Calypso-Country-Rock? or What Is The String Cheese Incident?
Not too many bands can combine calypso with country, reggae with prog-rock, or funk with electronica and end up with a sound that is not only coherent, but absolutely gripping and that attracts legions of fans.
Maybe only one band can.
And that’s The String Cheese Incident.
The String Cheese Incident (called SCI for short) has been bringing its “sacrilegious mix of bluegrass, calypso, salsa, Afro-pop, funk, rock, and jazz” to the delight and thrill of rock, bluegrass, jam band, and music festival audiences for nearly 25 years now.
And to this day they are one of the best bands on the jam band and serious music circuit. Which is why you should know about them. Keep reading to find out more.
Colorado Cheese with Jam or The Origins of The String Cheese Incident
SCI originally hails from Crested Butte and Telluride, Colorado and formed back in 1993 as jam bands were beginning to hit a new peak. The band featured an eclectic mix of musicians and instruments:
Michael Kang on acoustic and electric mandolin, electric guitar, and violin, Michael Travis on drums and percussion, Bill Nershi on acoustic guitar, lap steel guitar, and electric slide guitar, Kyle Hollingsworth on piano, organ, Rhodes, and accordion, and Keith Moseley on bass guitar. In 2006, Jason Hann was added on auxiliary percussion.
All of the members of the band write material and sing, although the bulk of the music has been written by Nershi. Since forming in 1993, they have built up a passionate, hardcore fan base the old-fashioned way: relentlessly touring passionate live shows jam-packed with great music.
And today they are at the forefront of the jam band scene with their cutting-edge, genre-blurring blend of everything from folk to psychedelic rock.
Despite their admittedly unorthodox mix of instruments, however, the String Cheese Incident is still very much a guitar band. Just how they are will be explained in what follows.
Strings & String Cheese or The String Cheese Incident and Guitar
Bill Nershi’s Acoustic Bluegrass Rock
Guitars excite Bill Nershi. For example, he’s thrilled about the new Gretsch White Falcon that he recently purchased. The guitar has TV Jones Pickups and a Bigsby Tailpiece. Nershi runs it through a Mesa/Boogie.But though he loves his new Gretsch, Nershi’s prime instrument is not an electric guitar at all.
Rather, it’s the acoustic guitar.
One thing that has always set The String Cheese Incident apart from other bands, especially in the jam band genre, has been their love of traditional bluegrass. Their deep relationship to this raw, often virtuosic form of country music makes the acoustic guitar a natural fit for Nershi and the sound of the band.
When he started with String Cheese Incident, like so many acoustic guitarists, Nershi was playing a Martin. This isn’t surprising, as Martins are the go-to guitar for so many guitarists. Mostly because they are amazing acoustic guitars. But Nershi has reached the stage of his music career where sometimes a custom guitar is just a more natural fit.
So now he plays a custom made by Santa Cruz Guitar called the D-Nershi – as in Dreadnought Nershi.
Despite Nershi’s tender love and care, the old Martin was a difficult guitar for him. Playing it was often like a gladiator fight with music. But he always loved its tone and sought to incorporate that sound into the new Santa Cruz guitar he had designed.
Nershi’s Bluegrass-Jazz Marriage
As I said, traditional bluegrass is an enormous influence on Nershi. In particular, he is a huge fan of Del McCoury and the Travelin’ McCoury’s. It’s that infectious traditional string pickin’ and the rich vocal harmonies that powerhouse bluegrass band emits that attracts Nershi so much to their sound.
But Nershi’s inspiration isn’t just drawn from bluegrass. Another guy Nershi really digs is none other than the legendary gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Reinhardt, who has inspired so many guitarists, from Dicky Betts to Joe Bonamassa, was the leading guitar force in early jazz.
Nershi loves the way that studying the fluid sounds of Reinhardt has helped him meld the world of acoustic guitar playing to jazz sensibilities. It has helped Nershi incorporate that love of jazz into the String Cheese Incident’s sound. And the jazz element, combined with so many other genres that power SCI, creates the incredibly complex and eclectic sound that so many music fans today savor.
Where Does String Cheese Go From Here?
The music world, especially in the digital age, is constantly moving and shifting. Aware of this, Michael Kang says that String Cheese Incident has had to change along with it.
One way they have done so is altering the relationship between their live and studio material. Earlier in their career, like so many other jam bands, String Cheese Incident would so often road test their songs for months or even years before broaching that material in a recording studio. It was all about the live performance.
These days things are a little bit different. Now the band has their own studio, and they have started to approach the studio in a new way. Now, they are debuting and creating new material in the studio before ever road testing it. In essence, they now often start from scratch in the studio. In this way, the band is able to create sounds using studio technology and processes that may not have occurred to them in a live setting.
Meanwhile, Kang also emphasizes that the String Cheese Incident realizes the importance of continuing to release a steady stream of new material. This serves the double purpose of keeping fans fully satisfied with the band’s output as well as satisfying their own artistic impulses and instincts.
One thing is for certain: The String Cheese Incident are a bunch of musical beasts. Ignore them at your own peril. Do yourself a favor and go and check them out.
– Brian M. Reiser,