Isolation Drills: River Drivers

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Hi! I am Mindy Murray, and along with Kevin McCloskey, Marian Moran and Meagan Ratini, we are the River Drivers. We have been making music together for about seven years. The last time we all played together was on a Sunday afternoon in early March. We were at Fergie’s Pub, where Kevin often covers the Sunday ballad session. Kevin and I trade off instruments a lot when we play, and I tried to wipe off the neck every time I passed back the banjo or guitar. All of us were crowded around the tables in the corner. I knew that it would be the last time we would be playing together for a very long time. I work in healthcare and was already feeling very nervous that I might somehow unwittingly expose the others.

Writing songs and playing music is how I have been working through all of this. I’ve written a bunch of songs since the lockdown; a couple are about life in these times. “These Uncharted Seas” is a validation of the feelings that most people had initially. “Just Don’t Stop To Count The Dead” is about the disconnect and fragmentation within society framed by the pandemic. Sometimes I have to write a song before I can move on or else I get stuck. I send the new songs out to the band to see what they think. Sometimes we rework them together. Meg is our primary wordsmith, fiddle player and flutist. She is also my daughter.

We all have been moving in our own musical directions for the past couple of months, intersecting when we can. We released a single “Did Ya Vote” in celebration of the 19th Amendment and to get out the vote. It won honourable mention in the international Women’s Freedom Song contest. Kevin and I wrote it, but then the pandemic hit and I was pretty much left on my own to record it here in my living room/studio. Not totally on my own, because Kevin walked me through the bass part that he was hearing in his head, and I laid it down. Then I sent the music files to be mixed and mastered by our sound engineer, Richard Hartline. 

Kevin has been streaming every Saturday night at 8 p.m. on Facebook. He says he has had more time to play lately, and he’s sounding really great. He does a lot of songs he used to do with us, but every week he also pulls out a lot of wonderful new stuff he’s been working on. He’s crossing genres a lot more. I play along on the banjo or guitar and work out vocal harmonies while watching, but it is just not the same as playing with everyone. Marian plays along at home with her whistles and concertina, and Meg with her fiddle and flute. 

Kevin raises money for several different causes during his streams including The Philadelphia Tenant’s Union, Philly Socialists COVID-19 Mutual Aid Program and Philly Workers For Dignity. As a band, we have always tried to help out where we can and to be socially responsible. The majority of our causes are local, but we have a soft spot for West Virginia, too. I lived down there during medical school and worked in the rural clinics with the miners and their families. We toured the state right after the big flood a few years ago to raise money for those affected. 

We write and “resurrect” a lot of songs about hard-working men and women. About half of the songs on our latest album, Big Oak Road, deal with workers and unions. My dad was the inspiration for a couple of the songs on the record as well. The title song is about his family working the neighboring farms in the 1930s. And “Going Once” tells about how his parents lost their farm for back taxes in 1929. We dedicated the record to him. It was released just a couple of months before the lockdown and right before my dad died. 

A couple of weeks ago, I got up the nerve to do a solo stream to benefit the Bristol Boro Community Action Group Food Bank. It was the first time I played totally solo in about 30 years. In some ways, streaming is a lot easier than playing in person. You can forget that anyone is out there—kind of like singing in the shower. And there’s the freedom of playing alone, but it comes with the price of no one having your back and no one to share the moment with.

Marian has been playing around with different streaming platforms to try to help us all play together during the isolation. She was able to hook us up with the virtual Cup Of Tae festival in Donegal, Ireland, in the beginning of May. We were all heading over there to play the festival again this year until everything shut down. 

I do wonder what performing will be like in the months and years ahead. I wonder what it will be like playing with the band again. I think we have all been growing musically, and I wonder how different our music will sound. And I wonder what it will be like playing for masked people. We won’t be able to read their faces. But I never really perform with my eyes open anyway. And I wonder when the vaccine will be ready, because until then, we will be living in this new reality.

We just finished working on a new studio where we should be able to safely stream more than one of us at a time. So here’s hoping for some more music in the near future. We just filmed a demo there for this year’s online Philly Folk Festival, and we were really happy with how it turned out. We will post upcoming ventures on Facebook if you want to hear more.

Thanks for sharing our story. Stay safe and stay well!

Addendum
The first part of this was written in the end of May. A lot has happened since then. Though we sincerely hope everyone can stay “safe and well,” we recognize that this is an unattainable goal for many. It is routinely denied to people of color in our communities. Being “safe and well” is not attainable because violence at the hands of those who are supposed to protect and serve is a reality. COVID-19 also disproportionately ravages black and brown communities because the deck is stacked against them. Gig jobs with low wages, no sick time and poor access to healthcare give all illness, including COVID-19, the upper hand in any community—and such jobs are disproportionately held by people of color. This is not “safe and well.” A society that is complacent about centuries of injustice and structural racism will not be able to keep everyone “safe and well.” Blacking out your profile picture will not keep everyone “safe and well,” since awareness is only the first small step. Major change has to happen. We all have to do much better so that everyone can be safe and be well.