Regional band Runaway Train is making the most of its members. With three songwriters and vocalists, one banjo, a mandolin and a cigar box guitar, the group is making headway in the original music scene with its heartfelt country and Americana.
Runaway Train’s Bobbi Fisher sings about heartbreak with a wink. While performing her song “You Gotta Go” at an intimate show at Dover’s Digital Street Studio in July, the audience smiled and bounced along, even though the lyrics were about breaking up with a deadbeat.
The band of veteran musicians is hoping that pluck — along with clever lyrics and musical arrangements — can break through to audiences who may not be looking for original Americana music.
Runaway Train formed a year ago when vocalist and guitarist Fisher got the call from a restless Jimmy Marsilii, bassist, formerly of the band Hyjinx. One of Fisher’s earlier bands opened for Marsilii’s, so he knew Fisher had the chops and musical style he was looking for.
“I wanted to do something different. I’m a rock guy, I’ve always done rock, and I knew Bobbi’s influences were a little more on the Americana, country thing,” Marsilii said.
From there they picked up mandolin and guitar player John Corrigan, who Fisher had jammed with before, and found drummer Mike Naumann during an open mic night. Naumann brought in the final member when he invited in guitarist Jim Rezac and told him to bring his banjo.
“This thing is different, and I knew it from the get go,” Rezac said.
Runaway Train’s influences range from the Dixie Chicks to Hank Williams. Listen closely and you’ll hear a smidgen of Chris Isaak’s beachy country twang, and the alternately bouncy, swaying folk rock of the Avett Brothers.
“It’s not super high energy where you have to be sort of pins and needles and butterflies all the time,” Naumann said. “It’s very soothing to the soul, this music.”
Nobody overplays, he added. The musicians let the other instruments sing, which gives the group a well-rounded sound.
When the group started out, it was doing covers from Lady Antebellum, Bon Jovi, .357 String Band, Sugarland and Little Willies. The ratio of originals to covers has shifted over the past year, though, to be heavier on originals.
Although the band has three songwriters — Fisher, Rezac and Corrigan — the originals work harmoniously when played back-to-back. Fisher’s material is often the stuff of pop country, whereas Rezac’s is more honky tonk, and Corrigan’s is more bluegrass, according to Naumann.
“My songs are kind of quirky and off-center, not quite what you’d hear on a country radio station,” Corrigan said.
The words come courtesy of the writers, with Naumann and Marsilii flexing their strengths in arrangement, said Rezac.
“You’ll hear a lot of bands say we all have input. We really do,” Rezac said.
Three separate writers, five musicians and a toybox of instruments to choose from. Fisher said the cohesiveness is, in part, because their influences all fall into the wide open genre of Americana.
“I think that usually is a broad term, but it incorporates some country, some folk, just rock and a hint of the blues. We kind of take from all genres,” she said.
Where they’ve found perhaps their biggest fans, or at least their most vocal, are at Cowboy’s Greenwood Tavern and Bull Durham’s Texas BBQ Steakhouse and Saloon in West Chester, Pa. The steakhouse and saloon welcomes the country crowd, with the floor filling up with Texas two-steppers when Runaway Train takes the stage.
Finding a venue to play live country or Americana in Delaware, however, has proven to be a challenge. It’s difficult enough to get in the door to play country cover songs, let alone original music.
“I’m kind of surprised at how many people are into that genre in Delaware, but there’s nowhere for them to go see it,” Marsilii said.
Rezac said you tell bars you play covers and originals and they’re shaky. You play the cover songs bar patrons think they want and slip in some originals without telling anyone and they keep dancing.
“I think sometimes let the music speak for itself and I think the original/non-original thing doesn’t become an issue,” Rezac said.
The band is planning to put together a CD of originals this winter so they can stop disappointing fans looking for music to take home from live gigs. They’re also trying to balance day jobs and playing more gigs, including two in Dover this fall.
Eventually they’d like to take on the folk festival scene and make more appearances at outdoor venues, like the state parks’ concerts.
“If we can get our original stuff out there and get somebody to hear it, I’m sure we can go through the roof,” Corrigan said.