Coral Creek String Band
by Susan Marquez
From studying international politics and earning a business degree in international finance at Wesleyan University in Connecticut to being a full-time musician in Colorado, Chris Thompson’s life has been one heck of a ride. Now he has two bands that both bear the Coral Creek name. One is an electric band with bass, drums, keyboards, and saxophone, while the other is the Coral Creek String Band, a more traditional bluegrass band. Both have hints of the Caribbean, a throwback to Chris’s time in the Virgin Islands. He refers to it as “Colo-Caribbean newgrass music.”
Growing up in a Minnesota home with both parents playing the piano, Chris became disenchanted with the instrument. “My mom taught piano lessons in our home, and I got tired of hearing kids playing the same song over and over again. My dad played recreationally, and he could make up songs, which was kind of fun. But I ended up playing the cello in the school orchestra.”
By the time he was in high school, Chris had picked up his first guitar, and he never looked back.
“I had been following Jerry Garcia. That’s what got me into music. I followed him from the time I was 13, in 1983, until he died in 1995.” Chris attended one hundred Grateful Dead concerts, selling t-shirts and pimiento cheese sandwiches to support his concert habit. When he was in college, the Jerry Garcia Band did an east coast tour, and Chris attended twenty of those shows. “I discovered Flatt and Scruggs in the college library,” he says. “That laid the foundation for my music today.”
After college, Chris moved to New York, then overseas. He played in an Irish band in Botswana and then moved to Mexico. After settling in Golden, Colorado, Chris picked with other musicians and attended bluegrass festivals. He picked up the banjo and says he had more banjo lessons than guitar lessons when all was said and done. “I think my deciding moment came at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. After Jerry Garcia died, I fell into Sam Bush in a big way. He was my new man.”
He began professionally playing while living in the Virgin Islands in 2003. “I was in a band with my wife, Susannah, and another couple. We called ourselves Steel River. But there was no real river, so we changed it to Steel Creek. And because we were on an island, that morphed into Coral Creek, and that name stuck.” Chris says a guy who played the steel pan would sometimes join them. “He could play any kind of music on that thing.”
Chris has been an experienced, qualified consultant for many years, but in the last few years, that tapered off, and he put more emphasis on his musical career. In 2015 he began playing with Bill McKay, a Colorado native who had played with the Derek Trucks Band and Colorado-based Leftover Salmon. “I’m probably a more active songwriter because of Bill.”
Chris has recorded several albums, both with Coral Creek and Coral Creek String Band, and a solo project. Bill Nershi of the String Cheese Incident produced the first two projects, The Road Ahead (2010) and 40 Years (2012). “Bill has been a great resource and a good friend.” Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth produced Coral Creek (2015) and Free Dog (2018). With a mix of musical genres, the album is a delicious gumbo of newgrass, jam band, Caribbean and Colorado sounds that pleases a wide variety of music lovers. Songs from the Free Dog album are equally appreciated in a honkytonk as in a beach bar.
During the Covid break, Chris hooked up with musician Todd Schaeffer. “We have been doing a series of socially distanced Covid concerts around Colorado. We have had an enjoyable time doing that.”
He stays busy playing with the “string band” and “the big band,” as he calls it, around Colorado. “I enjoy them both. The big band can get a little more into the Caribbean sound, but the string band lends itself to being more spontaneous because there is no equipment to hook up. I love that flexibility.”
Coral Creek String Band has half an album in the can produced during the pandemic. “That’s five tracks ready to go. We will get the string band into the studio by the end of the summer and release the new album toward the end of this year or the first of next year. In the meantime, we will release some singles starting at the end of the summer.”
Susannah joins Chris for special appearances but prefers mothering their three children to being in a band.