The lone punk rocker of Paonia

A musician finds a home among a small town’s orchards and fields.

 

Pure Weed’s Eric Silverman, Lillia Dawn, Jon Hickam and Dylan Fixmer open for the evening at Paonia’s Pickin’ in the Park concert series.
Kate Schimel/High Country News

It was early evening, and the light on Paonia’s town park was the August gold of the Colorado Rockies as Pure Weed got up to play a set at the summer music festival. The lead singer, Eric Silverman, dressed in loose white clothes like a TV guru, perched on the far left flank of the stage, near clusters of sunflowers and sage. With no introduction, he launched into the set. “Waiting on the winter, going on forever,” he sang, his silver tooth occasionally catching the light. “I’m stuck out in the country with all your old belongings. You’re crushing competition.” 

For a moment, I imagined him leaning into a microphone in a dark bar decorated with graffiti and hung with the smell of old clove cigarettes. But instead, children biked by the stage and a woman in a flowing skirt danced beside a man in a cowboy hat beneath the cottonwoods. I wondered what made Silverman, an East Coast rocker who sometimes goes by the stage name Nic Lawless, put down roots in this isolated mountain valley.

Silverman sits for a portrait on his Toyota Corolla with a sticker proudly proclaiming “Trimming sucks.”
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

For decades, Paonia and the North Fork Valley, where High Country News’ home office is located, was dominated by ranchers, fruit-growers and the miners who labored in several nearby coal mines. But it’s always attracted a handful of oddballs: painters, vintners, poets. Tiny Crawford, one town over from Paonia, was once home to the legendary rock musician Joe Cocker; after his death, the sale of his Jaguar and other belongings helped support the local public radio station. Now, with most of the coal mines closed and a new farming boom sparked by the legalization of pot, the valley’s culture has shifted. Small farms have sprouted and new waves of farmworkers now swing through Paonia during the fall to prepare the pot for sale. Still, those of us who live here year-round typically manage by piecing together enough odd jobs to get through the winter, when the town shrinks to just a few institutions and business hours are limited and unreliable. With each passing winter, I felt more out-of-place, driving two hours or more to eat tacos, or find ingredients for dinner, or just to see someplace new. 

When I first met Silverman, two years ago in the last quiet weeks of winter, his wavy hair was long, his clothes baggy and he made intense eye contact as we briefly discussed music and our shared love of muted punk. I expected him to leave quickly, as so many other friends had.

Over the next couple years, I heard him play on the edge of a field, at the local pizza joint, sandwiched between folk sets, and crooning to crowds of noodlers more used to getting down to reggae than to rock. But as we became friends, I was the one struggling to stay rooted, pulled to a bigger city by my partner’s job and often perplexed by what I sometimes saw as Paonia’s resolute refusal to grapple with the outside world. By the time I left, I’d heard enough people assure me that Paonia would be a great place to ride out the apocalypse to understand that they considered it an imminent possibility.

But Silverman seemed at peace here. In older social media posts, he ironically lamented “losing his edge,” but now, he seemed to relish it. On a trip to New York, he found an urban chicken coop and took a video of its inhabitants. “This is a New York chick,” he says, following the chicken around. “It is fresh to d-e-a-t-h.” 

Silverman spent his teens and early 20s in a succession of emo and punk bands. He enjoyed moderate renown, opening for the Jonas Brothers and touring the East Coast, and was a part of the urban punk scene, spending nights in dark bars and on stage. In 2014, Silverman came West for rehab, in Carbondale, Colorado, just over a high pass from Paonia. For months, he didn’t play music at all. Eventually, he found his way to Paonia working in the kitchen of a now-defunct bed-and-breakfast, living in a yurt at the base of a sagebrush-dotted mesa. He began to play again, supporting his music with work on a succession of farms.

  • Silverman supports his music by trimming pot in the fall, a growing industry surrounding Paonia, Colorado.

    Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
  • At the opening of a new natural healing center in Paonia, Silverman performs “fake jazz.”

    Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
  • Eric and Paul in their kitchen. The roommates refer to their home as the “Marigold House.”

    Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
  • Rose Costello bikes into town past “Marigold House.”

    Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
  • On an early August morning, Silverman helps his roommate pick kale to sell at local groceries.

    Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
  • Silverman bikes into town with visiting friend Jamie Payne in the morning. His house sits about a mile from downtown.

    Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Here, he has found a music scene shaped by the West’s pot boom. Each fall, musicians looking to make a little extra cash migrate to rural Colorado, as well as to California and elsewhere, to harvest, dry and trim weed. This annual migration feeds Pure Weed’s rotating cast of members, bringing through scrappy punk rockers from Denver and Portland, as well as more prominent musicians. (At the August concert, Silverman’s roommates listed a half-dozen different lineups in the past year.) And he travels often, spending months in Egypt, Israel, New York and elsewhere. “I don’t feel very tied down,” he told me. “I feel just as connected to the world as I need to be.” 

It’s a sentiment echoed by other local artists, who find the slacker financial pressures easier to navigate than the West’s increasingly expensive cities. Rose Costello, a local dance instructor and chef, summed it up: “I don’t have to shave my armpits,” she said. “You hustle in this different way. Maybe the rewards are sweeter. I just need a sweet life.” This shift is happening in small towns across the West, as people priced out of cities but with the means and connections to move make their way to places like Tieton, Washington; Philipsburg, Montana; and Hood River, Oregon. 

Silverman poses with his roommates Stuart Kramer, Rose Costello and Paul Kimpling in the garden of their home in Paonia. During the summer, they sell vegetables to groceries around the valley.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

It’s easy for such an exodus to become escapism. “People project their own fantasy (on Paonia) way too much,” Naropa Sabine, a local artist, told me. Eventually, though, “the reality gets in,” from the perpetual question of what to do on a Friday night to the town’s overwhelming whiteness. And then, he said, people have to decide whether they can actually stick around. For now, it seems that Silverman will. Sometimes, you just choose where to settle down and you stay there. I made a different choice: A few months ago, I packed up my belongings and headed for Seattle, with little nostalgia for the North Fork idyll.

Still, I came back to watch Silverman perform on that stage in August. As the warmth faded from the evening air and the reddening light caught Silverman’s glasses, he paused his playing. “I’d like to introduce the baaaaannd,” he said, drawing out the last word in a faintly ironic drawl. Cursory pointing and naming done, he said, “We’re Pure Weed. Let’s party it on, babaay,” and then, “I don’t know, whatevs.”

They launched into their final song, Silverman hunched in the manner of dozens of indie rockers before him, but in a way largely new to this stage. “January to October, I’m sweating through the same old sheets that I had since my teens,” he sang. The handful of dancers tossed their bodies in a gentle mosh pit on the floor of woodchips. “On my last day detoxing from the place I know to call my home, from a place I belong that forgets me when I’m gone.” His voice rose into the fading light, and the voices of the band rose to meet his, in harmony.

Kate Schimel is an associate editor at High Country News, overseeing northern coverage.  Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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