Following the often-disappearing trail of breadcrumbs of traditional music, Run Boy Run went from local darlings to national recognition on A Prairie Home Companion and lot of cross-country touring.
But always at the sonic core of Run Boy's harmony-rich bluegrass was a combo searching for its own sound, its own purpose and its own way to create little stunners that connect with listeners in the here and now.
The band's latest release, the four-song EP I Would Fly, finds Run Boy Run harnessing their trademark harmonies for a batch of songs that ring with a more modern sound.
"Our musical focus has changed over the years as we've grown as a band and gotten to know each other better musically," fiddler Matt Rolland says. "When we first started out, were focused on traditional stuff, old-time music and bluegrass. Over the past seven years, there's been a lot of growth as songwriters."
The three female singers—cellist Grace Rolland, guitarist Bekah Sandoval Rolland and mandolinst Jen Sandoval—weave their vocals together into a mood that's nostalgic, longing and reflective.
"That spirit and focus definitely spills into our Run Boy Run material and the subjects we're focusing on now," he says. "All those influences are still there. Bluegrass and old-time music are definitely in our blood, but the sound we're going for now is pushing in a different direction. We have a unique voice to tell unique stories. We're not pigeonholing ourselves, but we're settling into more of our own voice."
After Run Boy Run's first performance on A Prairie Home Companion in 2013, the band got emails with touching messages, one from a woman who had pulled her car over to be able to listen more carefully.
"That was really powerful for all of us, feeling like we have the power to reach into someone's life. That's what every songwriter hopes for, but for us in particular, we care a lot about family and relationships and Bekah's songwriting especially speaks to that," Rolland says. "With each record, we've tried to do something new, to reflect where we're at as artists. Something to Someone as a record had a lot more original material than So Sang the Whippoorwill. There are a lot of songs about home because we wrote a lot of that material on our first national tour, being away from home and experiencing a lot of new things."
"Who Should Follow Who?" by Sandoval Rolland, leads off I Would Fly. Worked out before a festival in the Midwest, the song sets a tone for the rest of the EP. "It's trying to go a little more in that Americana direction, a little bit more personal focused, but keeping our characteristic sound and feeling in there," Rolland says.
Sandoval Rolland, who says she's deepened her songwriting dedication over the past few years, was selected this summer for a two-week artist residency program at Homestead National Monument in Nebraska. "I sought that out as an opportunity to be surrounded by other artists in that setting, but also to be in a situation where I had this very specific project and very specific stories to represent through music," she says.
Having studied American literature in college, Sandoval Rolland used her time during the residency to read about the homesteaders and begin working on a project, eight to ten songs, that reflects on the people who moved across America's frontier.
"I've always written from a historical perspective and always exploring people and relationships and how people are affected by a given challenge or situation in their lives," she says. "Some of these stories of the homesteaders are extreme examples of that. But I've been thinking about how relevant it is to now, people being uprooted and this influx of refugees having to figure out their identity and remake themselves in a new environment."
Mandolinist Jen Sandoval wrote "Lay These Stones," which brings a poignant perspective to the focus on relationships and loss. "It's inspired by this folk garden we went to Indiana," Rolland says. "A man whose wife passed away started building mini historical scenes out of pebbles. That was his way of coping with her passing."
The Carter Family's "Hello Stranger" closes the EP, a traditional cover showcasing the band's three-part harmonies. "We like to have a throwback song on every album we do," Rolland says. "That was one we did on the road and really liked it and having something more upbeat."
I Would Fly came together as a burst of new songs that felt right together and with two years since their last full record, Run Boy Run wanted to have something for their fans in 2016 rather than waiting any longer.
"This felt like a complete package of songs and really liked the idea of putting these ones out together. It felt like where were at as a band and we really approached the project wanting to solidify the sound and put out a fresh recording for our fans," Rolland says. "We're thinking of expanding on the ideas next year."
The band held a smaller release show for I Would Fly in September, but wanted to do a big show as the year comes to a close. Friday's Rialto Theatre performance, billed as a Special Christmas Show, is the first time the band has done a holiday show. Rolland says they'll borrow a bit of the format from locals Ryanhood, who join the bill on Friday and for several years performed their own annual Christmas shows.
"It's festive," he says. "We always like to do something a little different for our hometown shows. For fans who have grown up with us from the beginning, we like to give them something new and this seems like a fun thing to do."
The show will feature two Run Boy Run sets, with two special guests joining for each set, with Run Boy Run originals and sing-along Christmas songs sprinkled throughout.
"We're really excited about being able to do some Christmas tunes and the songs we're doing with the other musicians. It expands what we're able to do so much," Sandoval Rolland says. "We're so excited about the lineup and we've discovered there's a lot we can do with all the pieces we're pulling in to put together a very dynamic show. We have all these other female voices, so we're hoping to do something choral. We're going to do something elaborate and epic and exciting at the end of the show."