Keeping Up with the Gospel Whiskey Runners
Valley FolkJune 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos courtesy of Gospel Whiskey Runners
Just because you haven’t heard of the Gospel Whiskey Runners doesn’t mean you haven’t heard the Gospel Whiskey Runners.
Visalia’s best-kept musical secret is equally the cat let out of the bag. As such, the Runners are something of a paradox. Gospel? Whiskey? The two haven’t paired well since Graham Greene’s whiskey priest in “The Power and the Glory” – which didn’t really end well, either. But since 2009, this Americana quintet has quietly gone about the business of making upbeat, hope-filled tunes. And with a new album expected this July, the Runners are probably busier than ever.
According to Ryan Stillwater, the Runners played only a “handful” of shows last year, and none in 2015. “Oh yeah,” Stillwater laughs: There was a show in March.
Excuse Stillwater’s lapse in memory. Between his full-time job at the Rescue Mission and his other career as father and husband, Stillwater keeps busy, as do the rest of the Runners – spouses and parents, pastors and teachers, regular and busy folk, all.
“We all have jobs, we all have lives, we’re not trying to live the rock star life,” says Stillwater. “Nobody is quitting their day jobs.”
As busy as they are, and with vocalist Colette Boley living in Oregon, catching the Runners might be difficult. But if you missed the one live show (so far) of 2015, there are other ways to catch their act.
Over the last 90 days, their tracks have gotten about a million plays through online station Pandora. And since 2011? “Let me see,” Stillwater checks the statistics online. “Looks like we’re over 10 million plays.” Stillwater pauses. “Yeah, that’s kind of a trip.”
For most bands, that kind of success comes only with the daily grind, the long tours, the nightly shows and hours spent crammed in a van. All the while, the Runners’ success has come smoothly, not to say undeservedly. There’s another paradox here. Bands that find success usually find it at the end of the road, at the expense of family, work and home. But the more the Runners stand pat, pursuing their families, careers and homes, the more success seems to find them.
Even Stillwater admits the band is more of an extracurricular activity than a goal in itself. “We just really enjoy being able to do this and hang out, and if it stops tomorrow, it would have been a great experience. But,” he adds, “our friendships don’t hinge upon the band.”
This might be why the band works so well: they’re just being themselves. The Runners aren’t focused on fame or imitating other bands, though Stillwater says with a laugh that they’re sometimes compared to Mumford and Sons. “But that’s just because Jerrod (Turner) has a long beard.”
Maybe it’s easy for the Runners to keep things fun, since that’s also how they started. “We started kind of as a joke, a Christmas band, Jerrod, Colette, a couple other dudes,” says Stillwater. It just so happened Jerrod knew what he was doing. “At the end of the day, Jerrod is just a great songwriter,” says Stillwater. And Turner’s lyrics, which Stillwater describes as traditional and gospel-driven, are both deceptively simple and ambiguously catchy, like the Ticket’s “I’m going to ride this train to glory.”
The Runners came out with their first album “Hold On” in 2011, but Stillwater says they hadn’t yet found their groove. “If you listen to our first album, there isn’t really any shuffle, there’s no Americana sound. It was hard maybe for people to categorize what genre it was.”
Whether Turner’s beard got longer or the band a little wiser, expect a more solidified sound from their next album. And Stillwater admits some of the new songs are stuck in his head, and he’s “looking forward to getting them stuck in others’, too.”
And no doubt they will, since the old songs have already proven to stick. Songs from their first album have been featured on television shows American Idol, Homeland, Criminal Minds and the trailer for the second season of Orange is the New Black.
But the Runners aren’t really focused on any of that. When the yet-untitled album comes out, they’ll send it to both their publisher and Pandora, “and if something comes of it, great,” says Stillwater. “If not, we’ll just keep playing.”
Falling short of God’s intervention, don’t expect the Runners to quit their day jobs soon. So make sure to mark your calendars when they do announce a show. Stillwater says they’re considering a living room tour, and might put together an August run. “Or we may not.” Well, at least you can bank on one thing: new tunes by the Fourth of July. “Or maybe sooner,” says Stillwater. Well, whatever, whenever or wherever, the Runners’ new album should be worth the wait.
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