Bringing improv to the traditionalWritten by Caitlin Bowling
With tunes that rush quickly along and take unexpected twists and turns, Sylva-based The Dan River Drifters are anything but lazy and predictable, like their name might suggest.
The band’s high-energy and sometime improvisational approach to bluegrass makes them an exciting group in which to listen.
Although they are relatively new to the Western North Carolina music scene, the group’s beginnings go back to a couple of the members’ childhood.
Long-time friends Jesse Lapinski and Andrew Lawson began playing open mic nights together and took the name The Dan River Drifters almost three years ago while attending Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. The calm, paddler–friendly Dan River runs through Stokes County, where Lapinski and Lawson lived as kids.
Over time, as the two made friends with other area musicians, the group expanded. Originally a duo, the band more than doubled to a quintet, adding Adam Bigelow, Tim Sheehan and Jesse’s younger brother Zach Lapinski.
“It just kind of fell into place,” Jesse said.
Jesse performs with the mandolin and guitar, while Lawson plays guitar and harmonica. Zach and Sheehan, who still attend WCU, play guitar and the five-string banjo, respectively. The most recognizable name on the band’s roster is Sylva Renaissance man Bigelow, who plays bass for the Drifters. Bigelow is heavily involved in many Jackson County community efforts, particularly environmental conservation. All five contribute to the group vocally.
“We are all good friends,” Lawson said.
Although bluegrass seems like the natural choice for bands in Western North Carolina, Sheehan was the person who really drew them to playing the genre, said Jesse, who used to play in a punk rock band.
At WCU, Jesse studied music education with a focus on jazz, from which the group took its improvisational style.
“Every time we do play, you will hear something new,” Jesse said.
The solo ad-libs give each band member to showcase his pickin’ skills.
“To me, when people solo, it’s like they are telling a story,” Jesse said.
During their shows, the Drifters play traditional bluegrass songs but mix in a fresh, high-energy sound. About one-third of the Drifters’ repertoire is songs they personally penned. Their tunes, most of which are collaborative efforts by Jesse and Lawson, take on some traditional bluegrass themes — murder ballads, moonshine and outlaws.
While the highest point in their career thus far came last April when they opened for the nationally known and locally loved Freight Hoppers, the Drifters most memorable performance was at a wedding in Cashiers with an enthusiastic audience. The wedding party had traveled in from Boston, and the Drifters had been asked to provide the music. Lawson said it was one of their best audiences.
“They loved it,” Lawson said. “I guess it makes them feel like they are from the mountains.”
Since most of its members have graduated from WCU, scheduling band practices has become more challenging. But, it has also allowed the band to expand its reach beyond Cullowhee and Sylva. Now that half the group lives in Asheville, the Drifters regularly perform at The Altamont Brewing Company and other venues around the city.
The next step is a CD — something they can give to venues to help them book gigs or sell to fans.
“Maybe a demo CD will get somebody to open the door for us,” Lawson said.
Hear them live
The Dan River Drifters will play at 8 p.m., April 14, at the Tuckaseegee Tavern on Depot Street in Bryson City. Or, catch them the following weekend on April 28 at Greening Up the Mountains in Sylva. The show begins at 11:45 a.m.
For a list of more performances or to hear their song “Blinkin’ Lincoln,” check out Dan River Drifters on Facebook.