On the Road With: Cranford Hollow
Author: Frank Dunne Jr. | Photographer: Mark Staff Photography
You came to hear music, and you will. But for the moment, a visual image consumes you—something you’ve seen a million times: a South Carolina moon rising over a Lowcountry tidal creek. Tonight we’ll call it a swamp. Everything goes dark, and all you hear is cicadas buzzing, frogs and God knows what else is out there. Something’s about to happen. It’s hot and you’re sweating, but you want to stick around to see it.
A low buzz is coming from the stage—not yet a song, but a sound rising as if from out of the swamp. Phil Sirmans taps lightly on his bass strings while John Cranford gently strums his guitar, wandering back and forth, seemingly lost in thought, deciding what to do next. “We rarely go out there with a set list,” Cranford will tell you. That’s it. Abide by the feeling of the moment. It’s hot and you’re sweating. Distant lightning promises rain to cool things off, but you want it to hold off, because rain could blow this whole thing up and you want to stick around to see it…hear it.
A soft orange glow silhouettes a pitch black landscape across the water just before its source, a giant orb in the sky, peeks over the treetops, rising slowly. From your vantage point, ancient live oak boughs dripping with Spanish moss frame the scene. The rising moon clears the trees and, as if somebody just threw a switch…Bang! It turns beaming white and lays down a brilliant reflecting trail across the water, turning night almost into day. Welcome to the Lowcountry.
On stage, Eric Reid draws his bow. A few notes on his fiddle and all those sounds that didn’t quite make sense start to take shape, slowly at first, then all hell breaks loose. Thundering guitar, bass and drums roar to life in a down tempo but rocking bluesy rhythm. Cranford approaches the mike to growl out “Hungry, Hungry Eyes.” And so it begins. Welcome to The Hollow.
“There’s some freedom that you have, 30 to 60 seconds of doing that before you’ve gotta kick it into fifth gear pretty quick,” said Cranford, guitarist, vocalist, spokesman and namesake for Cranford Hollow. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past three or so years, you know full well there’s nothing hollow about a Cranford Hollow set, but damn that’s a cool sounding name for a band, don’t you think? Especially this one. For you rock dwellers’ edification, yes, these are the artists formerly known as Cranford & Sons. Seasons change. Bands evolve. This one did, and about a year ago, the time was right for a change. Simple as that—water under the James F. Byrnes Bridge.
While the name contains no deep intrinsic meaning, (The band let their fans vote and Cranford Hollow just sounded the coolest to them.) it fits perfectly, evoking images of their adopted Lowcountry motif from their on-stage look—beards, shades, cool hats and archetypal attire (somewhere between ZZ Top minus the glam and the Robertsons minus the “reality TV” artificiality) to, more important, the sound. You might call it Southern rock, but there’s more to it than that. “It’s always really hard to explain where we are,” Cranford said. “There’s never a good term that hits the nail on the head.” For the time being, call it Lowcountry Stomp. Has a nice ring, but what the hell does it mean?
Rock ’n’ roll? Sure it’s rock ’n’ roll—more Southern rock than any other sub-genre but, with some exceptions like “Waitin’ on that Train,” not as heavy on boogie as The Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd. Cranford Hollow’s sound is grittier. Reid’s brilliant fiddle playing throws a bluegrass layer over the whole thing that pays deep respect to bluegrass’s Celtic origins. “All the Southern Appalachian music was brought here by the Scots-Irish,” he said, speaking about the universe of genres and styles that inform Cranford Hollow’s music. “And we’ve got some rhythms that come from African music. It all kind of comes together.”
“Something that we touched on recently is this Eastern European thing,” Cranford added. “It’s like Russian, this classical sound of fiddle that Eric can very easily play.” Hear it in “Savannah,” the fourth track on Cranford Hollow’s new record, Spanish Moss & Smoke. Reid calls the sound Gypsy music.
Gypsy music. Three guys on a nomadic trek across the musical landscape, always on the lookout for something to help their music evolve and grow, while always faithful to their Lowcountry roots. But why try to define it? It’s there to be heard, so just listen. You’ll have plenty of opportunities this winter.
