Setting up their music gear in the small amphitheater outside Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley — where they could pick between the beaver pond trail or a thatch hut as a dressing room — Quillan Roe and Dan Gaarder got into a debate. The disagreement wasn’t all that fiery, but the setting sun sure was.
“I swear we’ve played here before,” Gaarder insisted, pulling out the small amplifier for his acoustic guitar.
“I don’t think so,” Roe said, listing a string of nature centers where they’d performed.
Holding his hand up to the blazing sun as he looked the place over, Gaarder changed the topic to that night’s biggest challenge: “I think we’re going to have to play this one like long-distance bikers do it: Each of us take turns playing in the other’s shade.”
Not many Twin Cities bands have trouble keeping their nature-center gigs straight — or have stared down as many weather-related predicaments — as the Roe Family Singers.
Likewise, few local acts go over as well playing to nonagenarians at a senior home as they do to toddlers at a community center, Minneapolis hipsters or county fair hayseeds.
Led by banjo picker Quillan and his autoharp-strumming, clog-dancing wife, Kim Roe, the old-timey bluegrass, folk and country ensemble is as ubiquitous this time of year as bug spray (an item they always have stashed in their gear bags, by the way).
You might see them at a farmers market one morning, a local library the next, a restaurant patio the following evening, then maybe an outstate bluegrass fest over the weekend.
And come Monday night, you can always catch them at the 331 Club in northeast Minneapolis, a standing gig that hits the 14-year mark next week — the 14th anniversary of the group itself.
“That gig has really become our weekly rehearsal session,” Quillan Roe said.
When he and Kim were first invited to play the 331, the club had just been reborn from a seedy dive bar in 2005, around the time Nordeast started transforming.
“I had to ask, ‘Is it really safe for me to play there with my wife?’ That’s how long ago that was.”
About the most dangerous thing at a Roe Family gig nowadays are the toddlers who crash the stage as if it were a Little Tikes backyard set; or the talent booker at a small-town July 4th festival who proved to be a terrible meteorologist when ominous clouds appeared before showtime.
“She kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to blow over,’ ” recounted Quillan, who’s too polite to name the town in question. “Sure enough, we barely got plugged in, and it was like a zipper opened up in the sky with water on the other side.”
Bar to market
But the Roe Family Singers will happily take these horror stories over tales of drunken barroom scenes. Most of the members have spent ample time performing in clubs.
Quillan Roe was co-leader of the late ’90s alt-twang group Accident Clearinghouse. Gaarder played Lee’s Liquor Lounge too many times to count as a member of honky-tonk institution Trailer Trash. Fiddle player Ric Lee and stand-up bassist Eric Paulson are also vets of the scene.
On some nights, the Roe Family crew might also include what Quillan calls their “circus instrument” auxiliary members: jug blower Rob Davis and saw player Adam Wirtzfeld. (And yes, that’s “saw” as in the hand tool; he bows it as he bends it to vibrate out notes, a rustic style brought to light in modern times by Texas alt-country pioneers the Flatlanders.)
While they have an authentically down-home, aw-shucks charm, Quillan and Kim Roe don’t pretend to be from Appalachia or tend to livestock at home. They’re pretty standard Gen X kids with a house in a first-ring suburb. And while they became great students of the Carter Family and Doc Watson, Quillan can talk to you at greater length about DIY punk heroes Fugazi, his all-time favorite band.
However, the Roe crew does take the bluegrass and folk traditions seriously enough to have twice won the Minneapolis Battle of the Jug Bands, and picked up the entertainer of the year award from the Bluegrass Music Association of Iowa in 2016. Kim has also racked up a few trophies for her clogging talent.
“I call it ‘Sweating to the Oldies,’ ” she quipped, recalling a sweltering performance at the Excelsior band shell where she passed out during her first dance number. “I was down for the rest of the gig.”
Earning a McKnight Foundation fellowship in 2011 was a turning point. Quillan said it not only helped them become full-time musicians — the spouses met as preschool teachers — but it gave them something of a greater mission.
“We started intentionally seeking out more gigs that were community-oriented,” he said, “and of course a lot of those are outdoors. Folk music and old-timey music like this really was made for bringing communities together.”
He pointed to “This Land Is Your Land” — a song they play at just about every show — as an example of “how this music really appeals to kids and adults alike, and crosses political divides, too. That’s as important now as it’s ever been.”
The rise of farmers markets also reshaped the band’s gig list. Sarah Woutat, market manager and a longtime vendor at the Kingsfield, Fulton and Nokomis neighborhood markets, recounted the first time she saw the band play one of those events.
“Kids were dancing and shaking shakers, adults were dancing, and the band was engaging with them in a way that made everyone feel included,” Woutat said. “Their music really makes the day.”
Their real family
These family-friendly shows also proved to be practical once the Roes started their own family. Many of their midweek gigs fall during school hours for their two daughters, ages 8 and 10. And the girls can come along to any of the nighttime or weekend events.
Kim famously used to perform with one of her girls strapped to her. Nowadays, though, the younger Roes are a little more choosy about joining their parents.
“They like certain shows because they know they’ll have friends there they can play with,” Kim said. “Otherwise, they’re kind of bored with us and would rather stay with a sitter, or Grandma and Grandpa.”
The nature center gig in Fridley was one such unaccompanied-parents show, but there were plenty of other kids dancing and clapping along to the tunes.
It was a pretty standard, wide-ranging set, with such oldies as the Carter Family’s “Lulu Walls,” Leadbelly’s “Cotton Fields” and Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine” alongside fast-picking originals such as “Don’t Worry About the Rich Man” (which Quillan wryly introduced as “about all the bad things happening to wealthy white guys nowadays”) and “Lil’ Billy Reuben,” inspired by one daughter’s bout with jaundice (it’s a play on the medical term “bilirubin”).
Attending the show with her own kids, ages 8, 2 and 1, Ashley McKee raved about their first Roe Family experience. “Our kids loved the music, and I loved the stories they told about the songs,” she said. “It looked like they were having fun themselves, even though they had to endure that hot sun right in their faces the whole time.”
Quillan Roe seemed to especially enjoy the fact that the sun finally departed the stage a minute or two after they unplugged: “If we’d played just one more song, we’d have been OK,” he said.
Now they know for next time.