by Bob Hanshaw
“You’re appropriating me? I’ll take it. I think of myself as a Tucson musician now.” So says Matt Rolland, a founding member, composer, fiddler and manager for the acclaimed acoustic group Run Boy Run. And Tucson is happy to have him.
“For a while, I considered myself more an Arizona musician… I felt pretty connected to Phoenix, obviously, being from Mesa, and traveled around Arizona a lot going to fiddle contests when I was growing up. So I felt more connected to the Arizona music scene as a whole.” But now his heart is in the Old Pueblo. After Run Boy Run returned from its first national tour, Rolland (and his wife and bandmate Bekah, née Sandoval) decided to settle down in the Armory Park district near downtown. He is increasingly making waves with a variety of side projects, integrating himself more and more into the musical community in Tucson, and looking on with great interest as it grows.
GROWING UP: RED SHIRTS WITH WHITE FRILLS
Rolland comes from a dynasty of acoustic musicians – his grandfather, Paul Rolland, was a renowned classical string pedagogue, his mother Gail is a classical cellist who recently retired from teaching orchestra in the Mesa School District, and his father Peter is a full-time professional fiddler and a standby in the Arizona folk scene. “I’ve been doing music basically since I was a wee babe,” he laughs. “We had a family band growing up called the Rolland Family Band, which is probably what you expect in your head when you hear [of] a family band. We all had matching red shirts with little white frills… and I wore cowboy boots and danced and played washboard.”
It was mostly country-western music that they played. Cowboy music, in other words. “[That] was a really big genre for a long time. And it’s still around, but it’s not nearly as popular now. It’s kind of rolled into [commercial] country music.” It made its mark on Rolland’s playing, though. Until the time he went to college, “my musical world was consumed by Texas fiddle style and by classical.”
The classical side was provided by his mother, and – albeit indirectly – by his grandfather. When Rolland was in his early teens, he began taking lessons from Patricia Cosand. “She had studied with my grandfather. Which was cool for me, because my grandfather died before I was born… [and] he was really influential in the string teaching world… It was neat to have someone from his legacy teach me classical technique and all that. So I feel like I absorbed his thinking and playing, even though I never knew him.”
The fiddling side was, if anything, even more deeply ingrained. “My dad got me competing in fiddle contests pretty much right away,” Rolland says. This was at age 6 or 7, when he and his brother Michael both took up the fiddle. They began at the same time, learned at the same pace – “we really pushed each other. We were able to challenge each other in a really good way.”
The brothers continued seriously fiddling through high school. “We would spend the whole summer traveling. We would pile into our minivan, as soon as we got our drivers’ licenses, and went to fiddle festivals around the country.” Those experiences also planted the seeds for what would eventually become Run Boy Run’s distinctive amalgamation of acoustic genres – folk, bluegrass, old-time, classical, and all across the spectrum. Rolland met musicians on the road whose work he particularly admired, “because it was neither contest fiddle music, nor classical music, but somewhere in that wide world of in-between zones.”
Rolland was particularly struck by Darol Anger, a founding member of the Turtle Island String Quartet; Matt Glaser, a jazz violinist; and Mark O’Connor, an American fiddle superstar. He ended up getting instruction from all three. And along the way, he won the Arizona state fiddle contest two years in a row.
COLLEGE: YOU’RE LOOKING GOOD, CHARLES DARWIN.
“Then I got to college, and I was just burned out on music,” he says. Given his intense lifelong involvement with the fiddle, it makes sense. “So I didn’t want to study music, I just wanted to step back from it a little bit.” But even though he was focused on getting his degree in economics (and even earned a Fulbright scholarship for his pains), he kept up the music. It was more diverse, more lighthearted, more fun. Rolland went deeper into Irish music, started learning the guitar and playing more Americana, and also became involved in the old-time scene in Tucson.
