Garrison Keillor knows about all the cool stuff way before the rest of us do -- we were in Tucson a couple of weeks ago, innocently catching a show at Plush that featured old friends of whom we're huge fans, and it turned out to be the release show for Run Boy Run's So Sang the Whippoorwill. Already entirely gobsmacked by the show, we marveled further the more we learned about the band.
This quintessentially Arizonan group of two sets of extremely musical siblings, plus the mustachioed and outgoing Jesse Allen on standup bass, appeared on A Prairie Home Companion's Gammage show in January and again live in Minneapolis in February. Keillor has said he "[hopes] they go on forever."
Run Boy Run is scheduled to open the main stage at Country Thunder in Florence at 1 p.m. today, and perform at the Rhythm Room with Elephant Revival on Sunday, April 14, with doors opening at 7:30 p.m.
The music is mostly in an old-timey bluegrass vein, but Run Boy Run's collaborative spirit, talent, and tight chops make even more of an impression than the details of what they're playing. Cellist/singer/songwriter Grace Rolland of Mesa sat down with Up on the Sun to brief us on a beautifully hectic couple of years as well as this coming weekend, which is going to either kill the group with exhaustion or set them on the road to fame.
Check out the complete Country Thunder 2013 schedule.
"We [Grace and her brother Matt Rolland, a fiddle champion] both knew the Sandovals [Bekah and Jen, who join Grace in RBR's trademark three-part harmonies as well as playing multiple instruments] growing up, because of the bluegrass festivals that Ben Sandoval, their grandfather, put on and that our family went to a lot, because of our father, Peter Rolland. But then Matt and Bekah met each other more substantially in college at the U of A, and they formed a band at that time.
"It wasn't until 2009 that they wanted to form an old-time band, so Matt and a friend who played fiddle with him, Mary Jane Epps, and Jen as well, they started doing old-time. They knew Jesse from a club on campus and saw him busking at some point and said, 'Hey, you want to play in this band with us? You play the bass.'"
Despite Grace's non-Old-Pueblo-dwelling status as a student at ASU Tempe, Run Boy Run managed to win the band contest at Flagstaff's Pickin' in the Pines festival a few weeks after the band formed in 2009. Gradually, as members completed their formal educations and it became easier to jam and rehearse, the synergy really took off.
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"Even before I graduated," Grace says, "Matt was gone for a year in Mexico on his Fulbright research --- Jen was gone, they overlapped a lot -- nobody was here at the same time until the summer that I graduated; that was the summer that we competed in Telluride [where they went on to win another contest in 2012] and that we [were] like, 'Okay, now we can actually start as a band.' You can't create if you don't spend time with people.
"We traveled that summer of 2011, we spent four, five weeks on the road together. Started out in Georgia and then went through the Southeast. It was sort of for the band but mostly just for fun, and to experience the area. And we just were singing in the car the whole time, so refreshing."
"We want to organize our time between the creative side, creating the music and performing that music, and then also the business side of keeping the band afloat and organizing and booking and that stuff. Right now it's a lot of performing and booking," Grace says. "Since the finish of our recording project, we haven't been able to really sit down with one another and write songs together, arrange together, so I think we're all really hungry for that time again." You can see how much fun the band had making custom videos for its Kickstarter supporters:
At Plush, Grace, who is tall and assertive, seemed like Run Boy Run's frontwoman, but she explains that she definitely doesn't feel that way. "I enjoy speaking in the club scene -- it's fun -- but there's a lot of switching of instruments that has to go on [while she generally gets to stay with her cello], so, I mean, we hand it off to whoever wants to talk about whatever.
"We each have an original song on the album and we're really happy about that, that something represents all of us, each of us." Yup, that's five songwriters, whose work melds almost seamlessly with a handful of artfully arranged traditional songs. It all looks and sounds like second nature to the close-knit group.
"My parents were really good about bringing music into the family without forcing it upon us -- but it was always there," Grace says. "It's been kind of fun to see how to go beyond what training prepares you for, like how to improvise -- how to use the instrument to make the music that you hear in your head. I've been really thankful to have the band as a breeding ground for that, because I don't think I would have been able to do it without these collaborators, without other people to play with and explore with."
