Splendor in the bluegrass
Strange on the Range
Bluegrass act Strange on the Range were gearing up to play their first festival show at the Strawberry Music Festival, when thousands of acres of forest burned in what was later called the Rim Fire.
“It would’ve been a nice feather in our cap,” says bassist Bob McNamara.
But the missed opportunity, which would’ve demoralized a greener band with dreams of stardom, only made Strange on the Range shrug. The musicians, veterans of touring bands, have recently taken to building roots rather than spreading themselves thin.
“With us, it’s about music first,” says guitarist and vocalist Bill McKean. “Ego is brushed aside.”
McKean and mandolinist Zeke Griffin previously played in the jam-grass-oriented project Moonlight Hoodoo. The band played festivals and toured Europe, before evolving into Strange on the Range. The music then became more direct and focused, a departure from the extensive soloing and improvisation of jam-grass.
“We learned how not to bore people,” says Griffin.
Griffin started out playing country bars behind chicken wire, gaining an appreciation for working with an audience. McKean’s background is in ’90s alternative rock, and McNamara has played stand-up bass with rockabilly acts, such as the Swiveltones. Banjo player Scott Gavin’s claim to fame is a track called “Banjo Fantasy.” Something of a bluegrass dance craze, the song is used in national conventions for a folk dance called “clogging.”
Strange on the Range hope to create something bigger than the individual elements that compose them. Their aim is building community.
Before long, Strange on the Range were offered a weekly gig at St. James Infirmary, which later relocated to Brasserie St. James. Becoming a house band not only honed their craft, but also built a foundation for a stronger folk music community in Reno.
Acts such as Josiah Knight, Bryan Jones, Mason Frey, and countless others have collaborated with Strange on the Range during their weekly gig. Since its inception, the community has become even more tight-knit, with many of Reno’s favorite folk musicians gathering together to break bread at McKean’s own house for “Taco Mondays.”
“The St. James gig really allows us to work in front of an audience every week,” says McNamara. “We get to find out what works, and what doesn’t.”
Strange on the Range’s members have used this time in their lives to develop themselves in ways outside of music. Griffin spends his time crafting his own mandolins, many of which he plays onstage. McKean works as a lawyer, and McNamara applies his musical knowledge to work as a recording engineer.
“I don’t know if I could do music exclusively,” says McKean. “Being a musician is harder than being a lawyer.”
Full-time jobs don’t distract, but often pay off for the band. McNamara was originally brought on board with Strange on the Range to record their first full-length album. The songs were recorded live, with a few vocal and mandolin overdubs. Though the band was excited by the raw, earnest feel of the tracks, something was still missing. It came up that Bob was a bassist, so they had him lay down bass on a track. They liked the way it sounded, so they put him on another, then another.
“We did it all backwards,” laughs McKean.
“We don’t do anything normal,” adds McNamara. “That’s why we’re Strange on the Range.”