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On the road with The Fox Hunt

By Andrew Iden, CNN
The band's recent tour took them to places like Charleston, West Virginia, and Richmond, Kentucky.
The band's recent tour took them to places like Charleston, West Virginia, and Richmond, Kentucky.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Fox Hunt is a four-piece, stripped down string band
  • The group recently toured around the southeastern United States
  • These band members are an ideal portrait of Americana string band music

(CNN) -- Going on tour for a week with a band has risks. Sleep is scarce, comfort is extinct and hygiene is difficult to maintain, especially in a conversion van filled with banjos, mandolins and an upright bass. It was the risk I'd take spending a week on tour with The Fox Hunt.

The group is a four-piece string band with no bells or whistles. Fiddle player Ben Townsend is a native of Hampshire County, West Virginia, who talks with a Southern drawl and sports a baseball hat he refuses to part with. Matt Metz is a tall, brown-haired mandolin player from western Maryland. John Miller, one of the principal songwriters and guitar players in the band, is the Doppelganger of a young John Prine with his black hair and mustache. The newest addition, Darrin Hacquard, is a tall and fresh-faced southeastern Ohio native who wears his humble roots on his sleeve.

These four together, though they may not know it, are an ideal portrait of Americana string band music.

I met them in Charleston, West Virginia, a town that serves as the perfect backdrop for their songs of lost love, drinking and life that's a bit more difficult than it needs to be.

After two hours of music on the first night of the tour, Ben, John and Matt spent time with friends in the back of the bar. Darrin found himself in conversations with locals about what he was bringing to the band, a sound that many long-time fans were protective of. It would be a learning experience for Darrin on this tour, his first as an official member.

Night turned to morning, the crowd began dissipating, and I realized we hadn't found sleeping arrangements. That's how these guys roll: They wing it.

Through the kindness of two local musicians, we found an apartment a few blocks away to crash in for the night. I slept in a corner, wedged between the front door and the TV.

Falling asleep, the sound of Matt's mandolin accompanying our hostess was a fitting serenade. I'd survived the first night with five more to go.

Huntington, West Virginia, was our next stop. The Fox Hunt have long said they treat their shows with a back-porch-among-friends approach. Nowhere was it more apparent than here.

The crowd, full of friends, made for some great give-and-take with inebriated concertgoers. An old friend of John's stepped on stage for a beer chugging contest not once, but twice.

After the show, Ben spent the night playing with a local musician he knew. To the side of the stage with lights dimmed and the crowd emptied out, they played for hours. No words, just conversation weaved together by a banjo and the furious fiddling erupting from Ben's bow.

Midnight became 4 a.m., and John, after drinking beers with the crowd, passed out cold in the case normally reserved for the standup bass.

Leaving Huntington behind, the road continued into Richmond, Kentucky. The search for accommodations led us to an interstate motel that was dingy at best, and wouldn't be getting four stars on Trip Advisor any time soon. The veranda overlooking I-75 was less than picturesque.

Not every show on tour is a hit. Clearly, music wasn't the focal point at the venue in Richmond. The patrons were stashed away in cavernous corners, the bar was huge and centered in the middle of the room, and the band was on a corner stage, almost an afterthought. Twenty minutes into the second set, the amplifiers were blown and the sound was garbled and muddy.

The band stopped mid-set and shut it down. No point in playing if the sound is going to be awful, they figured. They never got off on the right foot in Richmond. They dealt with it by capitalizing on the free beer the house provided.

On the way to a post-show party, Matt and Ben began a beer-fueled fight over their GPS unit. It was promptly thrown out the window, an act both of them immediately regretted.

Maybe it was the rough show, or the beer, but the frustrations had hit a high point. Darrin stayed quiet and continued driving through the darkness. John was at the motel and had no knowledge of the fight until the next morning.

John serves as a leader in the band. He's got a quiet reluctance to the role, but accepts it all the same. He was more than willing to admonish Matt and Ben for their behavior. They had to dip into their funds for a new GPS. Daybreak allowed their frustrations to cool and all was forgiven.

The tour continued to Cincinnati for a show that Darrin had circled on the itinerary. As the newest member he was excited because his parents would be in the crowd, their first chance to see him as a member of The Fox Hunt.

With the night before proving to be a failure, the band was looking for redemption.

Darrin's family was waiting for him as the band walked into The Crow's Nest, a small corner bar in the southern part of town. As the show started, they found new energy, and Darrin stepped to the front, leading a raucous 90-minute set.

His mother, Marilyn, was beaming. "I thought I knew why he did what he does," she said. "I did not know until tonight that he does it because he must."

Afterward, Darrin said goodbye to his parents and like a kid at camp, his mom kissed him, handed him some extra pillows, and they were gone. The tour won't stop for anyone. Not even family.

Matt decided he would be the driver for the night and had trouble finding a motel that met the cheap specs. We came to a stop in the parking lot of a truck stop, under the neon glow of a trucker's chapel. Tired, I nodded off between the two back seats at 5 a.m.

The next day's show was a late afternoon set at a pizza joint outside Louisville, Kentucky. For Darrin, the glow of playing for his family had faded. He was tired, and frankly, the band seemed a bit worn. It was the last show I'd see with them, but it was a limp across the finish line. They were tired, and tomorrow was a day off.

As we rolled on to Nashville the next day, my five days drew to a close. I thought of the two different directions we'd be headed -- me to a warm bed and my home, and The Fox Hunt to another town and another show. And maybe a bed.

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