Run Boy Run is the kind of band that begs you to dance during particular songs and is obviously entirely stoked when people do. "Nobody dances!" Grace says. "And then when they do, it makes my heart sing! Because you don't get to see that a lot at shows, and that's what fiddle music is grounded in; it's grounded in dance culture and dance halls and festivals and competitions.To see people dancing, I feel like I get to watch people coming alive a little bit more. I feel like it brings the fullness of a musical experience when somebody's dancing to it."
Favorites? "Blues, roots music: Black Keys, Tinariwen, Heartless Bastards -- it's a way of storytelling where the music matches the feeling of the song. A lot of us like English folk rock, Johnny Flynn . . . Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez and Laura Marling have definitely been vocal influences for us three girls, especially. And Jesse loves Wilco. And of course we love the Punch Brothers. Who could not love the Punch Brothers? And Milk Carton Kids.
"We're really excited to play alongside Elephant Revival -- we saw them at Telluride last summer.
"This weekend has actually been kind of -- definitely -- a weekend to prepare for. We've steeled ourselves; I think we've been trying to sleep a lot, not get sick -- I failed at that [Grace admits she had stomach flu in the middle of a performance last weekend] -- and practice and prepare for this weekend." (The band is also doing two turnarounds to the Marana Bluegrass Festival between Country Thunder and Sunday's Rhythm Room show.)
Grace's bachelor's degree from ASU's Barrett, the Honors College, is in theater, and she's also been very busy working on that program's current mainstage show, Soot and Spit. "I was the point person for gathering who was in the band, just because I know the old-time musicians in the Valley, at least in the eyes of the School of Theatre and Film.
"There's a lot of similarities between ensemble work and theater; and between musical ensemble work and improvisation; and the trust that you have to have with your other members, the space that you have to create for them to do their thing, and then how do you make that great? You respond to it, and that creates this motif; and that's kind of how song richness comes about, is when you can hear the players working off one another.
"So I think I didn't go into music realizing that there would be so many similarities. But I've really been surprised that there's so much creativity in music. That's something that I hadn't grown up with: that music was necessarily a creative thing. It was so there's a right and a wrong, there's on-pitch and off-pitch, and you have to practice, you have to go to rehearsal. And there was the regimen of playing music, practicing music; it was fun, but it wasn't this inspired, creative thing.
"And during my undergrad I stepped away from music, and now I'm carrying all the things I learned from theater, and all the ways of being free creatively, into music."
As fellow ASU Theatre alumni (in fact, it turns out that we attended all the same schools from third grade onward, albeit decades apart), Grace and this writer spoke at some length about Soot and Spit and the local stage scene, including how sad it is that there isn't a Phoenix Fringe Festival this year. Just to be able to go to something like 11 plays in a week does so much for my mood, I told her.
Grace says, "I find that I can't go to as much theater as I'd like because of the ticket price. I was having a conversation about the cost of seeing anything live -- how expensive that can be and how that cuts off people from experiencing the arts, because it costs money to put things in physical space and have physical bodies.
"We've been trying to strike the balance, for our band at least, and the nature of our work lives has become more and more important as we become less and less a local band and want to push into a more regional, national-level sort of performing band. That we have stationary jobs is more and more of an impediment to that push, I know, as we're setting up to go to summer tour and we're having to assess what that means to our work lives."
"It's too bad you can't be Roving Davey," I say. (The title character in Run Boy Run's epic dance tune "Roving Davey" lives by playing his fiddle and telling stories in exchange for food and transportation.)
"That song was inspired by a real person," Grace says. "I wonder if he's ever heard it. Because we met him in North Carolina in Mt. Airy [home of not just Andy Griffith and the annual Fiddle Convention but also Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins], and he is just this delightful creature of a person who played mandolin, danced, read, hung out in hammocks . . . I don't remember what his story was, exactly, but he was a rover. And happily so."
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Non-physical-space-based live entertainment and non-stationary jobs would do much to make roving a viable lifestyle choice nowadays, and if anyone's brainy enough to make it happen, it's probably the Rollands and their crew.
Run Boy Run is scheduled to open the main stage at Country Thunder in Florence at 1 p.m. today and perform at the Rhythm Room with Elephant Revival on Sunday, April 14, with doors opening at 7:30 p.m.