• Lillie Burke

The Apache Relay builds momentum

The Apache Relay’s sound is difficult to define.

There are screaming fiddle solos, but it doesn’t sound like bluegrass. It’s grounded with driving percussion and electric guitar riffs, but acoustic instruments like the mandolin lighten the sound without softening the momentum.

“We’re a rock ‘n’ roll band,” violinist Kellen Wenrich said. “People can call us what they want to call us. We’re just gonna play as loud as possible.”

And The Apache Relay has gotten loud on stages across the country. After touring with River City Extension and playing at Bonnaroo, the Nashville indie band garnered national attention and coverage in “American Songwriter” magazine. They’ve recorded with Daytrotter, opened for Mumford & Sons at the Ryman Auditorium and expanded their fan base playing South by Southwest. “Paste” magazine even called them “The Best of What’s Next.”

But right now, they’re keeping their eyes on the present, lead singer Michael Ford Jr. said. “If you start thinking too much about where you want to get, it could drive you crazy. You’ve just got to work hard and meet people.”

For Ford Jr., that process started at Belmont, whether jamming in Pembroke Hall, playing in the Curb Café or performing in showcases as a Belmont student.

In fact, each member of The Apache Relay attended Belmont at some point, including violinist Wenrich, mandolin player Brett Moore, lead guitarist Mike Harris, and guitarist Ben Ford, Michael Ford’s brother. Harris and Ford Jr. lived next door to each other in Pembroke in 2006 and would play music together in their free time. In 2009, they brought in the other members, and the band was born.

But it needed a title. Harris said the name came from Gabe Simon of Kopecky Family Band, another prominent troupe of former Belmont students.

“And no one was using the Myspace for it,” Harris said.

So the friends formed Michael Ford, Jr. and the Apache Relay, which later merged into The Apache Relay.

Indie power label Thirty Tigers released the group’s first album, “American Nomad,” in April 2011, and Communion Records included them in their “New Faces” record alongside artists like Gotye and Ben Howard.

Despite early success, the group tries to keep the focus off the accolades and on the body of work.

“It’s easy to get wrapped up with these business ventures and jumps that you can take to get somewhere,” Wenrich said. “I think if you work hard at writing really good songs and playing a really good show, that stuff happens.”

And you can’t learn that in a book, Harris said. At Belmont, the musicians all majored in either music business or music, and it worked as a great primer for the actual music industry, but just for that.

“The music business school isn’t the music business,” Moore said. “There’s certainly a lot of valuable things to learn at Belmont, but if you want to have a career in music, go have a career in music.”

But the band members also acknowledge that Belmont’s strong teachers, internships and experiential learning can make a difference.

“The thing that conditioned me for a career as a musician was having a class with Dan Keen,” Harris said. “He gave me the most realistic view of what to expect and then he thrust us into that world, hands-on. It’s a sink or swim thing.”

Now The Apache Relay is swimming with some big fish. The band is at work on a new album and is also focusing on an April 28 show at Exit/In with fellow Nashville favorites Nikki Lane and Colorfeels.

Moving forward, The Apache Relay is building momentum, yet trying to stay grounded.

“We don’t try to sound like someone else or do what someone else is doing,” Moore said. “Just be yourself and work hard. It’s all you really can do.”

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