Little more than two months after Backroad Anthem member Craig Strickland died during an intense storm on Kaw Lake in Oklahoma, his fellow band members Toby Freeman, Eric Dysart, Josh Bryant, Brandon Robold, and Isaac Senty are paying tribute to their fallen partner by continuing on with the group’s shared vision.
Though the unexpected, tragic loss of a fellow band member would derail most groups, this tight-knit, Arkansas-based band is determined to keep making music.
“I don’t think any of us ever thought about quitting,” says Freeman, who shared lead vocal duties with Strickland. “This was Craig’s brainchild and he was the one who started the band. Obviously, we will never be able to replace Craig, but we don’t plan on adding another member. Going forward, we’ve all just collectively agreed to help each other and really pull together. It’s a tough spot to fill, but I feel we have the talent and ability to fill that spot and keep continuing to bring an exciting show to our fans.”
“I think our sound will stay like it has been,” adds Bryant. “We were talking earlier about how we really focus on telling stories with our lyrics, and going forward we will pick up the slack on stage presence. As far as the sound, we all sing, and we are all influenced by bands like the Eagles that all do harmonies. There’s not a lot of bands like that anymore, so I think where we are going is really cool.”
Freeman recalls the band’s return to the stage following Strickland’s death as a “pretty surreal experience,” as they played two sold-out hometown shows filled with friends and fans on Jan. 16-17 at George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville, Arkansas. “When we walked out onstage it was a pretty crazy feeling not seeing him walk out with you,” says Freeman. “So it took us a few songs to get those emotions out, but once we did, I think it was more just all of us banding together and doing the show for him and making sure we paid a good honor to him.”
Tragedy And Healing
While the band members were each visiting with family during the holiday break in December 2015, they received a message from Strickland’s father, saying that 29-year-old Strickland and 22-year-old friend Chase Morland could not be reached. The pair had gone on a duck-hunting trip on Kaw Lake in Oklahoma on the day after Christmas, despite the inclement weather involving high winds and freezing temperatures.
Freeman says Strickland was mentoring Morland. “He did that with younger people, and was just being friends with him, like he was with everybody. When we first heard he was missing, his dad just said they hadn’t heard from him,” recalls Freeman. “We were like, well, Craig’s phone has died so many times before. We just thought he and Chase were somewhere or at a buddy’s house, or maybe Craig dropped his phone in the water. He’s done that before. It was when the search party went out and they hadn’t heard from Chase, that’s when we knew something was up.”
The band members balanced their own worry, and later grief, with interest and speculation from media, and the need to keep fans updated with information as the situation unfolded.
“That was the worst…the waiting,” recalls Freeman. “I remember getting a phone call from FOX news at 3 or 4 a.m., maybe a day or two after they issued a search party. They were like, ‘We want to do a story at 6 and we need you to be ready in 15 minutes and we will put you on the air.’ I’m like, ‘Holy crap.’ Just things like that…phone calls and news stories. When it set in we just stopped doing any of that stuff. It felt so weird to us. And then trying to keep fans updated. One day we split it up and each took like 15 or 16 messages on Facebook and just replied to them, just to keep them up to date.”
The band’s worst fears were realized when Morland’s body was found on Dec. 28, and Strickland’s remains were discovered on Jan. 4, the same day the other Backroad Anthem members had planned to reunite. “We had already planned to meet up, and just talk and see each other,” says Freeman. Then we got the phone call that they found him. We met like a couple of hours after getting that call. I feel like that was a God moment for us. He knew we would need each other to get through that day.”
Artists including Parmalee, LOCASH, and Justin Moore all offered their support. “All those artists have really gotten behind us and wished us the best and told us to move forward. I really feel like the fans have just banded around us,” says Freeman.
The Road Ahead
Since Backroad Anthem’s inception, the band has performed approximately 150 shows per year, and aims to continue the steady touring schedule. That schedule includes a full concert on St. Patrick’s Day (Thursday, March 17) at Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon.
As they move forward, they are mindful of the impact Strickland brought to Backroad Anthem, and have found a way to honor their fallen bandmate at each show.
“We want to pay tribute to Craig and he was a huge part of the success,” says Robold. “One thing we do is set up his microphone stand and acoustic guitar he used to play and have that onstage for every show at least through the end of the year, to pay tribute to him.”
The band also has the blessing of Strickland’s family as they move forward. “They were part of every show,” says Freeman. “Craig’s dad ran merch. His dad still wants to be involved and we still want them to be involved. They will always be part of this.”
Prior to Strickland’s death, the band had been working on new music with producer Jody Stevens. The band penned their current single, “Torn,” with Strickland, Stevens, Tommy Cecil, Jay Brunswick, and Thomas Archer. The video for “Torn,” which was also filmed before Strickland’s passing, highlights the energy that Strickland brought to the band.
The band is still pursuing its shared dream of a recording deal. “We’re definitely still looking for the right deal,” says Freeman. “We feel like we are pretty close.”
Backroad Anthem will perform at Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon on Thursday, March 17 at 8 p.m. For more information, visit wildhorsesaloon.com.
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