It’s no secret that the Champaign-Urbana music scene is trying to escape the shadow of its late 90s success. But for an area that still very much grasps to its emo heyday, CU has been left searching for an identity since the phase wore off.
There was Elsinore in the mid-2000s, a band poised to explode but never truly did beyond the close Midwest. There was Grandkids a few years later, who still has the potential to expand itself beyond the barrier of Illinois, but has since packed up and left the CU for Chicago. There seemed to be no band leading the way heading into 2014. No clear voice for the town, and no one that people looked at as the measuring stick to match up to. Yet, quietly in late July, The Fights tapped on everybody’s shoulder and introduced a new way to lead with their debut album Off Your Horse.
The Fights weren’t offering themselves as the dominating force in the CU scene, but rather sparking a country music takeover swept up the scene and is still in motion heading into late 2015 with strong releases from Morgan Orion and Kenna Mae this year. For the first time in nearly two decades, a genre is beginning to form an identity for the CU music scene. As recently as last week, country-centered acts Penny Horses and Waterfowl released debut albums.
“We listened to (Off Your Horse) a lot,” said Penny Horses frontman Tim McGee. “It pretty much sealed the deal for me and Bryce (Brown) wanting Aaron McAllister to record our album.”
While all genres offer complexity, the use of the country music label has been quite flexible in the CU scene. The Fights are dark and carry a heavy weight of relatable emotion throughout their tracks. Penny Horses add a psychedelic element to their sound. Kenna Mae and Morgan Orion both left behind the strictly solo efforts on each of their respective records from this past year, adding full bands behind them. Country artists are finding an ability to be grouped as a force to become a part of one voice, yet still find a way stand alone when examined independently.
The Fights frontman Cole Rabenort said overall the genre’s strength and appeal is in its sincerity.
“It’s a sound and a world that really doesn’t have room or time for the disingenuous,” Rabenort said. “Country music has long been a genre that is deeply intertwined with the human nature of its listeners and performers. It’s a sound and type of song that people feel in their blood and bones. It’s pretty hard to fake that shit, and when you do, it’s real obvious.”
The sound and its artist’s ability to remain genuine has drawn attention to the CU country music scene over the past year and a half, and it’s given the genre a string of momentum that has the potential to turn a phase into an era.