Eclectic Soul-pop-gospel Group Pays Tribute to Their Robeson County Roots

(Last Updated On: June 28, 2017)

When people talk about the melting-pot culture of America, it’s usually a cute way of signaling that something has a pleasant mix or a curious combination of components. But Dark Water Rising, a band originally from Robeson County in southeastern North Carolina, really do embody a kind of unpredictable organic American eclecticism, an out-of-many-comes-one vibe. If the melting-pot metaphor suggests everything getting boiled together, that doesn’t mean there won’t be odd chunks or unexpected flavors that poke out from the broth.

Dark Water Rising, which is now out of Chapel Hill, was formed in 2008 and at that time all of the original six members had been raised as part of either the Lumbee or the Tuscarora peoples in eastern North Carolina. However, there have been a few lineup changes since then. Over the years they’ve created a sound that blends elements of piano balladry, folk, radio pop, Americana, gospel, hip-hop, progressive rock and Broadway. Aaron Locklear, a multi-instrumentalist who plays drums, keyboards and guitars helped found the group.

The way Locklear tells it, the founding band members didn’t have overwhelmingly musical upbringings.

“Three of us went to UNC Chapel Hill together,” Locklear said. “We kind of just got together and started liking the sound that we were shaping out of it.”

But when you start drilling down about the story it becomes clear that the members of Dark Water Rising all had a strong musical foundation in the church.

“Growing up in Robeson County, most of us were Southern Baptist, or we grew up raised in the church,” Locklear said. “So everyone was raised singing as part of youth choir. You learn from the church music, because of the beautiful harmonies. We’re very soulful, spiritual people back home, and that has a huge influence.”

Locklear, 36, also played drums in the marching band. His musical upbringing was a typical early-MTV-era mish-mash.

“I listened to everything growing up,” says Locklear. “I was fascinated with Motown. I was fascinated with pop music that was coming out at the time, Michael Jackson. Hip-hop was just getting its foot in the door at that time.”

Traditional Lumbee music wasn’t necessarily part of the band’s formative experience, but they were exposed to the idea that music conveyed and helped preserve a culture that was encroached upon by history and the wider world.

The story of music in the United States is filled with disenfranchised, short-changed, dispossessed and oppressed people who somehow, despite all of their struggles, managed to make songs and sounds that shaped, expanded and ultimately defined what it means to be American. The most obvious and inescapable part of that story relates to African-Americans, both because of the unimaginable weight and horror of slavery and its legacy, and also because of the monumental African-American influence on the foundations and continued blossoming of American music such as, blues, jazz, gospel, rock and hip-hop.

Dark Water Rising, a band from Chapel Hill with roots in Robeson County, play Muddy Creek. Photo courtesy of Tony Murnahan

Dark Water Rising, a band from Chapel Hill with roots in Robeson County, play Muddy Creek on July 1.
Photo courtesy of Tony Murnahan

Native Americans, and the First People of Canada, have transformed the popular music of North America, but the effect has probably been slightly more quiet and under-the-radar. A new documentary film, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, celebrates the often-unheralded role that Native musicians have had. Among those spotlighted in the film are artists like Robbie Robertson, Charley Patton and Jimi Hendrix (who was part Cherokee). Also included is North Carolina’s own legend Link Wray.

Robeson County and the Lumbees have their own musical legacies connecting to the wider culture. Willie French Lowery, a Lumbee musical icon, started a band called Lumbee, whose records are highly collectible. Lowery also had a blues-boogie rock band called Plant & See, which released a record in 1969 and that record was rereleased by the excellent North Carolina label, Paradise of Bachelors. Lowery died in 2012, the same year the album was finally re-issued.

Locklear says that Lowery and people like him helped create a sense of continuity and tradition.

“He was someone we grew up with, someone we got to play with,” Locklear said of Lowery. “There is a lot of stuff that is taught and passed down, and you have people that make sure it can be learned.”

Dark Water Rising, like some of Lowery’s music before them, isn’t all focused on Lumbee identity, and it’s not traditional music, per se, though the band’s singer Charly Lowry does play a hand drum at times during the set. So, many listeners expecting a folkloric experience that aims to recreate musical practices of the distant past should look elsewhere.

“We’re more of a rock-n-roll, soul band, but there are two or three songs where we do showcase part of the culture and where we’re from,” Locklear said.

Some listeners seem to feel that the band member’s connection to Native culture requires that they play or look a certain way.

“Once people find out that you are Native or have members that are Native, they tend to expect a sound,” Locklear said. “It gets kind of funny when you’re in that boat.”

The band has played up and down the East Coast, into Canada, which has a vibrant First Nations music culture, and out to the West Coast as well, connecting with many contemporary Native music groups along the way.

Dark Water Rising does reflect a living culture, one that interacts with trends at large. The band covers Brandi Carlile and the Alabama Shakes in their sets. They also do a Heart medley to showcase the singing talents of Lowry and vocalist/guitarist Emily Musolino.

Depending on the song, Dark Water Rising can bring to mind 4 Non Blondes or Alicia Keys or the music from Jesus Christ Superstar, with energetic and strong-voiced singing coupled with a mix of folky and rock touches. The mix of quieter musical settings and Lowery’s powerhouse singing, with R&B melismas and dramatic flourishes, all of it makes for unexpected stylistic swerves.

The band is in the process of working on a new record, one that Locklear says will probably be slightly “more aggressive” and more rocking, to reflect the three-guitar attack of the current lineup.

Locklear said the band’s eclecticism is a function of their origins.

“When we began, we didn’t have people in the band at the time that were trained musicians, so everything you learn is something new,” Locklear said. “If there’s something we like, we just kind of go with it.”

Dark Water Rising will play at the Muddy Creek Music Hall, located at 5455 Bethania Road in Winston-Salem on Saturday, July 1 at 7 p.m.