Updated: Nov 20, 2020
It was a cold February evening in 2020, and I walked up briskly to the restaurant and bar. I had splurged on a babysitter and was going out late with friends for drinks and live music. This was unusual for me, but tonight was special. I remember feeling a singular tingle of discomfort and excitement as I climbed the steep steps up to the second floor. The muffled clatter of community erupted as I pushed open the door. Smoke from the adjacent cigar room veiled this grand room with a haze of night magic. A hundred people laughed with friends and strangers, waiting for the band, The Hounded, to play.
A broadcaster blared out of a TV, reporting the COVID-19 cases in Wuhan continued to rise. The bar brimmed with people. Whiskey shots sparkled and clinked together. I shouted over the storm of sound to my friends Katie, Seth, and Nate. We sat expectantly as The Hounded set up. The Hounded consists of four members: lead singer, rhythm guitarist, and songwriter Matt Borror; lead guitarist and backup singer Derek McCauley (my husband); drummer Matt O’Reiley; and bassist Sam Lauver.
This was their first show to debut their first album, Never Knew Blue. Derek and Matt have been working together toward this moment for about two years, though counting their previous, independent work, it probably had been much longer. The golden lights twinkled and the roar of voices mellowed as Matt stepped up to the microphone and wished everyone a good evening. Matt always greets the audience and talks with them through the show. I’m impressed by how he builds a rapport so quickly into the hearts of Appalachian strangers through his understated kindness and vulnerable strength.
As they started to play, there was breath. A collective judgement. As Matt sings “Bourbon Street,” people turn their heads, drop their conversations, and listen with full intention.
“Dreams of tomorrow, traded for a moment’s peace,” Matt sings and Derek harmonizes.
As the song picks up momentum, people start to clap and dance.
Matt sings of love, loss, and Appalachia. The title track, “Never Knew Blue,” lands on a homecoming: “I never knew blue till I packed up and left her, and followed those blue ridges home.”
Appalachian Maryland can be fickle to win over with music. Playing original music that isn’t bluegrass is a risk, but as Matt’s brassy voice cuts into the audience’s hearts, Derek balances blues and country in his guitar leads. Sam’s calming demeanor anchors the group, as he peacefully slides up and down his bass, and Matt O’Reilly, nicknamed “Mono” due to being deaf in one ear, hits the beat hard and steady.
As The Hounded plays song after song, they hold the audience on their journey of catharsis, and all the albums are sold out before closing. A triumph.
It’s hard to articulate what type of music The Hounded offers. As someone who has no nostalgia for country music and a distaste for the pop country on the radio, this genre comes nowhere near to the stereotype I hold with derision. I can’t help but enjoy it. It fits somewhere in the alternative country vein of Ryan Adams and early Wilco. Thoughtful, clever, non-comforming, honest, and human in sound. Appalachian, even.
Appalachia is difficult to define as well, being held together as a region by the mountains. These Appalachian mountains shape her into what she is. The unparalleled beauty of steep green slopes, clear blue skies, and golden light laced with purple mists roll from the edge of west New York down through Pennsylvania, east Ohio, West Virginia, Western Maryland, half of Kentucky, and the edges of Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
Ancient mountains carve out the communities. Paradoxes meet and thrive here: fresh mountain air and coal dust towns, deep community and profound isolation, crisis and grit, the fearless and the fearful. The mountains isolate Appalachia from the rest of the world, making her a host unto herself. Some try to throw the region in with the South, but Southerners find their manners don’t land here, inspected carefully for inauthenticity. J.D. Vance mourns Appalachia’s demise in Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crises, and Bill Bryson praises Appalachia as America’s last great wilderness in A Walk in the Woods. It’s easy to judge or idolize her, but Appalachia won’t be flattened to illustrate a single vice or virtue; she is a bouquet of riddles. She has her own speech, mores, and, most importantly, music.
Appalachian native Megan Johnson writes that “just like the culture, the music formed its own genre and was nothing like what the more urban areas around them were listening to. The distinct sound of the banjo and the use of the off-beat gives even today’s bluegrass a distinct sound that can be identified after just a few measures.” In this musical scene The Hounded shaped its sound.
Derek is from Appalachia originally, but we moved to Western Maryland together seven years ago. Derek's intensity burns inside him, consuming his hours and training his ears and hands. He studied audio production in Tennessee, he practiced guitar, drums, and bass obsessively, and listened to everything, from Joe Satriani to ragtime piano to Led Zeppelin to Valkyrien Allstars. Relationships in Appalachia are built slowly, so our first year or two here didn’t provide many musicians to collaborate with. Yet Derek’s yen for music was never satisfied in solitude. He’s not a solo artist, he’s a collaborative one.
Finally, through a friend of a friend, Derek and Matt met, and clicked. Matt’s seriousness and work ethic matched Derek’s, but his easier, gentler approach tempered the fire of a frustrated musician. When I asked Matt to describe himself, he said that he was “born in an abundance of inherited sadness.” He is teasing, but he’s also serious. He’s polite and soft-spoken, his voice crackling with the gentle pace of his words. He is polite and considerate, but talking to him you get the sense that there’s a lot going on under the surface. The inner world of writhing dragons tumbles out in his song writing in his albums. He said that he wrote these songs to purge the truths burning inside of him. “Burning in my soul has quietly given way to the ashes of something unknown,” Matt writes in his song, “The Boulevard.”
The lyrics are Matt’s in Never Knew Blue, but the music had its genesis in the band. Derek and Matt played off of each other, and played the songs over and over in practice and in acoustic shows, riffing, getting bored with leads and reworking them, adding in new musicians until landing on Matt O’Reiley and Sam. There is a real sense of isolationism in this music, in the words and struggle, but a deep sense of community in the way the music fits together and is played. The internal struggle of Matt, to the slow musical composition of Derek and Matt, to the fine tuning of the complete band has a very logical next step: performance. Yet, as we all can see in hindsight, that was stripped out in the year of a pandemic. This left The Hounded, like many other bands, gutted. Four months of shows evaporated. Live-streaming music requires high-end tech not afforded to fledgling bands, and even if a venue is open, extra money to pay for live music is even rarer now. Playing in a rural area can be trying, feeling sometimes like looking for oases in a desert, and right now the thought of music performance seems like finding a well in a sandstorm.
This loss reminds me of something C.S. Lewis wrote after losing his friend Charles. When Charles died, Lewis wrote that he didn’t just lose Charles, but also part of his friend Ronald (J.R.R. Tolkien). The parts of Ronald that Charles pulled out were gone. In much the same way, performance pulls out parts of musicians and songwriting that they don’t get otherwise. This part of the band is gone, and the music it pulled out of the members and the distinct sides in performance they shared with each other are also gone.
But hope persists. The communal sharing part of art has been snatched away, but The Hounded has turned back to writing, collaborating more in the lyric and the songwriting, and honing in on the irreducible complexity of band jams. As many have found the unprecedented lifestyle of 2020 to afford them harrowing isolation and unique opportunities for deeper community, so too has the music of The Hounded taken this mix of isolation and community for their own growth.