By Stephanie Sowder Dorris
“Born in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with one foot in heaven and one in hell.” Self-described genre-bending band Red Clay River has a history as weathered and soulful as the Southern Gothic blues songs they create and perform. The tale of Red Clay River is one of heartbreak, hard work and redemption. From the challenge of creating music with band members located all over the state, to being robbed of all of their instruments and equipment while on tour, to making a risky comeback after a 6-year hiatus—Red Clay River has never shied away from a challenge.
The individuals that make up this outfit are as passionate and hard-hitting about what they do as the guttural wails that rise up and out of their lead singer and guitarist, Dan Bivins. With a recent and well-received return to the scene, there are many questions about where the band is headed next and what we can expect from them. Before we dip our feet in, perhaps we should explore how, where and when this River started flowing.
In 2006 Roanoke, Alt-country band Blackjack and the Longhaulers was coming to an end, and member Dan Bivins was ready for a new project. Wanting to create a bluesy, stripped down sound, Bivins enrolled the help of Joe Lunsford on drums, followed by Aaron Parker on guitar. Though known for his indie-rock leanings, Parker was beyond proficient at guitar, and Bivins had great confidence that his writing abilities would only further aid in the development of their new sound.
Next they added Greg Szechenyi on upright bass, and Camelia Delk on violin. Though mostly a blues outfit, they took occasional stabs at writing songs with an “old timey feel,” having Bivins step in on banjo. They recorded a few EPs and self-released them, but focused more on playing energetic shows than on song-writing. In 2008, however, the addition of Marcus Hodges on drums, and their explorations of other genres inspired them to learn and try out new ways of constructing tunes. Their efforts proved fruitful.
In 2010, they self-produced and self-released their first full-length record “Cover Our Faces In Soot and Dreams.” It was an impressive mix of apocalyptic blues, foot stomping revival rhythms, and haunting harmonies with tender, front-porch strings that also somehow managed to maintain an astringent, drunk-punk grit. Songs like “Build A Fire” and “Rattlesnake Mountain” provided decayed vignettes of Southern mountain life, while Bivins told tales of woe or cried out in angst in his signature barbed-wire timbre. Camelia Delk’s vocals flew in smoothly like a songbird landing on Dan’s shoulder, and provided a comforting and angelic contrast to his devilish, seductive tones.
The percussion was creative, involving everything from an oil drum to banging on the walls. The emotional manipulation of the sweeping sounds from the violin, the unique layering of the bass and guitars, and the gin-soaked, American folk lyrics made this album a complete novelty upon its release. Music lovers of the Blue Ridge were familiar with blues, Americana and country, but this album defied classification and impressed with its freshness, quickly garnering the band great popularity and a local cult following.
Following the success of their album release, the band toured up and down parts of the east coast. Sadly, on April 9th, 2010, while on the last leg of a two-week tour, the band had their van stolen following a gig at The Knitting Factory in NYC. Inside, they had left their equipment and instruments. Though the van was recovered, the rest was never located. This was certainly an enormous blow, and it forced them to cut short a successful tour.
“A light note to the story is that people collected money for us at the Jersey and Richmond shows that we missed. Also, bands in Roanoke donated money from a show to help us get going again. We were blown away by the generosity of the scene in trying to help us out,” Dan related while telling the unfortunate tale.
Though they continued as a band for a few months, in July of 2011 they decided to take an indefinite break. Their final show was on June 25th at the former Kirk Ave. Music Hall. Fans were saddened but understood in light of their struggles and the physical distance between each of their members. Nonetheless, they kept hope that the break would be temporary and short lived. Yet as years passed by, it seemed more and more likely that Red Clay River was turning into “the river of no return.”
All of that changed, however, on Halloween of last year when, seemingly out of nowhere and after a 6-year hiatus, the band (now trimmed down to members Parker, Bivins and Delk) surprised everyone with a Facebook post promising new songs and upcoming shows. “Long time no see!”, they joked while delighting fans with their announcement to release a new song every month throughout the Spring and Summer. They kept their word.
First, there was the demo “Lunch Break Remedies,” followed by the singles “Silence Shakes Free,” “Drowning in the Glow of the Moon,” and “No Love.” While the new songs remained true to Red Clay River’s bluesy roots and didn’t seem any less full in sound despite the decrease in band members, it differed from their former material in its delivery and style. Hearing them now suggests that their song writing process has graduated into a more artistically detailed and experimental method. It is as if Red Clay River was a fine bourbon pulled from the shelf, returned to the barrel, and left to further age so that when it was finally on the shelves again, it had become a richer, spicier and stronger batch.
When I asked Dan if they had a new, specific style they were going for, he explained that “currently our influences are all over the place. We are experimenting in songwriting by creating sounds using digital percussion, samplers and field recordings.” He also clarified that when he first started Red Clay River, he listened to a great deal of old country and blues, but as the years passed he primarily explored the records of Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart. This came as no surprise to me, as Bivins’ voice has often reminded me of a purer, more pitch-perfect Tom Waits.
Music critic Daniel Durchholz once described Waits’ voice as sounding like “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” The same can be said of Bivins. I was even more delighted when Dan went on to exclaim “Tom Waits sounded a lot like Howlin’ Wolf who was a hero of mine. He just added some stranger elements and darkened the mood.” When asked what spurred the decision to change up their sound, Dan responded “I feel like if we are not evolving then we are doing a disservice to ourselves and those listening.”
While it has been a long time coming, fans are thrilled to have their River flowing again, and look forward to what is around the bend. Their latest release came on July 5, 2016. The video, which featured the previously unreleased song “Flags Waving,” was filmed in Elliston, VA by Hunter Dickenson and Ryan McCue, and quickly made the Facebook rounds. The song is scheduled to debut on an album they plan to release in the upcoming fall or winter. In the meantime, you can hear their music and stay up to date with the band on their website, www.redclayriver.com. I leave you with the following poem:
I would love to live
like a river flows.
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.
Yes, the Blue Ridge music scene is pleasantly surprised by this new unfolding—this “rebirth,” but perhaps none of us are more surprised than the members of Red Clay River themselves. Welcome back!