A side note: Acoustic music has divisions of genre that many people don’t realize even exist. There’s bluegrass, which tends to be fast, is often instrumental, and focuses on technical virtuosity. Then there’s folk, which emphasizes simple, clear songwriting and moving lyrics, often eschewing complex music entirely. There are various national styles: traditional Irish music has a large following, and Scottish music (for example) is quite distinct from it; and they too have their own internal divisions.
Then there’s old-time music, also called Appalachian music. Simple melodies, often instrumental, often very old (hence the name). Well-suited to beginners, as well as to advanced musicians, who might improvise elaborately around the original melody. And above all, beautifully suited to making music with friends. It’s the original “kitchen music.” (Full disclosure: I have had the privilege of sitting in on one or two kitchen jam sessions with Matt Rolland and the people he’s about to talk about.)
This story is “one of those things that I feel like [could] only happen in Tucson,” says Rolland. “I was a sophomore in college. By that point I’d started playing Irish music with Daniel Sullivan on drums. We would play really regularly at a farmer’s market… We were out on the lawn one day and I heard fiddle music, which you never hear, so I went to check it out. And it turned out to be a celebration planned by [the Biology department] for Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, and there was a trio of people wearing large beards and floppy hats on stage playing great music – 2 fiddles, a banjo, really legit… both of the fiddlers were PhD students in the Bio department.”
These were none other than Mary Jane Epps, Michele Lanan, and Carolyn Camp. Two of these may sound very familiar to fans of Arizona acoustic music: Camp is an influential organizer of the acoustic community in Phoenix, and Epps a prolific performer when she was here. “It was exciting to meet [Mary Jane] because it’s just like – I hadn’t heard fiddle that good, randomly, in a long, long time, basically outside of a fiddle contest. So it was sort of like ‘[I have] so much to talk to you about, but you’re wearing a beard and a floppy hat, maybe this isn’t the right time.’” They connected later, and Rolland began playing regularly with Epps.
(Incidentally, Rolland – who sported a real beard at the time – entered the Charles Darwin Look-Alike Competition and won. “Maybe that’s why it’s such a happy memory for me!”)
Through Epps, Rolland got to know most of Tucson’s old-time community. Also, “with old time music, it’s a lot about sharing recordings, so she gave me hard drives full of old-time music recordings. I mean these are things that have been passed around, musician to musician.” It was a huge influence on him musically. And Epps’ efforts also helped to knit the fragmented old-time scene together, as she and Rolland ended up playing with just about everyone in it. “I think she did as much as one person could do without actually trying to do it.”
TUCSON SCENE: THINGS ARE JUST STARTING TO COOK
Rolland’s father Peter “was a Tucson musician back in the day, in the 70s.” Back then, “there were folk musicians everywhere. Tucson was the hotspot in Arizona. And the Cup Cafe was a big meeting ground, even though it was called something else at the time. Every Sunday… even non-musicians would come and hang out, [at] kind of a hootenany.”
Things have changed. “There’s still a couple folks that were around back then who are still doing a lot,” but on the whole, acoustic music is not Tucson’s main passion. The community has aged, and there aren’t many younger entrants. Matt Rolland and Run Boy Run may be bringing it back – “There’s an older folk crowd who are really excited to see a young band doing something acoustic,” he says, and their packed headlining performance at the Tucson Folk Festival last year stands as a testament to that. But there are other young acoustic acts that get Rolland excited.
“Sweet Ghosts definitely have an acoustic bent to them.” Astral Folk is another group that Rolland loves to see perform, and he also cites The Missing Parts, “a great busking trio… very much like folk punk.” Then there’s Ryanhood, an acoustic guitar duo that’s long been a staple here.
And Rolland himself is working with Ryan Green (Ryanhood) and Ryan Alfred (Sweet Ghosts) on a new project they’re currently just calling The Trio. “We’re all excited to start working on challenging acoustic music… Bela Fleck-type stuff, weird instrumentals, things that take a little bit more effort to learn.” We all won’t have long to wait. “The plan is to do a concert at Harlow Gardens next spring… and by that time we should have a name.”
