From symphonies, festivals and bands to singers and songwriters, we profile local musicians.
- Published on Tuesday, 12 February 2013 19:00
- Written by Tori Mier
"Oh, God,” Sam Guthridge mutters, catching sight of his friend and fellow band member, Marc Dykeman, as well as the camera and tripod. “I didn’t know this was a camera interview.”
He slides into the booth next to Dykeman and removes his baseball cap, tousling the hair beneath with his fingers. “No one told me I had to look good.” He glances up at me from across the battered wooden table, a smile tugging at the sides of his mouth in confirmation that his statement is, in fact, a joke, right before Dykeman bursts into laughter.
Guthridge and Dykeman are both members of the successful local band, Chester River Runoff, which also includes Ben Armiger and Nate Grower. The group has played with acts such as The Fleshtones and Avett Brothers, touring in Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and North Carolina, bringing their “aggressive bluegrass” to as much of the East Coast as they can. They are not, however, your average bluegrass group.
“We really enjoy playing with bands that are completely unlike us,” Guthridge says, “because it’s sort of a challenge, being the opening band and throwing down the gauntlet and saying, ‘look what we just did with a banjo.’”
When I ask them to describe the band’s sound in a word, it takes the pair—Chester River Runoff’s banjo and bassist, respectively—a few moments. “Only one word?” bemoans Guthridge. “Okay,” I concede. “A few words. How about a phrase?”
Dykeman immediately quips, “I think we just totally freaked Sam out. A phrase is good.”
Acoustic, radioactive, skilled, and aggressive are all words that eventually spill from their mouths. “We’ve been told we have a very honest sound,” Guthridge adds after a moment’s pause. “I think saying ‘skilled bluegrass’ is an important distinction to make, because there are a lot of aggressive string bands, but we can play straight-up bluegrass.” That’s partly due to the influence of the area in which the band was cultivated—the Chesapeake’s Lower Shore.
The region also had a hand in the band’s songwriting. “We’ve written some songs that have local history,” Guthridge says, “like the history of steamboat travel and the influence of watermen and sailing ships. We’ve also written songs about suburban sprawl.”
Their inspiration comes from the culture surrounding them, but Chester River Runoff perfects their songs through trial and error. After someone writes the basic outline of a song, Dykeman explains that it is then hashed out in practice and, later, the band experiments with playing it live. “We figure out different arrangements and different ways to work with it,” he says.
“With the songs we write, it’s not pop messages,” Dykeman adds. “It’s not just whatever comes to our heads. All the songs have some meaning to them. But they’re not just necessarily reflections of older bluegrass, either.”
Listening intently to Dykeman’s words, Guthridge nods. He explains that the band tries to make every song they write together relevant “in the same way some of the classics of the genre were relevant to the lives of the people who wrote them.”
This mindset isn’t the band’s attempt to be “modern or edgy,” Dykeman says. While they’ve shied away from writing and performing songs about such archaic activities as coal mining with picks and shovels, “we don’t sing about cell phones or anything like that,” he laughs.
“We’re honest,” Guthridge reiterates. “I think that actually describes us really well. Honest.”
Click below to listen to a clip of Chester River Runoff.
Watch Chester River Runoff perform