SAN LUIS OBISPO, CALIF. — For String Cheese Incident guitarist Billy Nershi, the assurance of success came in the form of a half-packed music hall on a snowy Colorado night, when 300 fans risked icy roads and bitter cold to see the band.
"I know we are going to make it," Mr. Nershi recalled thinking that winter night in 1996. "I know things are all going to go good and we are going to keep on climbing."
Less than a decade after String Cheese Incident was formed by four ski bums in Crested Butte, Colo., the band finds itself at the apex of the jamband scene, filling venues like New York's Radio City Music Hall and selling more than 300,000 albums.
String Cheese Incident might be considered primarily a bluegrass band - a down-home mountain music style pioneered by artists like Bill Monroe and Doc Watson.
But Nershi, bassist Keith Moseley, drummer Michael Travis, fiddler Michael Kang, and keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth have proved themselves to be incredibly versatile, experimenting with jazz, Latin, rock, and soul.
At a recent concert, the band, led by Nershi's six-string acoustic guitar and Kang's mandolin and violin, built a 15-minute jam around the jazz standard "Birdland," changing tempo in psychedelic waves as they wove in and out of the theme.
During the encore, they thrilled the audience with a rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On." Their shows also include a healthy dose of the band's own material - from the thoughtful "Little Hands" to the just plain silly "Big Shoes."
String Cheese Incident's connection with its fans distinguishes the band from many of today's musical stars. They pay close attention to what their supporters say about their shows, and often build performances around that feedback.
"[Our fans] are the ones that push us to re-create ourselves because they aren't going to settle for the same old thing every night," says Kang. "Ultimately, it's a healthy thing. You force yourself to experiment, and you can always stay on the edge."
String Cheese controls its artistic direction and business dealings through its record label, Sci Fidelity Records, which was created in 1998. The members could have easily signed with a major label, but the group wanted to maintain control over their material.
"We've never been too interested in being a commercial success in terms of doing the MTV thing or anything like that," says Kang. "We started from a really honest, austere background."
String Cheese has strengthened its ties with its fans by allowing free taping at concerts, recruiting local "pirates" to help with publicity, and organizing environmental and social projects through its "gouda cause" Footprints Foundation.
That enterprising spirit has brought String Cheese to the forefront of the jamband scene - a grassroots genre that has been around since at least the 1960s and has enjoyed a revival in the past decade thanks to groups such as Phish, Blues Traveler, and Pearl Jam.
"Jambands really sort of cross genres in the way that no other group or collection of bands do," says jamband authority Dean Budnick, who has written a book on the subject.
"Whether it be electronica or bluegrass or jazz or rock or various forms of funk, jambands really do bridge all these boundaries."
Mr. Budnick helped cofound the Jammy Awards, which honored the Grateful Dead and Phish, among others, at a ceremony in New York last summer.
He says String Cheese is unique among jambands because they place importance on their lyrics.
"String Cheese from the start has really tried to make their lyrics count," Budnick says. "They also have done well in terms of the nice dynamics of their shows. They go back and forth between styles and modes, and in that respect, some people see them as reminiscent of the Dead."
Indeed, a number of String Cheese's fans bring a Grateful Dead feeling to the group's shows.
Recently, in the conservative college town of San Luis Obispo, Calif., tie-dyed-clad youth pushed grilled-cheese sandwiches, jewelry, and hemp T-shirts after the concert. However, a close examination of the audience inside the show revealed a cross-section of fans - from energetic college students on the dance floor to older folks who preferred the bleachers.
It's undeniable that String Cheese picked up fans from Phish, which has just returned from a year-long hiatus, and the Grateful Dead, which disbanded after Jerry Garcia's death in 1995.
Band members, however, dismiss the notion that they are leeches on a movement that started decades ago with the Dead's legendary live shows.
"We didn't just say, 'hey, Jerry's dead. Let's start a jamband; we'll get rich,' " Nershi said from his home outside Boulder. "It was a timing thing, and timing doesn't mean we are trying to be opportunistic."
The remaining members of the Dead have taken a liking to String Cheese. Not only have they offered their songwriting and business advice, but have appeared with the band on stage.
Both Kang and Nershi realize that in order to survive, String Cheese Incident has to evolve.
The band, which just wrapped up three shows in San Francisco, plans to return to the studio this month to work on their fourth album.