Growing up near the Blue Ridge Mountains, there’s a special place in my heart for the bluegrass my dad played with his brothers and cousins in backyards and basements: simple strings plucked by the quickest of fingers, paired with harmonies fluxing from lullabies to rallying cries.
Though they come far from the same mountains, Arizona band Run Boy Run encompasses traditional familial bluegrass with a soulful (at times haunting) sound. They will bring their brand of ‘grass to the Bourgie Nights stage on Friday, August 21.
Formed while most of the members attended the University of Arizona in Tucson in 2009, Run Boy Run consists of Matt Rolland (fiddle, guitar), his sister, Grace Rolland (vocals, cello, octave mandolin, guitar), Bekah Sandoval Rolland (vocals, fiddle, guitar), and her sister, Jen Sandoval (vocals, mandolin, octave mandolin), and bassist Jesse Allen. When the crew met they immediately discovered a shared love for traditional Appalachian bluegrass.
“It’s nothing like it is out in the Southeast,” Matt admits, “but we grew up with it. [And] if you’re playing that kind of music out here, you probably know at least half the other people playing it.”
Run Boy Run is somewhat of a melting pot of musical genres and influences. Both the Sandovals and Rollands were part of family bands from a young age. Jen and Bekah’s grandfather organized bluegrass festivals all over the Southwest. Matt and Grace have a mother who is a powerful cellist, and a father who is a full-time fiddler and Western cowboy musician. Bass player Jessie Allen joined later and brought more of a jazz and rock background.
“I think that’s part of the reason we very quickly wanted to start incorporating other sounds into our music,” Matt says. “We like all kinds of music and bringing nontraditional textures into the sound.”
With two pairs of siblings, and Matt and Bekah, who married well after starting the band, Run Boy Run seem like the makings of a typical family band hitting the road together. But it wasn’t what they had in mind at first.
“It started off as being this fun, casual thing we did on the porch in college,” Bekah shares. “But what was really thrilling around that time was for Jen and I to meet these people who had similar experiences growing up.”
It was just a few weeks after forming when the group entered, on a whim, and won the Pickin’ in the Pines’ Band Contest in Flagstaff, AZ. “That’s when we realized there was something special there,” Matt says. “We started writing our own songs, and when my sister joined the band we really started featuring the three-part harmony and she brought in a different character.”
Since Run Boy Run’s start they’ve been praised by Paste Magazine and were featured a couple of times on NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” from which Garrison Keillor said of them: “When I hear Run Boy Run, it all comes back to me: why I started doing that show back then. I hope they go on forever.”
After releasing a self-titled EP in 2011, the five musicians played the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2012 and have released two full-length albums, “So Sang the Whippoorwill” in 2013 and “Something to Someone” in 2014. The latter was recorded in Bear Creek Studios in Woodinville, Washington. The young group collaborated with producers Ryan Hadlock and Jerry Streeter, who worked with Americana favorites like The Lumineers and Brandi Carlile.
Now, with one original song down and several more to go, Run Boy Run may have another full-length album out within a year. “We’ve yet to get together to work through additional songs and solidify the arrangements,” Bekah divulges. “We’ll hopefully start in the next few months.”
In what’s typically a male-dominated genre and industry, Run Boy Run’s three female vocalists strengthen their story and musical depth. From the sweet and soft soprano of Jen Sandoval to Grace Rolland’s alto on “Something to Someone,” there’s a certain ebb and flow throughout the album’s first and last songs. Each work like bookends of a larger story about leaving home and coming back again.
The album’s cover—a ship crashing through the sea—reflects an overarching theme of the unknowns of travel, the people met along the way and life itself. “I think what probably adds more variety and color is the fact that we all have really different voices and styles of writing,” Bekah continues.
Not surprisingly, the young vocalist has written most of the songs on the latest record. As an 8-year-old pianist, she began scribing original songs and instrumentals. From there, she became a very active writer by the time she started high school. Each member of Run Boy Run, however, penned songs on “Something to Someone” in a team effort.
“We put a lot of thought and meaning into the lyrics [and] our approach to songwriting is pretty individual,” says Matt, who wrote the music for “Sunday for Larks” and the opening track, “Under the Boughs.” It was inspired by his time working with an African refugee community in Tucson.
“While the songs may not be cowritten, they’re definitely coarranged, and it’s really exciting to hear your song take on a whole new character,” Matt tells. “It’s one of the things I really love about the band.”
“Under the Boughs” tends to get a reaction in front of a live crowd, as it swells instrumentally for a climax. While there are beautiful harmonies throughout the entire album (most simplistic in “Spin a Golden Thread”), listeners are introduced to intriguing characters in “Wild Bill Jones” and “Oh, Momma (Won’t You Tell Me What To Do?)” where a mother is asked what made her want to “wear a not-so-more white dress.” Other poignant moments are raised in “Heavy the Sorrow” and ”The Lord Taketh Away,” which slow the tempo of the album without bringing it to a grinding halt.
“Even though [the record] was pretty well divided between the major and minor [voiced] songs, we worried about the sad and melancholic being the dominant sound,” Bekah says of the arrangement.
Run Boy Run maximizes silent reflection and foot-stomping—even clogging—in songs like “Far From My Home.” The album’s capstone captures a completed journey, found love, and adventurers returning home.
See Run Boy Run at Bourgie Nights (127 Princess St.) on Friday, August 21 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $7 in advance and $10 at the door. For more information, purchase tickets or to listen to Run Boy Run, visit www.runboyrunband.com.
Run Boy Run
Friday, August 21
Doors 8:30 p.m., Show 9:30 p.m.
127 Princess St.
Tickets $7 adv., $10 DOS