You might have recently discovered Run Boy Run, a Tucson, Ariz., group performing and presenting workshops at the Ogden Music Festival next weekend.
You may have heard the band when it played two episodes within a month’s time last winter on Garrison Keillor’s NPR radio program “A Prairie Home Companion.”
“Like a lot of music things, it is a story of connections,” said fiddler/guitarist Matt Rolland, who manages the band, which also includes sister Grace on vocals and cello, Bekah Sandoval on vocals and fiddle, Jen Sandoval on vocals and mandolin, and Jesse Allen on bass.
The Rollands’ mom, a symphony musician, met a violinist who had once been a photographer for the Keillor radio show.
Said Rolland: “She did the mom thing — ‘Oh, my kids are in this great band, a perfect fit for the show!’ ”
Turns out, the kindhearted violinist agreed, and talked to the show’s producer. After Keillor himself approved — he has final approval on all of the bands appearing on the program — Run Boy Run was invited to perform on an episode being recorded in Tempe, Ariz., just up the road a couple of hours from Tucson.
“It was a thrill — an impossibility, and on all of our bucket lists,” said Rolland. “And it came out of the blue. And then, better yet, they had us back so quickly!”
After the second appearance, things started taking off for the band nationally. The show’s producers said they’d seen it happen enough times to young bands that they had coined a name for it — The “Prairie” Effect.
“So many people came to our website that it crashed — that was one of the most exciting things to happen to us,” said Matt Rolland.
Allen, the Sandovals and the Rollands all grew up playing in family bands. The Rollands’ father was a fiddler, known as a good player around the Arizona fiddle scene. The Sandoval sisters’ grandfather was a major bluegrass promoter in the Grand Canyon State. Paths crossed, friendships were struck.
“We’ve known their family a long time,” said Rolland of the Sandovals. “So it was natural when it started, from the beginning.”
The beginning was just more than three years ago, during the band members’ college years.
“Jesse, I knew him, and we played music in a club together,” said Matt Rolland. “ And I wanted to start this old-time string band, or something along those lines, using an upright bass. So that was the beginning. And then my sister, who was abroad at the time, returned and she joined us, too.”
Rolland’s original idea was to use traditional instruments — if perhaps not entirely traditional for bluegrass. Yes, there are fiddles — two, in fact — but cello is more unusual. And the typical banjo and guitar are not usually in attendance.
“It’s a cool challenge, because you have to learn to fill out the sound with what you have instead,” said Rolland. “That has been a big part of this band — working to fill out the sound in a pleasing, nice way.”
Though it started as a traditional project, and with traditional songs, soon both Rollands were writing songs. Then the Sandovals and Allen started doing the same.
“We all contribute,” said Rolland. “Our first full-length has one song written by everyone in the band. I think that is one of the cool things about this band. It is more collaborative.”
The women of the band are known for their three-part vocal harmonies. They had mastered blending voices before their tenure in Run Boy Run, learned by performing together in their own project.
“The ranges their voices are in, it really fits together really well,” said Rolland. “And since they had a trio together before Run Boy Run, from our beginning we were lucky enough to have a repertoire they already had developed.”
Call it newgrass, neo-grass, fresh old-timey, or what you will, Run Boy Run’s timing is right, as far as support for this kind of music.
Old became new at the change of the millennium, in part due to a boost from the hit movie and soundtrack of the 2000 Coen brothers’ film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Young players started picking up traditional instruments and going places with them in the biggest numbers since the early ’60s.
Rolland is proud to be a part of that thriving scene, and said he thinks most of the players involved are astoundingly talented. But some get so interested in their own chops, they let the song go by the wayside.
“I read a nice article in No Depression,” said Rolland. “These groups who play this, they tend to be made up of people with really strong chops, and sometimes it is just too easy for those kinds of players to escalate into really heady, hard-to-get chops. We try to be conscious of not letting things escalate that way — to keep the focus on the song.”
Run Boy Run is, in the end, made up of people who consider themselves songwriters, said Rolland.
“Because of that, I think, instead of needing these crazy musical layers or whatever, we want to have nice music — something that anyone can appreciate.”