A few years back, the local country band Delta Rae was trying to figure out how to get heard by the “right” people in the industry. The answer was obvious: Get a gig on Cayamo, the Caribbean cruise ship that always features A-list players like Lyle Lovett and Emmylou Harris. But Delta Rae, whose lineup centers around siblings Brittany, Eric and Ian Holljes, was brand new and didn’t have the clout to get a performing slot. No problem.
“We were not invited as performers, but we decided, ‘Screw it, let’s just go and bring our guitars,’ ” says Brittany Holljes, calling from the road. “So we bought tickets and we were like stowaways who would pop up and sing at random points for any crowd that would hear us. Some did, and that got the ball rolling.”
Among those who heard Delta Rae was singer/songwriter Edwin McCain, who had the group open his show when he played Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle; and also a booking agent who took them on. By the time Delta Rae came to the attention of Sire/Warner Bros. Records this year, the band was a polished six-piece lineup with a growing live following.
So Sire chairman Seymour Stein, who has signed acts including Madonna and Talking Heads over the years, inked a deal with Delta Rae amid much fanfare and released the album “Carry the Fire” last month. “The band is incredible, and it’s going to be enormous,” Stein told the trade magazine Billboard last month.
Just a little pressure, right?
“That does feel like a lot to live up to,” Holljes admits. “But the real thing is we hold ourselves to a high standard regardless. There’s an added bit of pressure, but the fact that he believes in us is an amazing bit of fuel that keeps us going. It’s such enormous validation. As much pressure as we feel to do (Stein) proud, we’ve always felt pressure to do ourselves proud with the music we’re making and the fans we’re getting.”
Based on “Carry the Fire,” the enormity Stein predicts for Delta Rae is easy to imagine. The group’s slick hooks and smooth vocal harmonies land somewhere between Mumford & Sons and the arena country of acts like Sugarland or Lady Antebellum – and Delta Rae would sound right at home sharing a bill with any of those. The group’s most distinctive feature is the vocals by Holljes, her brothers and Liz Hopkins. It’s a vocal blend that comes to the Holljes family naturally.
“We’d sing together on Christmas eve, doing carols,” says Holljes. “Mom, dad and my siblings, very cozy. It had a magical feeling to it. I’d listen to my parents’ albums, too. Joni Mitchell was my girl, and she still is. I’d sing ‘Morning Morgantown’ all the time. And there are stories about Eric being on my dad’s shoulder at age 3, singing very intense bits and pieces of ‘Les Mis.’ We were all singing since age 2, and Ian and Eric were writing songs together by the time they were 10 and 12.”
Songwriting remains Ian and Eric’s department, and they’ve already got a hit-song track record. Eric co-wrote 2010’s “Cooler Than Me,” a top-10 hit single for his Duke classmate Mike Posner.
Eric was also the initial writer on “Bottom of the River,” a house-shaking gospel-flavored song that is the first single from “Carry the Fire.” In shades of the well-known legend of Keith Richards composing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” while asleep, Brittany says that “Bottom of the River” came to Eric in a dream. He woke up singing the opening line: “Hold my hand/Ooh baby, it’s a long way down to the bottom of the river.”
“He sang that into his phone and fell back asleep at 3 a.m., the witching hour,” she says. “It had such a soulful feeling and I’d grown up listening to various forms of gospel. Ian said he could write a cool sort of call-and-response for the verse, and as soon as it was complete I said, ‘I’ll sing that one!’ I love it so much. I was the most fascinated with gospel when we were younger. That song’s only come into its own the last year, but we’ve been singing it forever. It’s definitely the song we’ve performed the most. We had to have sung it at least 300 times on Cayamo.”
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