Brittany Sparks

Artist Spotlight: Brittany Sparks

“I joined chorus in junior high school and would get goose bumps every time we would sing together in harmony. That’s when I decided that I wanted to be that vocalist. The one who gives you goose bumps.”

“I was 15 the first time I ever sang on stage with a live band and my knees were knocking. It was at Roanoke’s Festival in the Park and the crowd response was overwhelming. It was so emotional that I cried afterwards. I felt like I had found my home.”

“In 2011, my mom passed away unexpectedly. I still miss her every day. She could belt the blues like no other. During my shows she would yell song requests at the top of her lungs and have ‘conversations’ with the sound crew about ‘turning the damned guitar down so she could hear her baby girl.’ She always encouraged me to pursue my passion and supported every one of my musical endeavors. I’m fairly confident that if I stopped singing, she would haunt my ass until I started again.”

Red Clay River

Red Clay River: Rising Again

“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.

George Penn

Artist Snapshot: George Penn Jr

“Growing up as a little kid in the ‘70s, my first exposure to music was soul and funk. My father, George Penn Sr., was an R&B blues drummer here in the valley and some of my earliest memories are of him practicing with his band. Dad took me to see ‘The Godfather of Soul’ James Brown and The Jackson 5, and when I was twelve he gave me my first set of drums. I had a natural ear for rock music and fell in love with all the classics. To this day, my style is a fusion of rock and soul, sprinkled with a little jazz and reggae.”

“Music and drumming provide me continual inspiration. I’m in a state of total bliss when engaging with the audience. There seems to be a lot of confusion and division in society that’s rooted in paranoia. All of the strife and negativity breaks my heart some days. I believe that music can be the unifier, it has power. I just want to help spread peace and love through music.”

Robby Carden

Artist Spotlight: Robby Carden

“Music has always been a bonding experience. When I was 19, I had a close friend who was terminally ill and music served as an escape from the constant reminders of his health. We would play and noodle around to help elevate his mood. My experiences with him are what taught me to listen and react. Now, if I find myself in situations where I don’t know the material being played, I rely on the conversational playfulness of my fellow musicians.”

Blue Mule Roanoke

Blue Mule: Not Your Average Grass

Southwest Virginia’s rich musical heritage is steeped thick in traditional bluegrass and Americana Roots Rock music. Roanoke band Blue Mule embodies the traditional Appalachian genre, but incorporates its own unique flavor. A quintet of masterful stringmen, Blue Mule has fostered a progressive newgrass sound that has become a staple of the local music scene for well over a decade.

Tom Ohmsen (mandolin/vocals), John McBroom (bass/guitar/vocals), Tim Rhodes (banjo/vocals), Eli Williams (guitar/bass/vocals), plus recent addition Jerry Wood (fiddle/vocals), play a hybrid of intricately woven jazz, rock, blues, and country jams, all from a bluegrass platform.

“We’re a little bit of an oddity in traditional bluegrass circles,” said Ohmsen. “Back when I started in the 70s, if you weren’t playing straight bluegrass, you’d get run out of town, tarred and feathers. And usually it wasn’t the audience that objected. It was the old guard musicians who would listen to us and say, ‘That ain’t no grass.’

Emily Guill

Artist Snapshot: Emily Guill

“My parents both have beautiful voices and I was surrounded by music throughout my childhood. A background in dance catapulted me into a world of music, particularly musical theater at an early age. I was in the second grade when I got the bug to sing on stage in HMS Pinafore. For years after, I was a regular in chorus and musicals, which led me to pursue a BA in Theatre Arts from Virginia Tech.”

“Music took a backseat to graduate school and living expenses in New York City and Chicago. My love for music was revived when I was asked to sing in a dear friend’s wedding. At that wedding, I was approached by Alan Johnson to sing with his band. BOOM! From that moment on, I have been surrounded by musical gurus who have been amazing collaborators and talents. Glen Holmes, in particular, has been extremely integral to my development as a singer and in providing me exposure in the region’s musical community.”

The Missionaries

The Missionaries Say Farewell

Beloved Roanoke band and indie staple, the Missionaries, will be playing their final show this Friday at The Spot on Kirk. The event will be presented by The Bazaar, a combination record and retail shop, coffee/tea café, and music venue created, owned and operated by former Missionaries band member Jamie Booker. The store recently gained status as a non-profit, enabling the funds from its retail storefront to provide space and opportunity for musicians and artists to share their creations with the community. Booker and The Bazaar’s dedication to fostering and cultivating artistic expression in SW Virginia, is something we are particularly grateful for here at Blue Ridge Rocks. And it is in this moment of appreciation for Jaime, and with my fond memories of so many Missionaries shows, that I recognize the positive influence that dedication has had on their band.

It was an attitude that sprang from its founding member, Seanmichael Poff, and quickly spread, finding its way into the hearts of each and every band member that would join them on their decade-long journey. You could always depend on two things from a Missionaries show. First, their set would be killer. Secondly, other impressive bands would almost always be on the bill along with them. Often these were groups that you would not see playing at any other local venues. Missionaries members not only encouraged and shared the stage with the traveling artists, but even hosted them, often in their own homes. Their commitment to bringing in these special acts supplied the Roanoke Valley with a fresh vibe and expanded the music scene greatly.

Chris Shepard

Artist Snapshot: Chris Shepard

“Performing live is a hot, sweaty mess that gets me high, when it’s working right. The more I do it, the more I want to. I’m influenced by everything I hear, but mostly by blues, King’s X, the Beatles, Soundgarden, Primus, Mr. Bungle, Led Zeppelin … the list goes on. My first vocal influence was Lou Gramm of Foreigner. Then, I went on to Eric Bloom of Blue Oyster Cult, Chris Cornell and Mike Patton, but my biggest influence is Doug Pinnick of King’s X. My favorite performance memory has to be watching Albert Bouchard, of Blue Oyster Cult, playing cowbell on my song, “Kitties” as I meowed the lyrics, while wearing a goalie mask.”