Buena Vista has had a momentum building, an energy humming steadily in town, fueled in part by a suddenly thriving Main Street producing record sales tax receipts over the last couple years.
Even as the East Main Street downtown business community blossomed, live music rang in its growing success.
Where there was once an occasional outdoor patio performance or a duo in a corner inside, last summer there were notes intermingling up and down East Main. Like musical appetizers, selections appealing to multiple tastes abounded, week after week.
Where there had been an occasional young adult slinging a guitar over shoulder about town here and there, last summer there were several around town playing for all who would stop and listen.
Buena Vista changing is a process that has been developing for some time, but nothing new.
“A changing culture takes time and Buena Vista didn’t change over night the other times,” South Main developer and music promoter Jed Selby says.
“It didn’t change from a mining and agricultural town into a river town overnight,” Selby says, “but being a river town is now embedded in our culture. I see river guides who are now parents who wanted their kids to grow up here.”
Selby has been a part of that changing music culture process, developing The Beach in South Main and offering more than 100 free shows after the town’s multi-year Collegiate Peaks Music Series ran its course early this decade.
That music heritage is what co-owner Court Johnson credits with the success of the remodeled 1885 Lariat building.
Johnson says he knew there was something special here the first night he and wife Robbie owned the building as soon as he heard locals perform at the weekly open mike night.
“We decided to take everything to the next level. It just seemed like the place needed it, wanted it,” he says.
Acoustics to soothe a music lover’s ear, a good mixing board, a dance floor (which Buena Vista had never had) and a stage all tied the place together, gave it a new breath of life.
The town responded
“I’d spent enough time on a bus driving my son’s band,” Johnson says, “that I knew what we wanted to do. We take good care of the bands, feed them, give them a good, clean place stay and they really have responded to that.”
Modernizing The Lariat was a risk taken borne from that time as a dad on a rock ‘n roll bus and the many stops and venues along the way.
“We just didn’t know. How could a town this size support a venue like this?” Johnson says. “It all goes back to that first night.”
“People who love music have soul, and Buena Vista should have this,” he says, gesturing around the place. “It makes sense to have this here. Unlike resorts where you have a narrow band of people, there is a great diversity of people here.”
It makes sense for another reason.
“The bands love the crowds because of that. You can feel that in a great old building and a great small town. This is Colorado. You have the river and mountains and you have all these people hanging out together.”
A friend put it this way: “The waters run deep here,” Johnson recalls with a smile spreading across his face.
“It’s like the way we love this river and the mountains. The bands feel the audience and feed off that and the audience feels the bands and feeds off that. It becomes self-perpetuating.”
The result is also evident up and down East Main Street.
“People are drawn to this town because it’s a cool place. You have all this great music up and down the street. It’s not just us (The Lariat), it’s the town and the people.”
The towns in the Upper Arkansas Valley each have their own thing now. Where a diversified arts community – including a tradition of great live music – is becoming what Salida is known for and Leadville has all that high-altitude endurance competition, BV is still refining itself.
“The thing that’s defining Buena Vista now is music,” Johnson says.
“This all happened in a very organic way from out of the soul of the town and the people drawn here,” he says. “It’s the people who love this town all doing what they are passionate about. It all comes together as a sort of critical mass for what makes up this place. It’s a very soulful place.”
What would you expect from the rugged spiritualism of the locals borne of mountain town life, the displaced energy of the Arkansas River and harmonics brought by geologic upheaval.
It doesn’t come easy, though.
“This place isn’t exactly Mayberry,” Johnson says, a touch of defiant resistance in his eyes at the thought of BV being called a mountain Mayberry.
“There were people who grew up here and left. There wasn’t much to keep younger people here,” Johnson says. “But they still had that love of the place and that soulful foundation. That also describes the people who have moved here, I think.”
BV has tourism right now, he says, “but the town’s history is boom and bust, through the railroads, mining and agriculture and then a rafting and mining town,” Johnson notes, a touch of trepidation in his voice.
“The reality is that there hasn’t been enough events to sustain year-round business, and every business owner knows that. Again, that’s where the critical mass comes in,” he says, explaining “staying open year-round was always a struggle.”
Now, because of the music in addition to everything else, Buena Vista is getting known around the state and beyond.
