The first phone call to Timothy Showalter had dropped after about two minutes, and it has taken the singer nearly two hours to return the message, his timing interrupted by both a designated shift behind the steering wheel of his tour van and a freak windstorm that pushed the vehicle off the road. Strand of Oaks is driving through the desert out West in an attempt to make a gig in Santa Fe, N.M. after the previous night’s packed performance in Phoenix, Ariz., an eight- hour journey on the best of days. If miles traveled have taken the place of albums sold in weighing how popular a band is in the modern era of the music biz, the folk rockers in Strand may arguably be one of the biggest acts going today.
“I’ve had some fans hit me up before and ask if I realized just how wrong our tour schedule is, because I was playing a show in Athens, Greece and had one day to make it back to New York to play a festival,” Showalter says. “We just take the gigs when they come, because we played a lot of years when no one wanted us. That has given us the mindset that, when someone finally says yes, you have to run toward those shows before they change their mind.”
Calling Strand of Oaks a band is a bit of a stretch, of course. Much in the same way Bon Iver is synonymous with its founder Justin Vernon, so Strand is the brainchild of Showalter. The singer serves as the author of Strand, with each album acting as a diary of sorts for one of the great songwriters of his generation. Hard Love — released earlier this year — marks the group’s fifth full-length album and has become something of a harbinger for the commercial success that greets so many other acts at the top of the folk-rock charts. The thought has crossed many fans’ minds: could this be Strand’s For Emma, Forever Ago?
Or maybe it’s Showalter’s Here We Rest, Jason Isbell’s 2011 album that seemed to beckon at the success that lay just ahead for the man who now acts as the breathing definition of the Americana music genre. While it failed to break into popular culture in the way that 2013’s Southeastern did, Here We Rest did remind many who had written Isbell off in years prior of the talent held within his pen and served as a beacon to all songwriters struggling to fill a small club that a sold-out theater tour could be just over the horizon.
Strand of Oaks will play a venue slightly larger than those usually found on its calendar this Sunday night, opening for Isbell and the 400 Unit at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. Isbell has shown Strand this love before, but it may be a role that the band outgrows before too long, if their recent headlining spring tour is any indication.
“To be a working musician means that you are always ready for something new or different,” Showalter says. “I’ve had some wonderful experiences as an opener in my career, but we are much more picky these days about who or if we even support. The word ‘support’ is a beautiful one. The only thing that is hard for us is the short set. It’s a challenge just because we like to chase the spirit or the muse when we play, and that’s hard to do in 45 minutes. But that’s why it’s a great challenge, to be very creative with the time allotted and make the best impression you can on the audience.”
Active since 2003, it was Strand of Oaks’ change in direction with 2014’s HEAL that first gained them significant notice. Adopting more of a harder-edged rock sound — fundamentally turning his back from the mixing techniques that surround the band’s three earlier releases — would ironically lead Showalter to becoming labeled an artist on the rise within the folk world. By year’s end, HEAL would land on multiple publications’ Best Of lists, and the singer-songwriter would feel a little more confident about the band’s louder future.
“I think I wanted to make records that sounded like ye olde hard rock my entire career. I just always felt like a rookie chef or baker trying to figure out a recipe,” he explains. “I just didn’t know how studios worked, or to be honest, how to even write songs the way I wanted to. There are a lot of bad things about getting older, but one of the nice things is that you begin to shed the things that have influenced you, and you begin to be more of your own person after a while. With each record I make I get a little closer, but it’s kind of cool to think that I’ll never get to my goal. It keeps it exciting by keeping it evolving.”
As Strand of Oaks’ music evolves, so does Showalter’s life, which proves to be the circle that provides the narrative for the band’s albums. As a near-death experience due to a vehicular accident served to inspire HEAL‘s sound, so the proceeding three years have provided Hard Love with its musical direction. Exploring the balancing act of overindulgence and accountability that many working musicians find themselves dealing with at points in their lives, Love touches on the state of Showalter’s marriage during a period in which the songwriter admits life on the road had become a bit too decadent. It’s a sobering account of juggling a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle with the family back at home.
“I hope one day to have a record that is just easy listening or something like that,” he says, “but maybe the time I take to write the songs is the time in my life where I deal with these parts of my life. I’m laughing 90 percent of my day, so maybe that’s why it’s so important for me to have my music, so that it’s the time where I bring all this other stuff out. I’ve never been to a therapist, but I feel like they’d get a lot of money out of me.”
He continues, “I think to lead a joyful life, you have to be honest with yourself about how hard life is going to hit you sometimes, because if you think it’s going to be happy all of the time, you are going to be disappointed. As the years pass, things are only going to hit you harder, but I think I’m starting to learn how to swim through those waters a little bit better.”