This hot Alabama rock band is making waves
By Jim Hannaford
Photos by Stephen Anderson
Those early fans who say they knew the Red Clay Strays were going places were right. They expected them to make a big impact with their hard-to-characterize music, but they may not have pictured them wade fishing in Wyoming or stranded on the side of the road in western Colorado. For the five members of the Mobile-based band, these kinds of experiences are all part of an incredible life adventure that started about five years ago. They love visiting new places and making new fans, and they seem to roll pretty easily with the challenges that come their way.
The Red Clay Strays aren’t superstars, at least not yet, but they are steadily building a bigger fan base as they crisscross the country. They released their first full-length album this past spring and have been playing some high-profile shows, with more on the way. All of this means these young musicians – all in their mid- to late-20s – are far away from home a lot. So far, they’ve performed in 25 other states, and aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. They’re running the roads from the relative comfort of an aging but beloved tour vehicle they call “The Breeze.” The diesel-powered Ford started life as a 20-passenger bus but now has private bunks.
“We bought it for $2,500, and I think we’ve put about 30 grand into it, just fixing it up every time it breaks down,” says Drew Nix, who plays guitar, sings harmony, and helps write many of the band’s songs. “I’m not sure how many miles we’ve put on it, but it’s probably 200,000.” You can get a quick-edit glimpse into the Strays’ life on the road in their video for “Stone’s Throw,” a song about coming home that they co-wrote with singer/songwriter Eric Erdman, also from Mobile. The video was shot by frontman Brandon Coleman’s younger brother, Matthew, who is also one of the band’s main lyricists. His footage captures live performances from clubs and festivals as well as the band members’ easy camaraderie offstage.
“It’s crazy how close we all are,” says the band’s drummer, John W. Hall. “We are legitimately family, that’s for sure.” Nix agrees, but says they have all almost come to blows with one another from time to time. “It doesn’t even seem like friends anymore – it’s more like a brotherhood. Any time one of us is going through something, we know we can lean on each other. It wasn’t always like that, but now I think there’s a bond that can’t be broken.”
So what kind of music does this band of brothers make? With influences that include country, rockabilly, gospel, blues, and R&B, it may seem complicated – or maybe it’s real simple. “We just call it rock ‘n’ roll,” says Nix. Thinking a bit more, he adds: “I would throw us in that Americana box, which (by definition) is a melting pot of a bunch of different things. We’re not a country band but we have country elements, and I feel like some of our greatest influences are country singers. Two of our favorite bands are Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, but we sound nothing like them, so we don’t call ourselves Southern rock.” More contemporary influences include Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Tyler Childers. As a result, their powerful, passionate music somehow sounds old-school and fresh at the same time. Since their start, they’ve managed to easily appeal to people their own age and younger as well as folks who are their parents’ age and older.
From a first look at lead singer Coleman, however, many people wonder if they’re some kind of throwback act. He is certainly striking in appearance, and his hairstyle is rooted firmly enough in the 1950s to inspire endless Elvis comparisons. Once he started playing piano onstage in addition to guitar, there was lots of Jerry Lee talk, too.
“As long as I’ve known him he’s had a pompadour,” says Nix, “and I think he’s had one since he was in high school. That’s just who he is.” The comparisons get tiresome, but they realize it may be a strong attention-getter that draws people into their world. “A lot of people have something to say about it,” Nix says, “but I hope it’s the music that catches people’s attention more than anything.”
ABOUT THAT NAME
All of them grew up in the Mobile area except for Nix, who is originally from Hoover but later moved to Mobile to work at the University of South Alabama. Once they started playing together they had a couple of ideas for band names, but weren’t completely sold on them. And then the brother of bassist Andy Bishop came up with a winner. “There’s a lot of red clay in Alabama, so it seemed appropriate,” says Nix. “The more we kept playing together, the more applicable it was to us. I’ll be a stray my whole life, and I’ve always been a stray because I’ve always liked to be different and unique, and I think that goes for each one of us – we’re all unique in our own way.”
Whether it was the unusual name, the singer’s captivating look and voice, or the mature musicianship from this group of upstarts, the Strays quickly developed a loyal following in and around Mobile and across the bay in Baldwin County. An early compliment, heard more than once, was that they had lots of original songs that were as good as, or better than, the cover songs they played. They also have a reputation for making new fans every time they play. Hall has a more modest way of putting it: “Well, we’ve never had a whole bunch of people leave at one time. We’re always really lucky that they stay.”
CAPTURING THE ENERGY
Before long, the band signed to an independent label, Skate Mountain Records, and scored placement of a single, “Good Godly Woman,” in the film Doctor Sleep, which is based on a Stephen King novel. They weren’t happy with all the recordings they made, however. Once they got out of their contract they decided to try a stripped-down approach to recording. They wanted to capture the raw energy they’re known for rather than spending endless hours in the studio trying to sound like something they’re not.
They also knew they needed money for recording and promotion. They asked their fans for financial help through a unique fundraising campaign that offered various incentives, from t-shirts to signed posters to special Strays belt buckles that entitle them to free admission to shows. In just a few days, a total of 326 generous fans contributed a grand total of $57,715. The band members were blown away from the response, and are still trying to wrap their heads around it. “It was just so damn incredible and nothing short of a blessing,” says Hall.
THEIR ‘MOMENT OF TRUTH’
Unlike a typical live performance, their debut album, Moment of Truth, starts fairly gently and steadily builds, eventually showcasing an artful blend of all of those stylistic elements that make them so hard to pin down. There’s a spiritual thread running through the album, too, something else that’s vitally important to the band.
On social media, they asked their fans for their reactions to the album and what was their favorite song. As they expected, the soulful ballad “Wondering Why” was the frontrunner, but they felt gratified that most of the other 11 tracks got lots of love, too. They included more upbeat cuts like “Doin’ Time” and “She’s No Good,” which showcase the skills of lead guitarist Zach Rishel. “That did surprise me, that it was so across the board,” Nix says. “But that’s what’s cool about music – a song reaches the person it needs to reach. The more it connects with someone emotionally, the more important and timeless it is. I feel like that’s the name of the game, to make music that will still be with someone even after we’re dead and gone.”
In the meantime, the Red Clay Strays have lots more music to make and many more shows lined up, so that means more time away from their wives, girlfriends, and other loved ones. They’ve had a few successful runs lately, sharing bills with the likes of Anderson East, Midland, Elle King, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Soon they will open two shows in St. Augustine, Florida for the legendary country group Alabama.
So they’ve got some big plans and lots of cool places to be, provided that The Breeze will get them there. If it does stop rolling, chances are they can repair it themselves, like they did that time in Colorado when they got their own hands greasy and replaced the transmission. They do sometimes think about leasing a more luxurious home away from home, but then again, their current set of wheels has something else going for it. “It’s usually a pretty easy fix,” Nix says. “We know it inside and out at this point.”