“Just paying the bills has always been a struggle. Now, for us, it’s gaining a reputation as a place to hang out.”
He means that for The Lariat as much as Buena Vista and the businesses up and down East Main and around town.
Enter The Ivy Ballroom
A trip inside new Ivy Ballroom at the Surf Hotel will offer an intimate setting for events ranging from weddings to corporate retreats and gatherings to Red Rocks-level concerts.
“Our hope is that the restaurant, lobby bar, ballroom and public spaces are used by everyone in the community,” Selby says. “We intended it to be as non-exclusive as possible, a great place to grab a coffee or breakfast and sit by the river.”
Only time will tell if it’s the next progression in Buena Vista growing as a music town beyond its infancy stages.
It absolutely has the potential – much like Selby’s other musical endeavor the Meadows – to become a place top musicians want to come play.
Play and hang out on the hotel’s balcony overlooking the tumbling waters of the Upper Arkansas River.
Or mountain bike Midland Hill trials on the other side.
Or walk around the balcony to the other side of the hotel and drink up the Sawatch Range peaks, which apparently impressed Dierks Bentley enough he named his festival after the seven fourteeners.
Or sit out at the Meadows and listen to Cottonwood Creek sing.
Those bands Selby thinks he can attract – Red Rocks-calibre bands – will be sold on the venue, the community and everything you can see around us.
“The place literally sells itself,” Selby says.
It is somewhat of an upgrade from the tour bus and interstate motels for the bigger and brand-name bands.
“It’s eye-dropping,” Selby says, a smile filling his whole face at the visual image. “It’s actually that good. The bands that play Red Rocks love it for everything it offers. The Meadows is right physically, but its reputation is not yet established.
“If the community comes together and gets behind it, we will have world-class artists and productions come to Buena Vista.
“The thing I see happening is part of a process to building a music culture,” Selby says. “Court and Robbie have brought in a tremendous amount of free music to Buena Vista the last couple years and we have at The Beach for 6 years.
“If the music is free, you’re limited to what bands you can hire and the production costs of putting on a show,” he says.
You knew this next part was coming, right?
“We’ll get to a place where people are willing to pay to see great music – in Buena Vista – and not really just willing to pay but much more just wanting to go,” Selby says. “I think that transition is where we are starting to go.”
The Lariat has taken a few chances with charging admission for premium artist shows like Hazel Miller (who played the Collegiate Peaks Music Festival last decade) and Davy Knowles last month.
Call me back, please?
How Knowles came to play The Lariat is key to the conversation of where Bewnie may be headed.
When Johnson first started bringing touring bands into The Lariat, he had a hard time convincing artist management that the bar didn’t have chicken wire across the stage front to protect the band.
Fast forward 2 years and Johnson gets a call hoping to book the venue.
“Davy Knowles was in North Carolina, and someone told him when he’s touring he should play this venue in a mountain town in Colorado. I didn’t know that until he told that story on stage,” Johnson said.
Knowles, you’ll remember, was called “My favorite guitarist” by Peter Frampton and has drawn high praise from Joe Bonamassa.
John Primer, former band leader for blues legend Muddy Waters, also heard about The Lariat up in Chicago and came down to play.
“Man, I could live here,” Johnson says the legend-in-his-own-right told him.
Yes, he could. We’ll get to that subject soon.
Nashville funksters The Aquaducks also said they were told by bands that The Lariat was a must-stop venue on their upcoming Southwest U.S. tour.
“It’s pretty cool that it’s happening here,” Johnson says. “Music towns are a place where music is lived and breathed. BV is getting on the map among those really cool music towns.”
“The growth of a music town is very grassroots,” Johnson points out. “It’s all the people who love music that makes a town that. Jed loves music and he brings music to the Upper Arkansas Valley and most of the people who live in the valley love music, so you gotta thank the guy for bringing that.”
Selby hopes the community does by helping the ventures get off the ground, noting he’s eyeing roughly a third to half of the hotel’s restaurant and music patronage is from townies.
“The reality is as it grows it will be up to the community what level of congestion they are comfortable with. The businesses will love the increased traffic, the residents maybe not,” Selby says. “It will take trial and error to find that sweet spot where no one feels displaced.”
Schiefelbein is editor of The Times. He grew up on Chicago blues, seeing Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker live in his younger days.