Noise & Color Article

 

Becky Sappington and The Bitter RoadBitter Road

Becky Sappington and the Bitter Road is the product of country, rock, punk, metal, and one part short-tempered snarkiness. Ya that’s right, spoken from the ring leader herself, but make no mistake this fine specimen of an artist may have had a reputation around billings as being sassy and snappy, but that’s what separated her from the sheep. On a Sunday afternoon in May my wife and I were slowly making our way back to billings from helping some friends move when I noticed that I had a few missed calls [insert gratuitous amount of expletives]. Low and behold my dumbass conveniently forgot about the interview that supposed to begin a half and hour ago, and Becky and her band were patiently waiting for my arrival. Eventually, I showed up after breaking a healthy amount of driving violations and nearly giving my poor wife an aneurism. Feeling stupid about my impoliteness I did my best to apologize to the band and assure them that not every employee from N&C was this incompetent. Luckily, Becky, Ryan, and Ken aren’t your average band members.

I assumed when I sat down to ask the proverbial band questions that being late would put a damper on the mood, and I would have to struggle to get into there good graces. On the contrary, they were in a lively conversation when I got there and could honestly give a shit less about me being late. The banter was quick and snappy from the trio, and the electricity from them was palpable (I was set at ease immediately). After some generic questions about their past and how they came together I was quickly educated on the immense musical knowledge they all had. I spent most of the time just shaking my head in agreement when they were rattling off favorite guitarist and drummers of whom I had no idea. I’m talking about session musicians for underground bands to the most indie/alt groups on the planet. Don’t get it confused though, they are well versed in popular music as well, (like rain man counting toothpicks smart) as we were sitting in Starbucks listening to the radio they had a running game of “who sings it”. Naming the band was the easy part; it was Ken that took things to a whole new level of naming the release year, album, band members, and time signatures. Like I said this isn’t your run-of-the-mill band.

The average age of the Bitter Road trio is 37 and these folks having been exploring the avenues of music since their childhood. Becky comes from pedigree that screams talent, with her dad carving his name in music history via recording with groups like The Righteous Brothers, Carter James, Stan Getz and the Temptations. Becky’s father, the late Ralph Sappington was a pillar in our community not only for his musical talent, but his philanthropic endeavors and musical ministries overseas. Needless to say Becky received a PhD in music from one of the most accomplished musicians and goodhearted individuals this city has ever known. From a young age Becky learned to play the saxophone and other horn instruments, but her true love came in the form of a bass guitar. “ I remember being at a Cheryl Crow concert and when she came on stage she was playing the bass guitar, and I new right then and there that was the instrument for me.” Becky is no stranger to the music scene here in the magic city and to her own tune she walks through life, and by her own words has garnered a reputation as being a no nonsense gal. Don’t get confused though, Becky may have a lot of bark and bite, but every good artist does, and that is what the Bitter Road is all about. Really, no good music ever came from sunshine and hallmark cards, it comes from the brooding minds of passionate people who wear their hearts on there sleeves and write their lyrics with unfiltered truth. As she put it ever so persuasively “it’s not that I don’t like the Beatles, I just would rather hang out with the Rolling Stones.”

Our next victim is the infamous Ken Clark who holds the position of elder statesman of the group and the yang to Becky’s yin. Mr. Clark, man on the drums, most soft-spoken of the group, and by far the most knowledgeable of all things music. Now I cannot stress enough that all 3 could intellectually cripple the pedestrian music listener with their prowess, but Ken takes things into the stratosphere. He is a walking-talking encyclopedia of melodic knowledge. By the time Ken was 4 his dad put a pair of sticks in his hands and they have stayed there for the past 38 years. “I can remember the first time I ever recorded, it was with a punk band at the time, and it was on a cassette tape.” For the next 20-some-odd years, he harnessed and developed an artillery of skills playing in jazz, punk, rock, metal, church, and blues bands. From Colorado to Texas, and eventually to Billings, Ken has not only become an outstanding drummer but has become a student of music and through all his travels he says “for Billings being the smallest city I have ever lived in, it has the best musicians bar none.”

Lastly, is our local son Ryan Riley who unfortunately had to endure school with our very own Doug Oltrogge from K-12. Upon meeting Ryan he seemed to embody the “Phil” aura to me (The Hangover) the man with a plan, and the one who makes things come together. His story sounds similar to most American kids; his mom and dad bought him a guitar when he was 14 and immediately he wanted to quit, but mom and dad said no. To all the parents who force their children to play instruments out there, we from Noise and Color salute you. “My parents got me lessons from Art Eichele of Hansen’s, and that changed my outlook dramatically, but without a doubt the Eric Clapton Unplugged album was what convinced me to play guitar.” Ryan’s roots are in country and rock music, but that doesn’t mean the guy will just listen to anything playing on the local stations. “I considered going to the Jason Aldean concert just so I could kick him in the stomach” (my kind of guy). “You hear a lot of stuff on the local rock stations that is formulaic and overproduced, but then you hear artists like Alabama Shakes, Black Keys, Foo Fighters…you can practically hear the amp buzz and that’s the direction I want this band to go in.”

Now that I have laid down some footsteps of bygone years let’s get into the EP and all the buzz. Collectively the entire process took just over a month, but when you count the days actually spent writing and recording it was a little over a week. Ryan explained to me “Becky called me this winter and said she needed to get some things off her chest, so I went over there, showed her a few chords and the next day she called and said she written some songs already.” These guys work fast, I mean really fast, like Becky said “I am an instant gratification person, I want what I want, and I want it now.” The girl had some shit she needed to air out and she did it beautifully.

After spending some time listening to the songs that are going to debut on the EP I was truly impressed with the amount of craftsmanship that went into each and every song. The EP has an undertone of lost love, the road to independence, and personal fulfillment driven through it; themes not uncommon to our musical culture, but these aren’t your Taylor Swift lyrics void of deep meaning and emotion. These were the words of a grown woman who has seen the seasons of life and delivered a message we can all relate to. Feelings of hopelessness combined with optimism for the future and the harsh reminders of the scars we still bear. Beguiling lyrics created a thought inducing state while the mesmeric melodic instruments captured the mood of the verses charmingly. I found myself relaxed and reminiscent of days past in my life and without trying became hypnotized by the bewitching sound. That’s what great music is about, and there may only be five songs on the EP but it’s enough to keep you intrigued and tranquil all at once.

The Americana sound that Becky Sappington and the Bitter Road has created has flavors of Dusty Springfield, Robert Plant, and Neil Young without sounding unauthentic. I have listened to a lot of local groups and thought to myself “Ya they were pretty good” but never once have I thought I want to listen to them on the drive home. These are true musicians and the EP is emblematic of the journey the trio went through to reach this point. In their song ‘Stay Here’ a verse reads “I loved you from a place that always hurts” and I believe that verse is the culmination of the band and the Bitter Road that got all of this here today.

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