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Steam Powered Airplane to land in Steamboat on Saturday

— Tucker Smith started playing open mic night as a joke, he said, when he discovered he could play any string instrument he laid his hands on.

It was 15 years ago and Smith was in his early 20s. Once a mathematical economist in a cubicle in Fresno, Calif., Smith had relocated to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he could watch the sun set on the Tetons and live every day as if it were Friday.

So he decided to try making a living as a musician, running a band instead of running economic models all day.

"I did the big American dream," Smith said. "It should be the American nightmare. I went to college and graduate school and I tried really hard, got good grades. I was nice to people. I had a corporate job and a brand new BMW and life was just like … you know the movie 'Office Space?' You know, a lot of people have that in life, that's why some of us live in ski towns."

Smith, who has called himself "chief executive officer" of the band Steam Powered Airplane for the last 15 years in its various incarnations, will appear Saturday as the bass player for the Jackson Hole-based bluegrass outfit.

There is no cost for the show, which starts at about 9:30 p.m. at the Bear River Bar & Grill at the base of Steamboat Ski Area.

Smith is playing with guitarist Jon DeGroot, banjo player and mandolinist Brock Ben­jamin, and drummer Jacob Gampe.

Once strictly a string band, Smith said the group is progressing toward a Leftover Salmon-like jam-grass sound and has been playing with minimal drumming for almost a year.

But don't let the rhythm section take away from the fact that Smith and his bandmates are primarily pickers, once finishing third in the Telluride Band Contest (which doesn't allow drums). Smith also has won the Wyoming state title in banjo, guitar and mandolin.

He used to make a living by going to music competitions. Now, he said the band makes its living playing weddings. Under certain conditions, of course.

"I tell (potential clients) we'll learn two songs, but under no circumstances will I learn any songs by tone-deaf morons like Tim Mcgraw, Toby Keith, Trace Atkins or Paris Hilton," Smith said.

Steam Powered Airplane has toured internationally, shared stages with the likes of Bruce Horns­by and Del McCoury, and is working on two albums that will be recorded in Jackson Hole.

Even with his aversion to mainstream recorded music and the group's isolation in a small music market, Smith still has managed to rub elbows with some big players in the industry. Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman of Phish once asked to jam with Smith at a Jackson Hole dive bar in 2003, leading Gordon to ask him for private banjo lessons. Steam Powered Airplane played a birthday party for a member of the Doors, and has appeared at weddings for the rich and famous.

Smith said he's perfectly content with where the band is now, even without mainstream notoriety.

"I'm still alive, so that's kind of miraculous," he said. "I had kind of hoped, I think everyone does, you hope that you would get really famous and buy a jet. But that'll happen.

"People say, 'What do you want out of this?' I say, 'I want a jet with a hot tub on it,' And we've already got a hot tub, so we're halfway there."

— To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or e-mail ninglis@SteamboatToday.com