The popular image of the singer-songwriter is a solitary one. From Bruce Springsteen ditching the E Street Band for lonely Midwestern vibes and a crackly recorder on Nebraska to the snowbound loneliness and heartbreak of Bon Iver on For Emma, Forever Ago, we most associate the term with artists bereft of backers pondering deep thoughts.
The story of Jeff Gregory and The Runout starts out this way. He lives out in Elgin and has a little workshop. Leading up to his 2017 EP Moonlight, he’d hole up in there, fine-tuning fingerpicked melodies and forging new songs that court maturity with anxious self-awareness.
But the project didn’t solidify until he reconnected with childhood friend Travis Wright.
“We kind of grew up cutting our teeth on each other’s styles and listening to some of the same stuff in the ’90s and went different ways in college,” Gregory says. “So when the solo thing came around, I was needing somebody to fill in some of the stuff that I just couldn’t cut myself in terms of some of the countermelodies and stuff that he’s just real gifted at.”
Wright, who contributes pedal steel, guitar and banjo, had played frequently with bassist Daniel Gibbs and drummer Gavin Brown, a rhythm section that had also collaborated separately, including regular jazz gigs. These connections bind The Runout’s expressive chemistry, allowing Gregory’s contemplative lyrics and the group’s sleekly ethereal roots rock to stand out in an Americana field rife with such material.
“So much of it is the history that exists,” Wright offers. “I was in middle school, Jeff was two years older, played guitar. I picked up guitar a lot because of what he was doing. We played from that day on until we both went to college and went different ways, and then reconnected. But so much of my playing has been impacted and influenced by Jeff, by the time we spent together back then. Even today, Jeff and I play the same licks.”
“For us, I think there’s a built-in comfort level that started in 1996,” Gregory adds. “It’s like those formative years when you’re growing up as kids, you like link psyches or some stuff like that.”
The players’ musical rapport shines on Ready or Not, The Runout's recently released full-length debut. Recorded in Columbia and Charleston with two proficient pop-rock polishers — Archer Avenue’s Eric McCoy and Coast Records’ Matt Zutell — it’s as rich musically as it is lyrically.
On “Carolina” and “The Hood and Sickle,” Wright’s pedal steel and Gregory’s fingerpicking eglide and tangle, embodying the bittersweet strain of pushing back against unyielding forces. In the first, it’s the pull of the place you’re from (“And I’ve felt a groan / From the floodplains and headstones of my family back home / I’ve felt a groan, I’m giving in, I’m coming home”); in the second, it’s mortality (“Up on Hermit’s Peak I found escape, but thoughts of my old man kept me awake / 16 months with tubes inside his veins, poisoned water flowing everyday”).
The band traces its vivid dynamics to the year of live shows it played between completing Gregory’s Moonlight and recording Ready or Not.
“I think the evolution from the EP to this album was like, ‘Yeah, let’s take this kind of studio idea, let’s put it on stage, let’s give it some backing, some rhythm, give it an opportunity to have more space from what I’m doing.’” Gregory reasons. “I kind of backed off of some of the fingerstyle stuff that was more prevalent on the EP. ... I wanted to leave a little bit more space for these guys to do sensitive percussion that rises and falls with a lot of the stuff and then these lead melodies and countermelodies.”
Gregory matches the band’s relaxed but sophisticated aesthetic with songs that are wise enough to admit what they don’t know. “Shoes” is an admirable anthem for cisgender white dudes struggling to enhance their empathy — “I’ve got eyes that let me see / Still my mind paints pictures for me / Why can’t my mind paint pictures of what your eyes might see?”
“Mama Put the Record On” rewrites the tired, Johnny-and-June fantasy of tortured male artists rescued by patient lady loves. After cataloging his many faults, Gregory sings, “So mama put the record on and I’ll make room for you / Cause I know you’ve got ‘em too, the things we bury away,” envisioning a relationship where each party works to better themselves and their partner.
When asked about the recent popularity of other acts wedding serious songwriting with dynamic rock music — from internationally recognized stars like Jason Isbell and his 400 Unit to South Carolina favorites such as SUSTO and E.Z. Shakes — the members of The Runout admit that it makes them optimistic about their own chances for greater success. But they’re unsure how much it impacts their material.
“I don’t know that the reception is something that is prevalent when I’m writing,” Gregory responds. “No, that’s a lie. I feel like it has to be. ... Maybe the hope in an example that’s been set by other groups, other singer-songwriters in the genre [is that] people have been primed for this type of intellectual lyrical content as well as a driving line.”
What: The Runout
Where: Curiosity Coffee Bar, 2327 Main St.
When: Friday, July 12, 7 p.m.
With: Admiral Radio
More: 803-357-2889, curiositycoffeebar.com