by Jane Roser
“Jay came up with the name.”
I’m sitting in a coffee shop with Lara Supan and Ben Potok, two-thirds of DC-based Americana band South Rail, talking about the group’s interesting origin story over lattes and the shouts of a perturbed customer who just had his coffee spilled on him by the poor girl behind the counter.
“There used to be a railroad- the Southern Railway that stopped in North Carolina, DC and New York.” Which is fitting since the band’s members, vocalist and pianist Supan, drummer Potok and guitarist Jay Byrd (that’s not a typo, that’s his honest-to-God kick ass cool name) have roots in each of these demographics.
Supan is a classically trained pianist who studied jazz vocals at Ithaca College in New York. “I grew up on Americana and blues music. John Hiatt to this day is one of my heroes, his stuff got me through so much. And I find that it’s easier to harmonize Americana music on the spot rather than rock or pop, but that only makes sense because I’ve listened to it for so long, it’s built in. It felt like home to come back to Americana music,” she says.
Potok, on the other hand, slowly grew into it. He was in a Metallica cover band in high school and was into heavy rock music until the day he bought John Mayer’s first album and “ate it up.” He has musical talent in his genes as his uncle, Don Was, is the president of the legendary Blue Note Records and a founding member of 80’s super group Was (Not Was).
Byrd hails from North Carolina where he co-founded a blues-rock group and then joined a Grateful Dead cover band named Wavy Train. He is the recipient of several awards from NewSong, as well as winning the Gold BMI Songwriter Award in the Mid-Atlantic Songwriting Contest. I’m told that Byrd is a musical genius who can turn any song into a country song and I immediately had an image in my head of “Closer” or “Purple Rain” being performed with a twang and I got pretty darn excited.
The trio first met, along with musician Wes Christenson who sometimes sits in on bass, when they answered David English’s Craigslist ad seeking members for his band Crooked Tree. They played with Crooked Tree for a year until they yearned to play smaller venues and branched out (I couldn’t resist the tree pun) to form South Rail. The new band then took off like wildfire, performing in hot DC area venues such as Jammin’ Java (The Lumineers got their start playing there), Iota, Hill Country BBQ and the historic 6th and I Street Synagogue.
“This is the first band I’ve been in that is a job, it’s a full time gig and people really want to know your personal, quirky stories,” Supan smiles at this and recounts a time when Crooked Tree was playing the Yoga Jam in Floyd, Virginia. “It was 100 degrees outside, there was a tin roof above us and lots of cooking going on. It was the middle of the day and people were still in their tents, so we were playing to a gigantic empty field…until we started playing the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” and three or four girls came out with hula hoops. They hula hooped for the duration of the song and then just left.”
When I ask about the support they’ve received from fans, Supan’s response is overwhelmingly positive and grateful “our fans are awesome! They stick with us and connect with us on a personal level. It’s so cool to see that, it validates what we do.” South Rail just started a street team and members receive an exclusive download of a newly penned original murder ballad. Folks, I have listened to this song, which rivals most traditional bluegrass murder ballads and I can honestly say that this one is just as good, if not better, than “Little Sadie” or “Cocaine Blues”.
With influences ranging from John Prine, The Drive-By Truckers and John Hiatt to Ben Folds, Norah Jones and Ray LaMontagne, South Rail has a passion for songs that, well, make them passionate. Their new eponymous titled album is the result of an ambitious Kickstarter campaign that paid off and then some. Supan recalls “It was a dream. We were scared to do it, it’s a huge undertaking to put that amount of work and faith into something like this. We put out a semi-mixed version of ‘Everybody Knows It’ as a teaser and people really latched onto it. What was so amazing was the people who just came out of the woodwork and funded the campaign. Over 80 people supported us and we were fully funded ten days before the campaign ended, it was so encouraging to see the support we received.”
“Jay and I have very distinct tones when we write,” Supan says “His is more Americana and country and mine are more blues based. I, as a person, need to write. In order to get the emotion out of me I need to write it, I need to sing it. It’s cathartic. Most of my songs are born out of necessity. ” Once, a fan came up to Supan at a show and told her that the song “Jealousy” meant so much to her because she didn’t know how to release her true emotions and feelings until she listened to it.
Five years ago, most people wouldn’t have been familiar with the term ‘Americana music’, now it’s become more mainstream with heavy radio play for bands such as Old Crow Medicine Show and The Avett Brothers. Jason Isbell and Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers continue to sell out shows. Entertainment Weekly calls it ‘the great folk rock revival’ and the train continues to ride, pulling in passengers from all walks of life. Potok believes “It’s an all encompassing term. Americana is a cross of alt-country, country, roots, rock and blues, at this point there’s a lot of genre inbreeding. Maybe when you’re defining your genre now, it’s more about what it isn’t rather than what it is.” Supan agrees adding “I think the term Americana is great because it brings a lot of sub-genres together, simplifies them and makes them more searchable. It’s helping the genre and it might be like what is the chicken or the egg? Was it that the term Americana made it more searchable so that people are actually listening to it now or is it that all of the sub-genres came together and created a sound that they deemed Americana and it became popular, but I would say it’s probably a little bit of both.”
Speaking of what it’s like working together, Supan says “Our personalities just gel so well. Everyone’s opinion has validity. We have such mutual respect for each other and it’s good to have an odd number of band members because if Ben and I disagree on something, then Jay is the deal breaker.”
South Rail’s sound is uniquely their own, yet steeped in tradition older than moonshine. Their first tour outside of the DC area lifts off next month with scheduled stops in North Carolina and the famous Blue Plate special radio show in Knoxville, Tennessee. You can listen to their music and join their street team here http://www.southrailband.com/