story in the Texas based Third Coast Music Magazine and an in-depth profile on Colorado Public Radio. Wofford’s wavering, throwback tenor won “Best Traditional Country Vocalist” from Denver’s Westword newspaper in 2003 and the band continues to woo audiences and critics alike across the Front Range of Colorado and beyond.

But the Hi-Beams’ devotion to the roots of country music doesn’t keep them from mixing it up a little, as seen in Wofford’s tendency to toss Led Zeppelin lyrics into his original “Floyd Hill White-Out” or bang out an old Springsteen tune-honky tonk style.

“We have a classic sound,” says bassist Ben O’Connor, “but we don’t simply re-create old music. We play contemporary music that reflects the great stuff from the past.”

This ability to straddle the old and new, classic and contemporary while sticking true to the heart of the rebellious country spirit has made Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams a hot commodity in a West hungry for something to believe in.

“We’ve been burning up the highways in the region,” says O’Connor. “It’s a great experience to go to the smaller towns and play this kind of music for people who thought it was gone forever.”