New album brings Nashville’s The Apache Relay back to Aspen |

New album brings Nashville’s The Apache Relay back to Aspen

The Apache Relay.
Courtesy of the artist |

If You Go …

What: The Apache Relay

Where: Belly Up Aspen

When: Sunday, Oct. 19, 9:30 p.m.

Cost: $12

Tickets and more information:

The Apache Relay’s new self-titled album, released in April, is an ambitious mix of nu-folk, three-part harmonies and lonesome country-western tales that use the musical vocabulary of Americana to speak a language all its own.

The album’s opener and its lead single, “Katie Queen of Tennessee,” quickly announces the band is evolving from the relatively straightforward acoustic Americana of its 2011 breakthrough album, “American Nomad.”

“Katie Queen” opens with a violin that sticks through the song’s throwback rock arrangement that is a mix of ’50s pop and wistful vocals reminiscent of M. Ward. From there, it’s an unpredictable record. “Terrible Feeling” is an eerie, slow burn of a folk song. “Good as Gold” is an uptempo spaghetti Western-tinged story heartbreak. “Happiest Day of Your Life” is a spare, dark ballad with the chorus, “The happiest day of your life was the worst day of mine.”

“We didn’t want to make something that sounded like a cookie-cutter record ­­— we didn’t want to make ‘American Nomad Part Two,’” The Apache Relay frontman, Michael Ford Jr., said from Tennessee on a tour break before kicking off a six-week autumn tour of the U.S. that brings the band to Belly Up on Sunday. “We were looking for a departure. We wanted to do something to push us somewhere we hadn’t been before, even if that meant being uncomfortable.”

After releasing “American Nomad” in 2011, the Nashville-based band toured in support of it for the better part of three years, staying on the road as the record steadily picked up steam and fan support. The band then spent several months working on the new album in a California studio with producer Kevin Augunas, who had previously made records with The Lumineers and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros — both bands to which The Apache Relay has drawn comparisons — along with 21st century folkies like Fleet Foxes.

The Apache Relay had previously spent no more than two weeks recording an album. The result is more layers and more thoughtful production, though it would be a stretch to say their self-titled record is over-produced.

The 11 songs on the new record also gestated over the years on tour.

“We would write a batch of songs, then take them on tour and decide whether they worked or not,” said Ford. “It was a time for trial and error. … We did that cycle over many times before we found the right direction to go in.”

The Apache Relay was born in 2008 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, when Ford joined with a three-piece named The Apache Relay. They started performing as Michael Ford Jr. and The Apache Relay, and recorded their first album, 2009’s “1998,” under that name. The band soon evolved into a full-time job and a six-piece band performing simply as The Apache Relay.

It was quite a leap to go from a dorm room band to opening for Mumford and Sons, headlining national tours and playing festivals like Bonnaroo and Newport Folk Festival, as the Apache Relay has in the last few years. But, Ford said, they haven’t had one big “we made it!” moment.

“When we started, it was just four dudes playing heavily Americana-influenced music,” Ford said. “As time went on, it transformed into this more rock ’n’ roll thing, which became ‘American Nomad,’ then we got a booking agent, then we got management — it wasn’t overnight at all. It was putting one foot down after another and doing the grind.”

The signifier of success so far, Ford said with a laugh, isn’t necessarily the size of the crowds or the prestige of the stops on tour but their mode of travel. They’ve gone from touring in two cars to a beater 15-passenger van that once broke down and left them stranded in the desert to a hearty Sprinter van on the current tour.

“Whatever vehicle you’re traveling in is your home, and when that’s unreliable it’s super stressful,” he explained. “When you’re in a van you can trust, it improves your quality of life — I’ve gotta knock on wood now, everybody says I’m jinxing us.”

The band is taking an old-school road warrior approach to music — playing as much as they can, wherever they can — and steadily, their audience is finding them as The Apache Relay’s creative process and their sound evolves.

Early on, Ford wrote most of the songs and would bring them to the band to practice and perfect. As the band’s members have gelled creatively over the past six years, though, their process has grown more collaborative and less driven by Ford’s vision.

For Sunday’s show, the band is planning a mix of the new album and “American Nomad” material. They’ve reworked some of the songs from the 2011 album, and some have mutated after hundreds of plays on stage.

“It’s not such a departure that you wouldn’t recognize them,” he said. “It’s just little things here and there in how they’re presented.”

Sunday’s show at Belly Up is the band’s second stop here, following a well-received fall performance at the club last year.

“Sometimes it takes multiple shows in a town or a city to kind of get traction with the crowd, but the show in Aspen, the crowd was just down for it,” Ford recalled. “It was a really good vibe in the room. It was one of those things where the stars aligned.”

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