If you want to make songwriter Michael Ford Jr. squirm, press him hard to define the sound of his band in a single sentence. As bassist, lead singer, and frontman for Nashville's Apache Relay, he knows how he feels about the aggressively twangy and melodic music he and his bandmates create. He just can't quite put it into words.
"Let me think on that for about six hours, and I'll come up with something concise," he says, speaking from Wilmington, N.C., last week on the first night of the band's current Southeastern tour. "It's so tough to do. Each person in the band has diverse musical tastes, and they all have visions of the band and what they want the band to look like and sound like. The overall sound just comes from that mix, from everyone's unique identities. A lot of times, people describe us as a rock band with roots influence. We're definitely inspired by much of the American Songbook and '60s soul and all sorts of stuff."
Ford and guitarist Mike Harris started the Apache Relay while attending college and sharing a dorm at Belmont University in Nashville. Ford had already earned a positive reputation around campus for his songwriting.
"I first started getting serious about writing songs late in high school," says Ford, who grew up in New Orleans. "Hurricane Katrina hit during my senior year [Aug. 2005], and my family moved from Louisiana to Florida right after that. My brother and I always had bands together, but my songwriting took off after that difficult experience with Katrina and the move, and then followed right through college."
Ford says the band name came from a suggestion from a friend who loved the 1995 kids' fat camp flick Heavy Weights. It was the name of a go-cart race competition between the chubby kids and their rivals.
"We're all '90s kids, and we loved '90s movies, including kids' comedy movies," says Ford. "At the and of that movie, there's a final race between the underdog fat kids and the athletic kids called 'the apache relay.' We felt like it was humorous reference — just a random '90s reference that we ended up embracing. The Myspace URL was available at the time. There's definitely nothing political or serious about it."
Ford and his bandmates — Harris, fiddler Kellen Wenrich, drummer Aaron Early, and kid-brother guitarist Brett Ford — have been on the road for most of the year, traveling and performing in support of a melodic and energetic collection titled American Nomad. They've mostly played across the Southeast and Eastern U.S., spending weeks as the opening act for Philly songsmith G. Love.
"We have a new drummer on this tour [Early], but the instrumentation and sets don't vary much from gig to gig," says Ford. "No matter the size of the venue or crowd, we try to give the audience everything we can. It's easy to let things intimidate you, but we try not to psych ourselves out."
While American Nomad has a few shadowy moments of melancholy (like the anthemic "Home is Not Places"), it's peppered with fun quirks (especially the cleverly orchestrated "Power Hungry Animals" and the title track) and occasional bluegrass/folk licks. Lushly produced by Nashville-based engineer Neilson Hubbard, it features most of Ford's recent originals including "Lost Kid," the second single from the album (it hit radio this summer). His chord progressions, hooks, and lyrics exude a sense of down-home musical confidence.
The new studio album also offers a soulful rendition of Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper," a song that became a live show staple for the band.
"We all were influenced by Nebraska, and we played the song out of necessity in the very beginning because we didn't have enough material to fill the set," says Ford.
So far, most of the critical and popular reaction to American Nomad has been quite positive. Some have hailed them as Nashville's answer to North Carolina's Avett Brothers and England's Mumford & Sons.
While Springsteen's influence is most prevalent on the band's recordings, the Boss' earnest folk-rock sensibilities weren't always on Ford's radar. As a teen, he was more interested in harder, more modern stuff.
"My generation in New Orleans seemed really into Southern California rock bands," he says. "I started with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mars Volta and got into hardcore and a lot of metal from there. Then I started listening to folk music and songwriters. Jeff Buckley's Grace was a huge record for me. Glee by the Avett Brothers was very big, too. In Florida, my musical tastes changed. I think it's like how phases of your life change."