A big band for a big God

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Denver and the Mile High Orchestra prove tha horns belong in Christian music

By Greg Summers

What Denver Bierman stands for is not as important as the rock he stands on.
A diehard Hoosier who now makes his home in Hendersonville, Tenn., Bierman doesn’t keep his light under a basket. He and his merry band of musicians let it shine for everyone to see.
The 33-year-old trumpet player/singer/band leader of the Denver and the Mile High Orchestra (DMHO) will fill the Bundy Auditorium at the University of South Carolina on Friday with a high-energy holiday big band sound that is timeless, cutting edge and spiritual.
“This has truly been a calling for this season of my life,” Bierman said. “I believe that singing about a message of hope, faith and love is truly one of the greatest things I could do with my life.”
The horn driven band, which finished third in the Fox-TV show, “The Next Great American Band” in 2007, found its own niche and platform by creating one.
Naysayers who buy into the notion that seven horns and a four-piece rhythm section playing inspirational arrangements will never work, have never heard Denver and the Mile High Orchestra.
DMHO, Bierman said, is the great college experiment that didn’t go awry. Theirs is the story of ordinary, never-say-die guys staying true to the vision God gave them.
“I was always raised to think that good things take time and that you have to work hard for what you believe in,” he said. “Denver and the Mile High Orchestra went beyond a good business plan or a fun hobby.”
Bierman, who picked up the trumpet as a sixth grader, left the Indiana corn fields in 1995 after earning a music scholarship to Belmont University in Nashville.
Raised in a musical family, his mom is a piano and voice teacher. Bierman said he came to the realization in high school that he wanted to be a professional musician.
“Literally, my whole family – all my aunts and uncles, my grandfather, father and mother all played instruments and sang,” he said in an interview posted on the DMHO website.
“A few of them even played music for a living. Everything from the clarinet to the banjo was played at our family reunions growing up, so it made perfect sense that I would get into music as well.”    
A new sound
At Belmont, that Bierman discovered that big band music was his passion. He also chose Christian music as a vocation. However, there was one slight problem; there aren’t many Christian bands in need of horn players.
It was then, he said, that it hit him; he should start his own band with lots of horns. That proved to be a wise decision.
Bierman called his musician college buddies and they started rehearsing. With influences ranging from Rich Mullins to Harry Connick Jr. and Earth Wind & Fire, DMHO started playing Bierman’s unusual compositions at small local shows in the Nashville area.
The band also won the chance to open a Lee Ann Womack concert. Bierman said the day after the show, two record labels called his dorm room. The big band orchestra signed with one, but success was far from overnight.
The record label DMHO chose went bankrupt, shattering their dreams and leaving Bierman with a stack of legal bills to pay back from a record deal that went bad.
Still, they kept practicing to hone their sound and kept sharpening their stage performances.
“My faith and calling helped me persevere,” he said. “The blessings and benefits far outweigh any hardship I experienced along the way.”
Another obstacle
DMHO sporadically went into the studio for about 18 months when they had the money and managed to record 13 songs for “Act the Scat.”
However, just as the CD was taking off, the company distributing it went bankrupt, leaving DMHO with nothing to show for its efforts.
That was when Reid Ribble, a Wisconsin roofing contractor and DMHO fan, stepped in and loaned the band the money to record another CD.
DMHO still drew little interest from record labels, so Ribble and his family formed one to support the band whose sound was not considered as commercially viable. DMHO also formed its own booking and management agency and publishing company out of necessity.
Catching on
Word of mouth and fan support proved to be the band’s biggest asset, leading to appearances on INSP-TV, Charles Stanley’s “In Touch” and the “Hour of Power” at the Crystal Cathedral, along with performances with Bill Gaither, the 1997 Presidential Inauguration Ball and the Olympics games at Salt Lake City (2002) and Athens (2004).
By 2005, DMHO was selected as the house band for the Gospel Music Awards. DMHO earned its big break in 2007 when it was selected for “The Next Great American Band.”
Despite what music industry movers and shakers said, DMHO had found a national audience on the reality television show.
“I’ve learned over 13 years that people change their opinions about your value and marketability as an artist as often as the weather changes,” Bierman said. “I was profoundly encouraged that there is a segment of American society that relates to our musical style My experience on ‘The Next Great American Band will always be one of my fondest memories of DMHO. I’ve also learned to stay true to who I an an an artist regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.
“People appreciate music that is genuine and from the heart,” Bierman said. “As long as I stay true to myself, that’s what people get from DMHO.”
Timeless Christmas tour   
While inspirational music is the backbone of the DMHO sound, its members are versatile jacks of all trades. They can, and do, play venues ranging from churches and marriage conferences to swing dances and high-energy holiday concerts like the one on Friday night at USCL. Bierman said this is a show the entire family can enjoy.
Bierman said it’s not usual to see three generations of a family – from age 5 to 105 – at their shows.
DMHO will perform traditional holiday classics like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Jingle Bells,” along with Bierman’s original compositions, “The Jesus Child” and “Born Tonight” to remind everyone of the true reason for the season. He said don’t be surprised if the “Grinch” pops in, too.
“Every show is different and you never know what’s going to happen,” he said.

Want to go?
WHO: Denver and the Mile High Orchestra
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Bundy Auditorium, inside the Bradley Arts and Sciences Building at the University of South Carolina at Lancaster
HOW MUCH: Tickets are $50.
INFORMATION: (803) 286-1145 or p.arts@lancastersc.com