Spreading Roots

Photo: George L. Blosser

Photo: George L. Blosser

The River Arkansas draws members and influences from across Colorado

By Steve Graham

The Colorado River may be more famous, but the Arkansas River arguably offers a wider variety of Colorado sights and adventures. From its headwaters near Leadville, it rushes past epic fourteeners into Browns Canyon and the Royal Gorge before flowing through Pueblo and the eastern plains.

So it’s fitting that a band named The River Arkansas would pick up members and influences from all over the state. Mike Clark of Pueblo leads the band and writes the songs, and his bandmates live as far as Saguache, Boulder and Trinidad.

The group plays a mix of electric Southern rock and acoustic Americana, with an outdoorsy Colorado focus in Clark’s lyrics. He writes about his intimate and poignant connections to rivers and trees, but doesn’t take himself too seriously. His work includes a jangly singalong called “Who Stole My Bike.” 

The River Arkansas has hung together for more than four years now, but the band and the name were both something of an accident.

Clark had been in Haunted Windchimes, who played on “A Prairie Home Companion” and were becoming a local legend. He wanted to record a solo album named “The River Arkansas,” but the project turned into a band.

He had played regularly with Macon Terry, former bassist from Paper Bird, and they talked about a more formal collaboration.

“We’d always give a big old hug at the end of the night and say ‘man, we should start a band,’” Terry said. He joked that there was a geographic barrier to overcome. 

“It didn’t make any sense because I lived in Denver and he lived in Colorado Springs. But then he moved to Pueblo, which is farther away, so the attraction was greater,” Terry joked.

After about two years of jamming, Terry played bass on some tracks Clark was recording in Colorado Springs.

“We said, ‘man this is cool, let’s keep it going,’” Clark said. So they adopted the River Arkansas moniker and found three more bandmates.

The addition of drummer Robin Chestnut and violinist Rachel Silker was similarly accidental. They played in an early video and just stuck around as band members. The final permanent addition was piano player Benjamin Gallagher. Somehow, the ragtag group hangs together despite being spread across the state.

“It’s really hard,” Clark said. “No matter what we do, someone has to drive two hours. But it’s worth it. We’re doing good and enjoying it.”

The joy is evident in their live shows. With roots all over the state, they have played a huge variety of Colorado venues and festivals, and even launched their own River on the River festival in Buena Vista. They have also toured California and other western states.

I caught up with them last fall after their set of great country-fried dance tunes at a Fort Collins brewfest. It’s a testament to their live show that plenty of attendees stopped sampling beer long enough to listen — and dance.

All the band members admit to being a little jealous of their bandleader’s talent.

“Mike Clark can’t write a bad song,” said Chestnut.

Unlike many talented songwriters, Clark did not grow up playing music. He says he didn’t start playing music until he was 27 years old, but the songwriting came naturally — like the mighty Arkansas River.

“It just keeps coming. I don’t want to jinx it or anything, but it is flowing out of me,” Clark said.

Steve Graham is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor who likes taking his two young boys biking, hiking and brewery-hopping in northern Colorado.

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