by Audrey Piehl
When The Sharrows opened for Wild Child in Nashville, Tennessee, they weren’t deterred by any challenges, including a band member’s obligation the next morning. The quintet drove down for the gig — an approximately nine hour trek from Madison — and right back again after the show and a brief 2 a.m. breakfast.
This collective dedication, to both the music and each other, characterizes the Madison-born Sharrows. Since their first album Starting at the End and well-received 2014 EP Days of Yore, they have been bringing their bluesy, roots-y rock to venues near and far.
The local group formed in late 2011 when guitarist Matt Smith’s humble flyer attracted guitarist and singer Phil Sharrow, cellist Sylvia Janicki, keyboardist Joe Hermanson and drummer Jake Bicknase.
“It was a coincidence because I never would have saw the sign,” Sharrow said. “Sylvia’s roommate at the time grabbed the number and gave it to me. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Within a week the soon-to-be Sharrows were playing Battle of the Bands below the Rathskeller’s shadowy, cavernous ceilings. Janicki filled the bassist position with her classical equivalent, while vocals and other instrumental parts were unassumingly exchanged onstage.
It was in this very location I met up with the band nearly four years later, sharing a pitcher of Hopalicious and reveling in their swift yet serendipitous start.
“There’s no natural leader to the group, I don’t think, which is really cool and it’s really tough,” Bicknase said. “A lot of gangs have a singer-songwriter, a main guy who kind of leads the group and everyone else follows, but we don’t have that, and I think it’s really unique … It’s not one person talking to the crowd, it’s a lot more organic than that.”
The fluid dynamic led the group away from standard studios and to Hermanson’s farm just outside Columbus, Wisconsin. Hermanson built and renovated the farm from remnants of an old grainery. The rustic environment helped shape the Sharrows’ trademark chemistry and sound, earning them their “farm rock” genre.
But being exclusive isn’t The Sharrows’ style. Not only do they share instruments and vocal parts, but also their stage, inviting additional percussion, banjos, trumpets and even fellow Sconnie musician Tim McIlree’s shredding fiddle to shows.
“One of my favorite things as a musician is to have an open mind about who we play with, and who comes and plays with us,” Sharrow said.
Their open-minded experimentation culminated when Smith encountered the North Mississippi All-Stars on tour, a southern rock band with their own studio, Zebra Ranch, founded by their late father Jim Dickinson. His wife Lindsay Dickinson now runs the small, but impressively equipped establishment in rural Coldwater, Mississippi.
With the Dickinsons’ hospitality and “right-hand man” Kevin Huston’s mechanical magic, the group recorded Days of Yore in just six days. Affectionately termed “a small tin shack” by the group, Zebra Ranch was reminiscent of the farm and reflected The Sharrows’ unpresumptuous aesthetic.
“It was just so organic, and you could see the history in it,” Janicki said. “It wasn’t like a typical studio.”
Since the EP’s completion, the outfit has travelled coast to coast, touring their way from SXSW’s 2015 Midwest Showcase to opening for Tedeschi Trucks Band at Madison’s Orpheum.
In many ways the journeys have been as colorful and varied as the venues themselves. From pushing the trailer uphill to a gas station in Colorado to shooting BB guns and guzzling moonshine in Kansas, The Sharrows have already encountered a wide range of interesting happenstances.
“I think it was in Columbus, Ohio, we were couch-surfing with this guy … and he has a wall of anime porn that he’s drawn himself,” Bicknase said, his fellow bandmates laughing as they too remember the strange scene. “He’s like, ‘You can see there is no room left on my wall, I want you guys to take some so I can draw some more.’”
Despite their love of touring — and bizarre gifts from kind hosts — The Sharrows are itching to record, setting a prospective date for a new release early next year. Even as Janicki heads to graduate school out west, she plans to stay involved with The Sharrows’ positive trajectory.
“[The band] means way more to you than you realize,” Sharrow said. “The relationships that you build with the people that listen to you and the people you play with, it just keeps you going.”
The band members hope to remain un-rushed with their next recording, perhaps adding psychedelic elements to the timeless rock. Their goal at Zebra Ranch was to create something that would inspire themselves, Bicknase said.
The Sharrows appear to have no intention of relinquishing that motive with new recordings and adventures.