Most bands’ goals are fairly straightforward. You want to make plenty of good songs, hope that audiences respond to them in a positive manner and then have faith that enough folks show up when you take those songs out on the road.
The four members of folk-rock quartet River Whyless have made one of the year’s most critically lauded albums and are learning that folks do, in fact, show up when the tunes resonate.
“We see some people in the crowd that we recognize, but we’re certainly seeing a lot of new faces, too, which is really great. Sometimes I think, ‘Well, how the hell did you get here?’” singer and guitarist Ryan O’Keeffe says during a chat with the Observer while en route to a show in Chattanooga, Tennessee, from the band's home base in Asheville, North Carolina. “I’ll ask people where they’ve heard of us because I’m genuinely curious., whether it’s our social media, our publicity folks or it’s random pickups by NPR, which is probably the biggest. We were lucky enough to get in on that world, and the word spread to the outlets across the country.”
The band — with a name O’Keeffe describes as a combination of the members’ appreciation for nature, the ethereality of their music and some lines from an E.E. Cummings poem — has been going strong on the road. 2018 has been a particularly heavy year of touring, with dates in every corner of the country and a trip overseas planned for late fall.
“I was just texting with my wife and explaining to her that we need to find a time to take a vacation," O'Keefe says, "which is kind of what you don’t want to do when you’re perpetually traveling, but hey, vacation is still needed."
River Whyless’ was established after a successful New Year’s Eve show ushering in 2012. After that gig, bassist and guitarist Daniel Shearin joined up with O’Keeffe, singer and violinist Halli Anderson, and drummer Alex McWalters. The latter three had been writing and performing together since meeting as classmates at Appalachian State University. Although none of the band members is a Dallas native, Anderson has family in the area who strung together Christmas lights, invited neighbors and hosted a memorable house concert the last time the group traveled through on tour.
The band’s latest album, Kindness, A Rebel, recorded at Sonic Ranch Studios in Tornillo, Texas, has won over many top critics. An NPR critic wrote lavish praise for the 11 eclectically arranged tracks and has consistently championed the band’s releases over the past several years.
“The music is always great. It’s an hour and 15 minutes a night, but how you get to that moment can be heavier and more intense than it was a few years ago,” O’Keeffe says. “There are more parts of the puzzle, which can provide some fun moments in between shows, but a lot of times, you know, you’re just cruising around.”
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That “cruising around” time can be valuable for the band’s four members. All four are songwriters who contribute regularly to the recorded output. It’s a process that can bring about a profound sense of reward but can turn sour if communication and trust aren’t properly established.
“Because we don’t have a so-called leader, our band is very much a democracy,” O’Keeffe explains. “You really have to be able to strip away your own feelings and have empathy for where the person is coming from, even if it’s a song that you brought in. When it works, it’s really satisfying, but when it doesn’t. it can be heartbreaking. There’s not a voice there being the dictator who says, ‘That’s staying and that’s not.’ There have probably been dozens of songs where one person loved it, but the other three didn’t.”
The navigation, both in the studio and across the lengthy touring miles, has been worth it for River Whyless, even if a proper vacation can be hard to come by.
River Whyless plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 28, at Three Links, 2704 Elm St. Tickets are $15-$17.