Music makers

issue 01 | winter 2024

Just before enrolling at Denison, Chicago-area native Parker Bailey ’23 formed the indie rock band Runner and Bobby, which built up an extensive catalog of releases during his tenure in Granville.

The band is still going strong now that he’s settled in Nashville with a job at Jack White’s Third Man Records, both in the storefront and the onsite music venue.

Bailey was impressed by the industry connections Denison allowed him to form.

“Whether that be film scoring, music publishing, or anything adjacent to the industry, alumni are always willing to connect and share their perspective,” he said.

Bailey continues to collaborate with current Denison students Lula Burke ’24 and Mick Smith ’24, whom he met through the on-campus band The Cuties. He’s creating demos for new Runner and Bobby music but still plays shows supporting this year’s Maui Tapes EP.

“I had an opportunity to become comfortable as a live performer and singer while at Denison,” said Caroline Spence ’11, a successful folk-rock singer-songwriter based in Nashville.

That process of self-discovery ranged from solo shows at the Bandersnatch to serving as musical director for a cappella group Ladies’ Night Out to visiting China with the Bluegrass Ensemble.

“Perhaps the most significant impact on my future career was from my time as an English major, specifically in the creative writing department under the guidance of Ann Townsend,” Spence said. “I would not be the songwriter I am today without the encouragement I received and tools I learned as her poetry student and teaching assistant.”

This year, Spence released a deluxe edition of her album True North and toured both North America and Europe.

Before that, she collaborated with The National’s Matt Berninger on “I Know You Know Me,” featured in the AppleTV+ series The Last Thing He Told Me starring Jennifer Garner ’94.

Denison and music have always been tied together for Brandon Shull ’19. When he was 6, the Lancaster native’s fiddle teacher introduced him to a weekly bluegrass jam at Slayter Union, where he could learn to play on the fly.

“I’d go up in the summer every year and when I was on break,” Shull said.

Around the same time, he started entering fiddle competitions. By eighth grade, he was taking lessons from Andy Carlson, the world-class fiddler who started Denison’s bluegrass program.

When he inevitably enrolled at Denison, Shull was one of the most experienced bluegrass players to join Bluegrass Ensemble: “There’s not a lot of people who come in sort of primed for it.”

Though initially attending Denison on a music scholarship, Shull eventually switched to a math major but continued fiddling vigorously. After graduation, he got back into playing competitively, which led to him being crowned Grand Champion at the 2022 Ohio State Old Time Fiddler’s Contest in Nelsonville.

He also plays regularly around Columbus in the Ramblin’ Bluegrass Ensemble, performs in a swing band at square dances near Mansfield in the summer, and sits in with various friends when they call him up.

Many know Rob Tate ’16 as the neo-soul-infused rapper Sarob, but when he arrived at Denison his focus was basketball. By the end of his first year, he’d gotten up the courage to rap for his friends.

As a sophomore, he quit hoops to throw himself fully into music. He was surprised when he was chosen to close out D-Day’s student stage that year. “I didn’t have a DJ,” he says. “I barely had music.”

Tate credits a community of creatives at Denison for helping propel him forward. He still calls fellow rapper and close collaborator Joey Aich ’16 his best friend. He also took inspiration from, among others, his longtime manager Roger Phelps ’16; basketball teammate Chris Barnes ’14, who rapped under the name KobeJamesJordan; and Najee Rollins ’15, an emcee who was “so far ahead in a lot of things.”

Many from his circle settled in Columbus after college and made waves — including Tate, whose Sarob releases, including the two-volume Transitions album, won widespread acclaim. Now based in Chicago, Tate isn’t pursuing music as fervently as before the pandemic, but “I got some stuff on a hard drive,” he says. “I guess there’s always something in the works.”

The performer known as Joey Aich aka Joseph Holbert ’16 started rapping during high school, but his first year at Denison is when he realized he wanted to devote his life to music.

Carving out a presence as one of a handful of emcees on campus, Holbert evolved from Bandersnatch open mics to D-Day performances.

When not on the mic in Granville, he and fellow alum Rob Tate ’16 aka Sarob often toured around Ohio to play shows or record. “We would split studio time,” Holbert said. “We would share ideas.”

