Black River Brethren

blackriverbrethren2Black River Brethren is a band from Springville, Utah (later relocated to Lehi - actually the town where the original 80's movie "Footloose" was filmed - and then relocated once again to the hometown of the drummer). "Relocated" is in this case a misleading term. A more correct term is where they come together and rehearse. The members are originally from different parts of US and are today residing in different places and states. I was for some reason convinced of that the band name "Black River Brethren" had something to do with "Black River Church of the Brethren" in Spencer, Ohio. This is, of course, wrong. However, I wasn't completely way off track since the band name, indirectly, is linked to a religious activity. The core of the band met when they were participating in missionary work, "preaching the Good Book" in Brazil from 1995-1997. The name of the city that was the hub of their labours was Ribeirão Preto (in the state of São Paulo). Ribeirão Preto translates to "black river". And there you have the name of the band, the "Black River Brethren" (hence BRR). But BRR wasn't formed there and then. Darrell Brown, Nate Jarvis and Matthew Thomas Nagel were all in Brazil at the time, but the two latter didn't really know each other. Darrell Bown was the common denominator and played with both of them. After they returned from Brazil, they all went back to college in Idaho (Darrell Brown) and Utah. Nate Jarvis and Matthew Thomas Nagel both needed roommates, so Darrell Brown connected the dots and helped them both that way. That is also when they really started making music together. They were initially inspired by americana grit and grunge. In an e-mail Darrel Brown explains: "When we first made music together in our little settings, our songs were largely grunge inspired. When we got together as a trio for the first time in 2003, it didn't feel "right". When we finally were honest with ourselves, we knew that music wasn't "us". We all went home and wrote new songs and when we got back together, the band that you hear now was born of that honest introspection - and we all went to our roots!". BRR started out performing in Provo (the music scene in Utah). The core members are Nate Jarvis (vocals), Matthew Thomas Nagel (fiddle, electric guitar and backup vocals) and Darrell Brown (mandolin, banjo, dobro among other instruments). Robyn Brown (cello) is Darrells wife and joined the band (with or without her knowledge) from the beginning. Shane Lee (drums) joined the band after completing service in the army (in Iraq at the time). Shane Lee is from the same place in Arizona as Nate and was also good friends with Matthew since he did some fiddling for another project of him. When Shane Lee joined BRR the full band was born. Trevor Reed joined the band on bass later. In the e-mail Darrel Brown explains: "We have always had a rotating cast of bass players (not unlike Spinal Tap and their drummers!), but Trevor was the right fit." This is the six-piece band Black River Brethren.  

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Black River Brethren has only released one album, an EP, "Anatomy of a Gun" in 2009. The album is less than 17 minutes long and consists of five songs. You may know ask yourself, why even bother with an article? The answer is that this site deals with quality, not quantity. Besides, their songs "Something Wicked" and "Ready to Die" are very catchy and the closest you will ever get to a hit song within the "gothic country" genre. BRR has contributed with a song (Something Wicked) on one of the four compilations (Rodentia I) in Devil’s Ruin Records series "The Best Of Dark Roots". That in itself is a mark of quality. The song “Ready to Die” is represented on “Compendium”, another compilation from Devil’s Ruin Records. My assessment is that the talent and the creativity was not exhausted in "Anatomy of a Gun" and there should be plenty more where that came from. However, it's hard to keep a band together in general and in the "gothic country" genre in particular. The band has experienced periods of low activity and hiatus, but they are not disbanded. In the e-mail Darrel Brown writes: "We are currently...paused.  We are all family people with other careers. Matt is a high school english teacher with a wife and four sons. I am a classical conductor and composer and I currently teach at a university in Idaho and my wife is a classical cellist that performs all the time and we have five young daughters. Nate is a business man with a wife and two kids, Shane just retired from the army and has a wife and older kids, and Trevor is an ethnomusicologist (he is a Hopi Indian) and currently in New York. That said, the band signed to Devil's Ruin Records while my family was in Texas, and we have been active in other ways throughout." A new album would be something to wish for. Black River Brethren are always talking about releasing a full-length album, but nothing official at the moment. Some new songs may become available through Bandcamp sooner or later.


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Black River Brethren has been labeled "cowpunk", "creepy country", "goth-grass" and "grunge-country". This is “gothic country” in the same vein as 16 Horsepower and Slim Cessna's Auto Club. BRR write songs about the devil, shotguns and pioneers. Most artists/bands in the “gothic country” genre follow to a lesser or greater extent a standard formula when it comes to their creative process, for example idea/theme first, then lyrics followed by arrangement/chords. In the email Darrell Brown describes how their songwriting process looks like: "We write our songs independently, then bring them all together. For example, if I write a song, I write a pretty fleshed out song with chords, lyrics, melody, bass lines, cello parts, etc.  but Nate brings lyrics, melody, and chord structure, and we flesh it out. It really depends on the songwriter and the song itself. They are all open for work. Sometimes we will work a song out, perform it, then nix it. Or we'll take it back to the woodshed and turn it into something better." In the email Darrell Brown develops his views on the creative process when it comes to finding themes, moods and expressions in their lyrics: "We find it inside ourselves. Matt wrote "Don't Come In Here" about a night at home with his kids. He didn't actually have the shot gun that is sung about in his hands, but the sentiment is very accurate. "Ready To Die" is about one of my wife's ancestors, and the chorus are his actual final words before he was executed by firing squad in the Utah territory back in 1877."

What is Black River Brethren’s claim to fame? Obviously, it’s not their extensive album production. The thing that makes them interesting is their setup of instruments (cello among others), their musical skills, their varied songs, the innovative arrangements and the brilliant lyrics. The icing on the cake is the frantic ”hillbilly” vocals. The future for the band is uncertain. There are difficulties in managing job and family for six musicians and at the same time creating space for their music. To increase the level of difficulty further we introduce the parameter of different geographical locations for the band members. Many other bands would have disbanded after doing the probability calculation. But, this isn’t statistics, it's ”gothic country” which defies both logic and reason. Black River Brethren is paused for the moment. This means that they can take up the music again. Maybe this is too much to ask for, but I choose to believe. Anyway, I have the deepest respect for their future decisions. 

Darrell Brown has a relative optimistic view when it comes to the future for musicians/bands in the “gothic country” vein. In the email, Darrell Brown writes: “I think this is one of the greatest musical veins ever. That said, when your torch carrier - David Eugene Edwards of 16HP/Wovenhand - abandons the genre, who knows. I have encountered some of the best music I have ever heard in this genre. I don't see it blowing up, but I think a steady course is set for sure and will continue. It is generally such honest music, and who isn't attracted to that? I mean, if Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" ("I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die") can be popular and mainstream, there is hope! But at the same time, singing about God and redemption in the 21st century isn't the most popular theme. But like jazz, there will always be those of us who thoroughly embrace it and hope to see it endure to the next generation. My kids have grown up listening to Cash, as well as the Carter Family, Hank Williams, 16HP, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, etc., so it will definitely continue. The circle will not be broken....". There was a sign of life in the summer of 2020, read more here (opens in a new window).

The album cover is stylish. It's not clear from the album information who designed the album art. 


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Below is a suggestion for a CD compilation.






Something Wicked

Anatomy Of A Gun

You Must Be The Devil

Anatomy Of A Gun

Ready To Die

Anatomy Of A Gun


Don't Come In Here

Anatomy Of A Gun


Anatomy Of A Gun

Best album: Anatomy Of A Gun (naturally)

Best songs: Something Wicked, Ready To Die, Don't Come In Here



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