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Bill Nershi Is Living the Dream

The String Cheese Incident’s Bill Nershi talks to EO about music, mountain towns, and the joys of the ski bum life.

Bill Nershi has just wrapped up a series of shows with the Nershi Hann Trio—consisting The String Cheese Incident frontman Nershi on vocals and guitar; his wife, Jillian, singing; and String Cheese’s Jason Hann, playing percussion—with stops in some of his favorite Colorado towns, including Telluride, Salida, and Boulder. Now, as String Cheese readies for a run of summer festival appearances, he is racking up as many ski days as possible at Winter Park, A-Basin, and Loveland. Taking part in the outdoor lifestyle has always been an important part of Nershi’s—and all the members of String Cheese’s—life whether on the road playing sold-out shows in powder meccas like Jackson and Salt Lake City or when he gets some downtime. Skiing, mountain biking, hiking, and other outdoor pursuits are an essential part of the band’s identity, a lifestyle their fans embrace as well. After all, Nershi—a Jersey boy who gave up the East Coast for the Rockies in 1981—and crew met as Crested Butte ski bums in the early 1990s and played some of their first live gigs alongside lift lines. He’s now revered for his guitar work across genres, but still best known for those jam-band chops played on big stages. The ultimate outdoor junkie took the time to talk to EO about playing music, living the life, and mountain towns.

The String Cheese Incident will be playing your usual multiday stand at Red Rocks this summer. Does the band bring its A game for the venue?
Yeah, it brings it out. Especially for a Colorado band, it’s the premier venue in the state—if not the country—so we always do a lot of rehearsing. We want to come out guns blazing for Red Rocks. The thing that’s really different about Red Rocks, as a musician, is you’re at the bottom with the rock walls on each side, and the audience is all above you and all the energy funnels down onstage. I used to feel really small when I first started playing there and looking up, but now I find some comfort in it because I love those red sandstone formations. It reminds me of taking trips out to Utah and hiking in places like Moab.

Your summer tour is going to take you to a lot of mountain towns. What are you looking forward to doing when you are not onstage?
Whether I’m out on a ski tour in the winter or hiking in the summer, it always happens on the second day. We get there, we get set up, we play the first show—and then things are set up. So there’s a lot more free time the next day to find local friends to go out and ride or hike with somewhere. That’s why whenever we go through the mountains, it’s nice to do two- or three-night stands so we can enjoy being there.

Do you run into people on the trails and lifts who recognize you?
Definitely. Pretty much every time I go up skiing, I get on the lift with somebody who’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve been following you for 15 years. I love you guys. Let me show you around the mountain.’ It keeps things interesting. It’s also nice that there are people out there who appreciate what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years.

Are there songs you have written or even ways you play that have been influenced by your time outdoors?
I would say the majority of the stuff I write is directly influenced by my outdoor experiences. I’ve written songs about waiting for the snow to fall, getting ready for a ski season. ‘Little Hands’ is a song about a backpacking trip I took with a friend out in Canyonlands National Park. We were going to find ‘All American Man,’ a pretty famous pictograph down there. We didn’t make it that far, but we did find some interesting things that were left from ancient people down there.

Do you see a big difference in the mountain-town vibe since you got your start in the 1980s and 1990s?
When I go to Telluride for example, where I lived for 15 years, it’s still just as beautiful, but—whew—there’s people with a lot of money moving into these towns. And the thing that makes me sad is to see skiing go away from a sport anybody could afford to do. It’s a shame because it should be something that can be enjoyed stress-free by people who don’t have tons of money.

How do you like being the theme music of the outdoor lifestyle?
Skiing and music, climbing and music, riding and music—it’s the best of both worlds. You get out there and you can go to a show inside later and feel good. The combination really works. And we’re going to keep working that combination, until we can’t get out anymore.

Catch Bill Nershi and The String Cheese Incident this summer. June 26, Salt Lake City, Utah, Red Butte Garden Outdoor Concert Series; June 27–28, Jackson, Wyoming, Snow King Mountain; June 29–30, Bonner, Montana, KettleHouse Amphitheater; July 12–4, Morrison, Colorado, Red Rocks Amphitheater.

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