Just a couple of years ago, if you were living in Gulfport, Miss., and playing original music, your best bet to make money was to simply get out of town. Most venues in town — including a good number of casinos — look for cover bands to entertain the crowds. But determination plus success in a big-name contest helped one band break that mold.
Rosco Bandana, a seven-piece Americana group, was one of a few bands to hold its own in Gulfport, playing original music for handfuls of people around town. In 2011, they entered the Hard Rock Calling contest. More than 12,000 other bands were also vying to win, but Rosco Bandana emerged victorious, becoming the first band signed to Hard Rock Records (which is run by the hotel and restaurant chain), leading to the release of its debut album, Time to Begin, in September 2012. The support of a label is what keeps Rosco Bandana on the road as the band returns to Charlotte for its third gig in eight months on June 22 at the U.S. National Whitewater Center.
"If it wasn't for Hard Rock, we would have never gotten on the road," singer Jason Sanford, 27, says. "We wouldn't have put out a CD of this magnitude and been able to reach so many people distribution-wise."
All of that time on the road has not only helped Rosco Bandana to establish a following, but has also helped the band gel as, well, a band. The group, which originally started as a five-piece in 2010, added two members roughly one year ago. Countless hours crammed in a van together have taught them how to deal with each other, with finances, with touring in general.
"It's hard to be in a seven-piece band," Sanford says. "You have to take out money for taxes, maintenance, insurance and then you can split the rest among seven people. People around Gulfport will run into us and say, 'Y'all are doing great and must be making loads of money!' Those people have a misconception of fame. Sure, some people are ballin' out of control, but definitely not us."
Sanford has gotten help from mandolin/lap steel player Jackson Weldon's mom, a CPA, about budgeting and how to try and make a profit, but it hasn't been easy. The seven members still live at home with their families and count on that support to continue doing what they love.
Last September, Rosco brought its brand of folk-rock to the Evening Muse; their inexperience was hard to miss. Sanford's vocals were the focal point as his six band members backed him up for a "the parts are all there, but it needs work" performance. In February, the group returned for an "is this the same band?" concert. The harmonies provided by Sanford and co-singers Jenny Flint and Emily Sholes were solid. The other musicians found moments to shine without overpowering the songs. The crowd was left wanting more.
"Before, it was shaky because this is our first time doing anything like this," Sanford says. "We weren't sure about ourselves. Now, we've come into our own and the energy level has changed for everybody. I feel like it's more relaxed and we want to enjoy the experience on stage. We're in it to have fun. We love playing music and making people smile and hopefully that's pushed out onto the audience. I feel like it's happening."
Much like its songs, the band itself has developed through an organic process. They have to sit down and talk about things, learn from the little spats that happen and know when not to push a bandmate's buttons so they can grow and work together.
They've adjusted to working with different sound guys each night, different sound equipment at venues and have been able to find comfort through experience. Sanford feels the band has finally found its sound and truly become a "band" — something he always hoped Rosco Bandana would become but wasn't sure was possible.
"When I started the band, I had all these ideas of what I wanted it to sound like — full and vocally driven. I never imagined it would be what it is now," Sanford says. "We're still babes to all of this, but it's still fun. I love the road. Our main job is to entertain and take people away on a magic carpet ride of sorts, but also to inspire them and let them walk away feeling changed."
That inspiration has already flowed back into their hometown, where more original music is finding its way into clubs. Because Rosco started out playing sets that are three hours of original material on their hometown, they have plenty to choose from for their next album.
"Ever since that Hard Rock Battle of the Bands, there's been a need for more original music here," Sanford says. "I feel like Rosco helped inspire that. There's a cultural shift because people like original stuff. It's opened a lot of doors for people down here."