A recently formed local band, River Bend, is poised and ready to unleash something new (old) to the area: unapologetically pure bluegrass.
Ironically, the group’s name, while it epitomizes Greater Alton, was christened by a music legend who doesn’t even live here.
“(Bobby Hicks) and I were talking on the phone and he just asked me to describe the area,” Matt McGibany says. “During our conversation, I was telling him about how the Mississippi curves here, a unique aspect for this area. He suggested River Bend as the name of the band.”
The group is made up of area musicians who are passionate about a “classic” and “pure” country sound, including McGibany of Alton (fiddle, vocals), Dustin Greer of Alton (guitar, lead and tenor vocals), Kris Shewmake of Godfrey (five-string banjo, bass vocals), Will Miskall of St. Louis (upright bass, tenor vocals) and Andy Novara of St. Louis (mandolin, guitar, vocals).
“You won’t hear ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,’ ‘Rocky Top’ or ‘Orange Blossom Special’ at our shows,” Dustin says. “We are definitely more obscure.”
Enthusiasts can check out the sound for themselves as the group kicks off its career with a show Sept. 25 at the Old Bakery Beer Company, 400 Landmarks Blvd. in Alton.
Bluegrass, these days most often seen as a country music subgenre, actually began as a conglomeration of Scotch-Irish fiddle tunes, traditional Welsh music and turn-of-the-century African-American banjo and jazz influences.
“It’s a real melting pot,” Dustin says. “It was one of the first types of music that really combined the black and white genres together. We are all drawn to bluegrass, and it seems like there is a bit of a void in a traditional bluegrass band around here, aside from the Harmans (Family Bluegrass Band).”
“There is a definite niche that needs to be filled,” Matt adds. “Traditional bluegrass is a cultural thing as much as it is a musical thing. There is some of the heritage and traditional way of life that is reflected in that sound.
“For us, it is a ‘carrying on’ of that tradition. In a technological age where things move fast and come and go every month, we are after something with substance and meaning that tells the story of the human condition.”
Early influences for the guys also reflect that experience, including local performers Cecil Tinnon and Kevin Liley, Paul Tinnon (Cecil’s father, who served as Alison Krauss’ instructor), Don Mitchell, Sandy Weltman, Bill Monroe, Tony Rice and Earl Scruggs.
McGibany, who studied under national session man Buddy Spicher, Jason Carter of the Dell McCoury Band, Paul Tinnon, Bill Monroe, and his own grandfather, “Lazy Joe” Greenwell, joins the other guys in citing another of his instructors, Bobby Hicks, who played with Ricky Skaggs for 23 years and has recorded more than 50 albums, as one of their strongest influences.
“I have studied under him for about eight years on and off and also worked with him in fiddle camps, teaching his beginner students,” Matt says.
River Bend plans on playing selective dates throughout the area rather than gigging every weekend (“Quality over quantity,” as Matt puts it). Plans also include the recording of a CD this year.
“It will definitely include original pieces,” Matt says. “We are all working on separate pieces, and also plan to collaborate.”
Part of that collaboration includes all five members in the same room at the same time, playing purely acoustically into microphones … not doctored or produced to create sounds not necessarily meant to be included in this style of music. The guys cite the Bluegrass Album Band, which plays live without overdubs, as a trend they would like to follow.
“What you hear on the discs is what they played that day,” Matt says. “There is a genuine vibe that you get from that type of recording. It is a feeling that comes through you into your instrument.”
Dustin, who calls it “executing a feeling,” is a bit more blunt.
“It takes years to learn to play tastefully and pull off live performances,” he says.
“It’s not something you can create out of thin air,” Kris adds. “This is a difficult type of music to learn and play well. For me, I feel a lot of bluegrass today is a little too progressive for me. We all play these traditional instruments, and there is a reason why we started playing these.
“We liked what we heard when we heard our forefathers play. We want to go back and play (our instruments) the way they are supposed to be played.”
That means using quality instruments to achieve that pure sound, often costing thousands of dollars for a single piece … interesting when the term “bluegrass” causes many people to picture a bunch of players in ratty clothes, sitting around a dilapidated porch while strumming and beating on handmade instruments.
And while they are more than happy to sit around and have fun listening to bluegrass parody band The Cleverlys, the motley crew that makes up River Bend takes its bluegrass seriously … very seriously.
“I grew up playing this music,” Andy says. “I went to school for jazz but came back to bluegrass. These are my roots.”
To learn more about the boys and their sound, visit the Facebook page at “River Bend.”