Rolland is particularly excited by all the commercial development in Tucson. “There’s all this new energy with downtown, new restaraunts, new bars, new coffeeshops, that I think can only spill over into the music scene. I don’t think it’s really happened yet, but all these venues… when they start competing with each other and wanting to get more business, I think they could turn to musicians. Even though a lot of them don’t have live music now, they could go that way.”
He sees potential for more venues, more music series, more music festivals – “With so much energy, it’s only a matter of time before things start building in an exciting way.”
Rolland even has ambitions to start an acoustic music festival here in Tucson, at a venue he didn’t want to name. More on that later. “I haven’t been talking to them yet, because I don’t want to offer anything I can’t follow through on.” Run Boy Run takes too much of his time right now for him to consider pursuing such a big side project, but he’s looking at next year.
Once he’s more settled, Rolland wants to “bring together that age-wise split… you have young people interested in folk music right now, and you have some rocks stars of the acoustic world that young people don’t even know about.” They’re all playing at Old Town Artisans, Monterey Court, the Unitarian Universalist Church, and so on: venues that don’t draw a particularly young demographic. But there’s room to change that.
“That’s a dream of mine… when I have a little more time, [I’ll] try to make that happen.”
RUN BOY RUN
Matt Rolland’s main claim to fame is also Tucson’s flagship acoustic ensemble of the moment: Run Boy Run. The group has enjoyed massive success on the folk circuit since its inception in 2011, with two appearances on NPR’s Prairie Home Companion and multiple festival appearances across the country. Their music combines aspects of old-time, bluegrass, folk, Irish and classical styles, executed with tight precision and absolutely pure harmony. It’s something very new, yet so rooted in traditional sounds that it seems like it’s been around forever.
The group consists of Matt and Bekah Rolland, Matt’s sister Grace Rolland, Bekah’s sister Jenn Sandoval, and their friend Jesse Allen. (It’s a family band all over again!) Matt manages the ensemble, and a recent move of his was to create a “vanity label” called Sky Island Records. But it has further potential, beyond the vanity part.
“We built this infrastructure [of production, distribution and promotion], and I could see down the line wanting to do something more with it. Like if another band came to us and wanted to be on the label, I would totally consider it… We’re calling it an Americana label, so it’s flexible enough” to put out a range of styles. “Acoustic oriented,” to be sure, but accommodating of the wide range of genres that acoustic music entails.
Rolland has ideas about what a label means these days. “I sort of see a label as a way to do projects.” Not just recording and releasing music – “To me it wouldn’t be that strange to see a label sponsoring a festival, or a t-shirt line.” He has turned a keen eye toward Tucson’s small labels: Funzalo, Topaz, Baby Gas Mask, Fort Lowell, PIAPTK, Diet Pop, Commercial Appeal. He wants to see what they’ll do next.
TUCSON SPIRIT, PHOENIX SPIRIT
“People, when they like something, reach out about it.” That, for Rolland, is one thing that separates Tucson from the rest.
“I think Tucson is just small enough that people feel like a family. Whereas, Phoenix is physically more spread out, venues are more spread out.” He recalls his experiences living in each city. “Tucson is small enough that people know each other. Feels like a small, tight circle – literally every person who I’m excited to meet and get to know, already knows [the people I already work with] – now I just expect it.”
He has some optimism for Phoenix as well, mentioning the new vibe in the Roosevelt district, the new group of bands and labels and promoters coming out of that area. “It seems like there’s a lot [more] friendly collaborations going on.”
But Tucson is his adopted home, and he’s dead set on making it an even better place to make music. And between his upcoming trio, his new label, and Run Boy Run’s already excellent contribution to the scene, there’s much to look forward to.
Run Boy Run will be performing at the Rialto Theatre in Tucson on September 5th, supporting Ryanhood. Their next album, Something To Someone, will be out on October 28th. Listen to their new song “Under the Boughs” here.
Bob Hanshaw is a writer and musician based in Tucson. He plays bass for Sun Bones. You can follow #TucsonPortraits on Facebook here.