Just like their live shows, the band’s career kicked into fifth gear over the past year or so. After hundreds of local gigs and months of relentless touring, culminating with the October release of Spanish Moss & Smoke, their third studio record, Cranford Hollow is sticking fairly close to home for the better part of November and December before heading off to Colorado New Year’s Eve. The schedule includes four dates on Hilton Head plus a November 8 performance opening for 2012 American Idol winner Phillip Phillips at the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in Savannah. “That’s a great opportunity for us,” Cranford said. “We’ll be playing in front of about 20,000 people.”
That’s considered a bit of a break in the lives of Cranford Hollow. Sit down and talk to the guys about the road that they’ve travelled to get to this point and you’ll come away believing that this is the hardest working band in the land. “The biggest physical demand is the relentless hours of being on the Interstate,” Cranford said. “That’s the hardest thing about this, hands down, but it’s nice because at least we’re always going somewhere. There’s rarely a time when we say, ‘Oh man! Why do we have to go there again?’” That said, you still have to wonder. Playing 19 shows over 30 days from Hilton Head Island to Savannah, Charleston, Atlanta, Memphis, Little Rock and Colorado as they did last December has to take a toll mentally as well as physically. How do you get up for that night after night?
“When we get to a club we’re ready to do something besides sitting in the van,” Sirmans said with a laugh. “Anything. It doesn’t matter!”
It might appear monotonous to the inexperienced, the non-musicians among us, doing the same thing over and over. What a grind. But the view from the stage is quite different. A lot happens that we in the audience never see.
“There’s always that one show,” Cranford said. “And it usually happens in the middle of a big slew of shows. Even if the last three shows had issues, a song sounded weird or we had technical issues. There’s that one show that kind of brings you back and you say, ‘Oh yeah. That’s why we’re doing this.’” He recounted one such show; a crowd of about 450 packed into a small bar in Telluride, Colorado. The connection between audience and artist was right on that night, and a two-and-a-half hour show felt like nine hours—a good nine hours. There’s that one show. “It’s never not fun,” Reid added. “We could be getting back at 7 in the morning on two hours of sleep, but I’m still having fun playing with these guys.”
All three nod in agreement at the notion that one of the better aspects of being on the road is coming home—home to their own beds, their girlfriends, their pets, and Hilton Head in general, which begs a question. Why Hilton Head of all places? Why not L.A. or Nashville? Isn’t that where you’re supposed to go to pursue a music career? As usual, Cranford has an answer. Rather, multiple answers. “Well, if we were in Nashville, there’d be 10,000 bands. Those guys that play on the strip play for four and a half hours and they play for tips. Four and a half hours, no break. Straight through. And people are shouting at you to play covers. I think we’re in a lucky spot where we’re close to a lot of big metropolitan areas, but it’s nice to be a big fish in a small pond.”
It’s hard to disagree with that, or this: “This town’s full of a bunch of great bars run by a bunch of great people who are willing to pay you money to come play music,” he continued. “It’s easy to make a life as a musician on Hilton Head as a full-time job.”
You can regularly find the guys at John’s Music when they’re not playing or recording, just hanging out with other local musicians, maybe sharing ideas for the next Swampfire collaboration. Swampfire Records is Cranford’s side project for getting local artists together to perform original material at area venues. The shows are recorded and CDs sold around town. It’s an example of how members of the local music scene support one another and another reason that Cranford Hollow believe in their choice to put down roots here.
“I think one of the things we were all looking forward to coming home from Colorado was sitting at John’s and seeing all of our buddies,” Cranford said.
Another thing is that music distribution isn’t what it used to be. Technology—the Internet, satellite radio—has changed everything. You don’t have to be in L.A. or Nashville to be “discovered” by a record company executive.
“It’s getting easier and easier to get your stuff out there with the Web,” Cranford said. “With things like Spotify, anybody can look us up and hear all our stuff. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Nashville or Indonesia or wherever.”
