Delta Rae still believes in the power of the written word.
Before their concert at Bowery Ballroom earlier this week, the country music group sent handwritten notes — in the mail no less — to a few influencers in New York, inviting them to join them at the show. And the press materials for their first EP album on Valory Music Co. includes a handwritten essay by guitarist Ian Holljes on the inspiration behind their first release, “A Long and Happy Life.”
Holljes is joined in Delta Rae by his sister Brittany, lead vocalist; brother Eric, pianist and guitarist, and three nonfamily members: singer Liz Hopkins; bassist — and author of the note — Grant Emerson, and drummer Mike McKee.
The close-knit group from Durham, N.C., may be new to country music but has been making music for most of their lives. Ian and Eric started out as songwriters on the West Coast more than a decade ago and cowrote “Cooler Than Me,” a top-10 pop hit for Mike Posner before moving back to North Carolina to attend Duke University. After graduating, they asked their sister and Hopkins to join them, then added Emerson and McKee to complete the circle.
Originally, their style was more indie pop and alternative rock, and their first single, “Bottom of the River,” became the theme song for the season six trailer of “True Blood.” That success led to a series of festival performances including Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, as well as appearances on several late-night television shows.
Their Bowery Ballroom performance was the third of close to 60 dates the group will play around the country this summer. And while their travels will take them everywhere from Boston and Philadelphia to Phoenix and Okmulgee, Okla., New York holds a special place in their hearts.
“We’ve been playing here almost since our inception as a band,” Brittany said. “We decided it would be our satellite market outside of our hometown, the main place we wanted to travel and grow. As soon as we were able to play a full set, we would make the nine-hour drive up from North Carolina almost on a monthly basis, as a caravan of cars, we didn’t have a van yet. We played Rockwood 1, our first show was at 5 p.m., and 20 or 30 people showed up, mostly friends.”
But their popularity continued to grow and they also signed on to play such legendary spots as the Bitter End and Irving Plaza.
The city also holds a special significance for Hopkins, who used to live here and worked at a coffee shop in the West Village. “We have to make sure she gets back in the van when we’re done,” Brittany joked.
Since making the switch to the country genre, Delta Rae’s sound has “definitely gone through an evolution,” Brittany admitted, but it still blends a variety of styles.
“We started the band in Durham, N.C., and wanted to be a southern band, but it was fraught with a lot of assumptions that people made about us,” she said. “Once we hit the road, we were genre-agnostic and just followed our hearts and our muse and played whatever felt right. I like to think of it as a hero’s journey.”
The group wrote 70 songs for its first album and has selected the best of them for the upcoming release of its first full-length album on Valory. The date for the result hasn’t been determined and the group admits that it’s impatient, but trusts the record company to make the call. “This label has such great planning,” Brittany said. “They’re this ‘slow and steady wins the race’ kind of team.”
Emerson added: “It’s like this never-ending Christmas Eve night. But we trust them.”
Until that time, Delta Rae will continue to tour. They said they feel a close connection to their listeners, who will contact them or call them out on Twitter and other sites. And while it’s hard to create a lasting impression in 140 characters or less, Delta Rae has amassed more than 19,000 followers and is active on the site. It uses Twitter as well as its web site to promote its Tickets for Teachers initiative where an educator in each town is selected to attend a show for free as a nod to the service and inspiration they provide America’s youth. The teachers are nominated by the band’s followers.
“We wonder ‘How can we be cool and still be on social media?’” Brittany said. “Inherently, we’re less cool and more warm, and social media is not always a warm space. So we decided to double down and show people our gratitude. Without people listening to our music and coming to our shows, this dream would have ended a long time ago.”
As for the band’s slightly bohemian look, Brittany, dressed in a lacey short set, thigh-high suede boots and an oversize black cowboy hat, said she’s “hugely influenced by Seventies indie style queens like Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks and even my mom — kind of earthy, but also embracing the female form and your sexuality and owning it. I’m very much for doing whatever feels comfortable and for me, comfortable is strong and free and frequently that means I want to be in shorts so my legs can move or flowing skirts so I can twirl.”
Hopkins has a similar look, while the guys are more low-key. But Emerson said he and the other men in the band are “evolving” in their fashion choices, prompted by Brittany “not to wear the same thing every day. That pushes me to be a little more funky,” so his shoes had blue laces and trim and his socks had flowers on them. His denim jacket sported patches collected from vintage shops they visited on tour.
“And in the summer, I’ll wear tank tops with patterns on them to keep up with the sexy vibes the girls are putting out,” he said.