Shawn Swain

Telluride’s Shawn Swain, mandolin player for the Kitchen Dwellers, performed at Red Rocks May 2. (Courtesy photo)

It has been a remarkable decade for the native sons and daughters of Telluride. In 2014, Gus Kenworthy won a silver medal in Freestyle Skiing at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia. In 2018, Telluride’s born and bred Soleil Gaylord beat out over 5,000 athletes to win the Wendy’s High School Heisman Trophy. On May 2, Telluride native Shawn Swain became the first Telluride native to play at Colorado’s famed Red Rocks Amphitheater, regarded by many as the greatest outdoor venue in the United States.

Shawn took the famed stage as the mandolin player in his band Kitchen Dwellers. The five-piece outfit from Bozeman, Montana, was opening for Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and Twiddle. The concert was broadcast to a worldwide audience on nugs.net.

Kitchen Dwellers music is a hybrid of bluegrass, rock ’n’ roll and a slew of other influences that the band describes as “galaxy grass.” Shawn is joined in the band by bass player and vocalist Joe Funk, Turin Daniels on banjo and vocals, and Max Davies on guitar and vocals.

Shawn’s father Kevin, finance director for the Town of Mountain Village, could not be prouder of his mandolin-playing son. He was particularly blown away by the Red Rocks performance.

“He stood right where Jerry (Garcia) stood,” Kevin said in awe.

In an interview conducted from his home in Missoula, I asked Shawn if he was aware of the sacred Garcia real estate he occupied.

“I wasn’t aware of it at all,” he said.  I was just standing where I stand every night.”

But Shawn was quick to point out how special the Red Rocks performance was.

“I’ve seen several shows at Red Rocks over the years,” he said, “and, of course, you think about how great it would be to play there, but to actually stand there looking at 9,000 faces was an overwhelmingly fulfilling experience.

“I’m not a guy who gets nervous about playing in front of people, but I’ve never been so nervous for anything in my life. But I also felt like I was ready for it. I’m proud of the way we handled it and I’m looking forward to more of it in the future.”

Shawn said having his mom, Barb, and dad at Red Rocks made it even more special.

“They’ve been instrumental in my success,” he said. “Their constant support throughout this whole process has been so meaningful because its been wrought with trial and error. I went to Montana State and it wasn’t for me, I wanted to be a touring musician and you can’t learn that at college. They encouraged me to travel my own path and figure it out. I’m so grateful. I don’t know what I would be doing if I didn’t have this mandolin.”

The Kitchen Dwellers are by no means an overnight sensation. They formed in Bozeman, Montana, in 2011 when Shawn and a few of his buddies at Montana State University began picking with one another over some beers. Soon they got up the gumption to play at an open-mic night in town.

“We weren’t even old enough to drink at the bar,” Shawn said.

Kitchen Dwellers were accepted into the Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition in 2013.

“Things didn’t go that well for us the first year,” Swain said. “We were really just learning our instruments so we were pretty green.”

Kitchen Dwellers were accepted into the band competition again, in both 2014 and 2015, and their star began to rise in the bluegrass/jamgrass scene.

Kitchen Dwellers released their self-titled debut in 2013 and began touring nationally around the same time. Over the years, the venues have gotten bigger and the festivals more prestigious. The Dwellers have headlined the Bluebird Theater in Denver and the Fox Theater in Boulder, and festival stops have included several performances at Del Fest, High String Summit and Wondergrass, to name a few.

In 2016, Madison House Presents, the booking and management agency out of Boulder that was started in Telluride in the mid-1990s, picked up Kitchen Dwellers.

“That was a monumental break for our band,” Shawn said. “They have such credibility in the industry and they have opened up a lot of doors for us as a band.”

Shawn said now is a great time to be playing jamgrass as Greensky Bluegrass has opened audience’s eyes to the sonic potential of the genre.

“Greensky has raised the ceiling higher than anyone could imagine,” Shawn said. “They’re selling out three nights at Red Reds, playing 5,000 and up venues all over the country. Billy Strings is now coming on strong and it’s great for us because crowds are so open to the music. We’re blown away because we roll into towns we’ve never played and people are singing along to the songs.”

Kitchen Dwellers have been playing an average of 200 shows a year for the last few years.

“It’s a demanding, full-time job. We’ve worked really hard and it feels good to get the recognition we’ve been working so hard to get,” Shawn said.

The Kitchen Dwellers are taking a different approach this summer and are playing solely music festivals.

Shawn credits growing up in Telluride as a key factor in his path as a professional musician.

“Being raised in Telluride I was naturally drawn to bluegrass,” he said. “Obviously, Sam Bush was huge for me and I’m a big Ronnie McCoury fan. And I probably saw Jeff Austin (formerly of Yonder Mountain String Band) close to 100 times from the ages of 16-24.

“We played at the Sheridan Opera House this winter and it was a really powerful thing because that’s the first stage I ever played music on when I was 14 years old in the Rock and Roll Academy. I am very much a product of Telluride and I’m proud to be doing this as an ambassador to my little mountain town.”