Nestled ninety minutes west of Philadelphia is a town by the name of Shoemakersville. It's not much of a city, as far as cities go, but it's got a quiet, laid-back charm about it -- the sort of place that you'd live if you wanted to raise a family or hunker down and write the Great American Novel. Its roots are industrial; nearby Reading is just like Allentown, the working-class Pennsylvania community memorialized in a song by Billy Joel.
Just under the surface beats the heart of this community's heritage, and in the few local bars that have open mike nights, the strains of bluegrass waft gently through that good night. Other than that, the town doesn't have much of an arts scene, although the college in town, Kutztown, is one consistent source of cultural events, cocooned as it is in a hermetic bubble of Big Ideas and Creative Types.
This is the environment that eventually brought together six local musicians who would form the band known as Frog Holler.
"Six years ago, I was playing the open-mike nights, playing bluegrass, and found all these bluegrass musicians from the college doing the same thing," explains Frog Holler's singer/acoustic guitarist Darren Schlappich. "There's a little scene inside the college, but we kind of made up our own thing that exists outside everything else."
Though Frog Holler is not an "outsider" band, the group's music captures the feeling of not quite fitting in, of looking at things from a different perspective. Stringed instruments such as banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar replace the rock-n-grind of garage-rock bands, and Schlappich's rolling lyrics create the same feeling as a lazy Sunday drive through the countryside. On their latest album, Railings, Frog Holler weaves in and out of country shuffles, Yo La Tengo soundscapes, hymn-like confessions and Bloodshot hoedowns. It's quite an accomplished record for someone who doubted his own ability to play as recently as six years ago.
"This is my first band," Schlappich reveals. "I've always been a record collector, and about six years ago, I started going to the open-mike nights because I was writing bluegrass-flavored songs. I met other people and once we got started, we were just playing strictly bluegrass. After other people joined, more influences started coming out, and we started mixing in electric instruments."
It was a humble beginning for a band that has now toured Europe and been praised in publications such as The Village Voice, Americana UK, All Music Guide and the alt.country bible No Depression. Even now, after the release of the group's fourth album, Schlappich, who originally graduated with a journalism degree from Shippensburg University, seems taken aback by the success of his band.
"I never thought I was capable of making music like this," he said. "I was just wide-eyed to be playing with people who could take the songs and make them bigger and understand where I was going with them. Our first record was homemade -- we thought we would be lucky just to get them to our friends. We never had any aspirations beyond that."
But Schlappich had tapped into universal feelings and emotions. While he claims his songwriting process is not specific, he does admit to using relationships and situations as the foundation of his lyrics. Examining these stories through vivid images gives a voice to everyday frustrations, and an album such as Railings resonates because of its heartfelt reflections.
"Given that we've done it our own way without anyone telling us what to do, it's been very freeing," Schlappich says. "At times it's been frustrating because you like to see your records in the stores and advertising behind you, but it's good and easy to play the underdog role because it gives you something to fight against."
The members of Frog Holler retain small jobs in and around the Shoemakersville area to support themselves. Taking a cue from bands that have gone before them, Frog Holler realizes that the decisions facing many bands -- whether to relocate to a music-centric city such as New York, or to tour continuously -- just naturally work themselves out.
"I always thought I would move to some big city, but it ended up that never happened," Schlappich says. "But I've come to grips with living here. This is my hometown, and I'm kind of content to be here and write about living here. It's a beautiful place; it really is. The mountains are here, the city is nearby and it's just kind of worked."