That means it’s easier for everybody, so there’s plenty of competition, and the airwaves are cluttered with aspiring musicians of every stripe. You’ve got to go out on the road a lot to stand out and be seen and heard. Might as well settle in a place that you’re happy to come home to. For Cranford Hollow, that’s Hilton Head Island.
The more you think about it, the more it makes sense. The story of how Cranford Hollow came to be would sound familiar to most Hilton Head Islanders. So many of us came here without a plan, or at least one different than the one we followed. The same is true for the band members. Cranford, from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and Sirmans, from Milledgeville, Georgia are former chefs. Although he did pick up a fiddle early in life, Reid was more interested in slap shots and hat tricks as a kid in Southeast Michigan. Yet here they are, three guys with a plan and a common goal.
“The three of us really believe in what we’re doing, and we’re just trying to make a go of it,” Cranford said. “We’re all lucky enough to be in a situation where we’re able to do this right now, and that might not be the case in a couple of years. We’re gonna go as hard as we can until we can’t go anymore.”
To do that, to keep it going, means shattering the illusion that being in a band is a constant party. It’s business. It’s work. It’s a job. There’s stuff that needs to get done every day that has nothing to do with picking up a musical instrument. On stage, we see Sirmans playing bass, but behind the scenes, he drives, maintains the van, and fixes anything that needs fixing and directs loading equipment into the trailer (“It’s a big puzzle,” he said).
“I play the fiddle, and outside of shows, I do the finance and accounting stuff,” Reid said, “which is kind of weird because I’ve never been very organized. But this is forcing me to become more organized, which is good. Other than that, I sit shotgun and navigate for Phil when he’s driving.”
Cranford plays guitar and sings most of the vocals, sharing some of that with Reid, and runs the Cranford Hollow public relations machine. “In order for everybody to feel good and fair about their role, everybody has their jobs. It alleviates pressure off of the other guys. It sort of balances everything out,” he said.
What we also don’t see are the folks who don’t play or sing, but whom the guys consider members of the band just as well. Road manager Andrew Hetzel handles things like booking, merchandise sales and dealing with club owners. “We’re lucky to have a dude like Andrew,” Sirmans said. Cranford credits manager Nick Castricone, a former Xerox executive, with putting the band in a business frame of mind. “He’s really set up this sort of corporate structure, just treating this thing like a business every day.”
That business mentality, staying focused on a plan, is paying off for Cranford Hollow. It’s been a hell of a ride over the past three years for a band that arguably made the Hilton Head Island music scene’s biggest splash in years, and they’re driving forward, winning over audiences, selling records and navigating the bumps in the road like pros, personnel changes, for example. Drummer Julius DeAngelis, who toured with the band for about a year and played on Spanish Moss & Smoke, concluded a great run with Cranford Hollow in October. By the time you read this, new drummer Dallas Ackerman will have a few gigs under his belt. It’s just part of the business that you have to deal with, and Cranford expects a seamless transition. “It’s important to be able to handle any situation,” he said.
On more of an upside, the new record, Spanish Moss & Smoke, marks an important milestone for the band from a financial perspective. Raising funds through a crowdfunding campaign enabled Cranford Hollow to produce the record without going into debt. “We covered the cost of the new record,” Cranford said, “so we don’t have to spend the next year paying it back. We now have something that is actually making us money.”
So with a little money in their pockets, Cranford Hollow rocks on…but where are they going? Cranford speaks of the vision for what “this thing” is supposed to be. Is it shooting for a Billboard number one? A Grammy? Cover of Rolling Stone? “That stuff would be fantastic, but is that a tangible thing that we should be reaching for?” he said. “It’s way more tangible to run a business, have a product that you believe in that’s a piece of art and be able to back that product up by playing a live show. So that’s the goal: make records and stay on the road.
“I’d rather stay on the road with these dudes for the next 10 years playing shows and making records, getting to the point where we’re at least making a really good living. I don’t need a million dollars and a Prevost…well, a Prevost bus would be nice. Phil doesn’t want to drive forever! Anyway, I believe we can do it.”
Sounds like good work if you can get it.
For all things Cranford Hollow, visit CranfordHollowBand.com or Facebook.com/CranfordHollow.