FOCUS //Promoting kindness one show at a time

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August 29, 2011
By: Jeremy Zoss
Jeremy Zoss

331 Club regulars Roe Family Singers see each performance as a chance to make a difference

If you sit down at the 331 Club with Kim and Quillan Roe of the Roe Family Singers, you should expect to be interrupted.

After playing every Monday night at the Northeast bar for six years, the band are on a first-name basis with those who come to the shows, and even a couple hours before their set starts a steady stream of people will come by to say hello: fans, members of the nine-person band, bar employees and even a drunk or two. But it wasn’t always this way.

“For our very first show, I’m not kidding, it was Kim and I and the bartender,” says Quillan Roe. “They had this jukebox on the wall, one of those digital ones. In the middle of our set, it just turned on and started playing ‘Little Sister by Elvis Presley.’ Right in the middle of a song.”

“A really slow song,” Kim Roe adds. “It was like ‘what do you do?’”

On the six-year anniversary of that show earlier this summer, the 331 Club at 331 13th Ave. NE is packed with people who have turned out to hear The Roe Family Singers, who blend traditional American folk, country and bluegrass with modern flourishes.

On this night every member of the band (including Kim) sports a moustache in honor of “Moustache Monday,” the tradition for celebrating both the anniversary of the Roe Family’s weekly shows and Quillan’s birthday.

During the set, the band plays a mix of original tracks, traditional songs and covers of tunes by country legends. The nine-piece band fills every inch of the 331 Club’s modest stage with instruments like a banjo, autoharp, fiddle, washboard, jug and even a musical saw. The audience bobs along to the uptempo music, many sporting (real or fake) moustaches of their own. During several songs, a tap dancer emerges from the crowd to dance along with the music at the front of the stage. It feels much more like a party than a concert, a front porch jam in which a bunch of friends came together for the joy of making music.

And that’s the point of The Roe Family Singers.

“The ‘Family’ in the name is how we want people in the audience to feel,” says Quillan. “We make an effort to know most of the people who come to our shows. We try to introduce ourselves to people we don’t know and people who come back.”

Building both the band and the audience into a family has been a gradual process. When Quillan’s previous band, Accident Clearinghouse, was unavailable for a show, he took wife Kim up on her suggestion that they start a band together.

“It was like, ‘Hey do you still want to start a band?’ ‘Yeah!’ ‘All right, put us on as the Roe Family Singers,’” says Quillan. “That was it. I called her bluff, finally.”

“Yeah, and then I thought ‘What the hell did I just do?’” says Kim.

Their first gig as The Roe Family Singers was a Johnny Cash tribute at Lee’s Liquor Lounge and the duo started inviting other musicians to join them onstage to make up for their lack of material.

“We just starting inviting anyone who was even remotely folk in the music they were playing to join us,” says Quillan.

That mentality led to a lineup of musicians that has grown and changed over the years. Some have been in the band since nearly the beginning, others have come and gone, and guest musicians have played with the group for single shows or weeks at a time. But through all the changes, the band’s following grew, as did the accolades. First they took the championship at the 29th annual Battle of the Jug Bands. Then came a much bigger honor — a McKnight Fellowship for Performing Musicians.

“But we did bribe them,” Quillan jokes. “We had just won the jug battle at the Cabooze. You bribe the judges there. That’s part of how you win. So we figured that if it worked once, we might as well try it again. Ol’ Spitty (jug player Rob Davis) brought them nice organic chocolate bars.”

The McKnight Fellowship is obviously a major milestone for The Roe Family Singers, one that hopefully signals the next phase the band’s career. Quillan Roe took the summer off from his job with the Wayzata school district to concentrate on music as a test run for moving into a full-time music career.

“So far it’s been going great,” he says. “You don’t get much more positive affirmation than a large chunk of money that you don’t have to pay back that’s specifically supposed to be used for your music career.”

During the summer break, the Roes have been performing constantly. Along with the weekly shows at the 331, the band has performed at shows like an international musical saw festival in New York, as well as shows closer to home. “Since we’ve had kids we’ve started doing many more family friendly things, like the Sea Salt Eatery, we play there twice a month,”
says Quillan. “The Midtown Global Market has a thing called Wee Wednesdays, we do that once a month. They also have a family fun night
we do sometimes.”

At many of these family friendly events, the youngest member of the Roe Family Singers comes on stage. The Roe’s older daughter, the two and a half year-old Elspeth, likes to join the band for a song or two. “She comes up and sings “O Susannah” with us, which is just amazing,” says Quillan. “It’s beautiful. I’m so proud. It’s just
so cool.”

The quantity and variety of the band’s shows are a big part of their attitude about music, namely that every show is an opportunity to make a difference. “You can’t play too much,” says Quillan. “The more you play, the more you have a chance to affect people positively.”

He admits that it sounds naïve, but Quillan, Kim and the rest of the Roe Family Singers genuinely believe that music can be a force for positive change.

“We want to use music to make the world a better place,” says Quillan. “That’s the simplest way to say it. We end every show by telling people ‘be kind, be safe and treat folks the way you want to be treated.’ It doesn’t matter where we’re playing, to how many people, what the audience is, we always say it. Because you never know who’s going be there. You could be playing in the most hostile environment and people might still be listening.”


FYI
For more information about the Roe Family Singers, check out their website — roefamilysingers.com.