After graduating, they both settled in Columbus and kept building. Lately for Joey Aich, that has meant releasing a deluxe edition of his lush and thoughtful 2020 album Open Treehouse with 10 new songs. (Relevant lyric: “I knew I wanted this life since campus.”)

He couldn’t tour in support of the original LP due to Covid but has hit the road hard behind the deluxe. Besides shows all over the middle and eastern U.S. (including historic hip-hop hubs New York and Chicago and less obvious destinations like West Virginia), he played a number of festivals back home — most prominently Wonderbus, where he also took the stage with the breakout Columbus indie folk band Caamp.

So many people at Denison impacted Will MacLean’s ’12 development as a musician.

Administrator Pamela Hughes was “one of the kindest and most supportive people I interacted with.” Jazz guitar instructor Tom Carroll “really developed me from a committed amateur into a professional level player.” Another jazz professor, Pete Mills, taught MacLean “the process I use to learn music and assimilate new ideas.”

The core of his music experience at Denison was his time with studio instructors in lessons and ensembles, but MacLean’s time in the classroom also challenged and expanded his views. He was impressed with classical music specialists Ching-chu Hu and HyeKyung Lee for showing patience toward a relative novice.

“I deepened my understanding of music more in Dr. Hu’s theory class than in any other,” he said. “Dr. Lee was always very encouraging, and I have continued to be inspired by her creativity.”

Outside music, the Homestead program, in which 12 students per semester live and work together in pursuit of a more ecologically sustainable lifestyle, helped MacLean to “discover what really holds importance in life.”

Nowadays MacLean is based in Nashville, where he plays banjo for the comedic bluegrass band the Cleverlys and the world-folk band The Deer’s Cry.

At Denison — largely through his experience playing parties as a singer, guitar player, and saxophonist for The Janitors of Anarchy — Lakin Ducker ’90 discovered he loves making people dance.

“It’s kind of like if the Rolling Stones and the band War had a kid,” he said of the group. “It was rock, but it was very funky too.”

He also took inspiration from Elliot Borishansky’s music theory class, a highlight of his first year that made him “a lifelong music theory fanatic.”

Decades after the members graduated and spread out, The Janitors still get together for shows. Recently they’ve performed in Nashville and in Ducker’s home base of Annapolis. That’s where he joined his main current musical project, a New Orleans-style second-line street-funk brass band called the Naptown Brass Band.

Ducker makes his living as a software engineer and cloud architect — “I guess I’m what you’d call a weekend warrior” — but rarely does a weekend go by without one or more Naptown gigs. The band takes inspiration from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Rebirth Brass Band, both of which they count as friends and mentors. With Naptown, he plays weddings, music festivals, and other events around Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

“Playing in frat houses, the Bandersnatch, and local bars was great preparation for the regular gigging that I do now,” he said. “Denison people definitely love to have fun, and I learned how to get them dancing.”

The path to Olivia Van Goor’s ’19 full-time career as a jazz vocalist, composer, arranger, producer, and educator in Detroit included four years at Denison, where studies in music and economics prepared her for life as an independent musician.

Van Goor credits voice teacher Stephanie Henkle in particular — “She helped me make the biggest strides musically at Denison by guiding me to find my true voice” — but also shouts out the impact of music professor Pete Mills and econ professor Laura Boyd, among many others. Extracurriculars were influential, too, including the a cappella group Ladies’ Night Out.

“The lesson that helped me the most,” she said, “was learning how to take hold of my own education.”

In the years since her graduation, Van Goor has become a fixture of the Detroit jazz scene. She gigs prolifically around the city and throughout the Midwest, and in August released her latest self-produced album, Don’t Be Mad At Me, a seven-song set that will instantly transport you back to some smoky mid-20th century nightclub.

One reason Lauren Saks ’10 chose Denison was the Bluegrass Ensemble. She had been a classically trained violinist since third grade and was ready to explore other genres.

At Denison, she learned to adapt her skills to the world of American roots music and gained inspiration to make a go of it in Nashville, where she’s built up a successful career as a band member for several prominent country artists.

Caroline Spence ’11 performed in Bluegrass Ensemble with me and sang in Lemongrass, our Denison bluegrass band that traveled to China in June of 2010,” Saks said. “On that trip, she told me she always knew she would be moving to Nashville to pursue a career in songwriting. That conversation got me thinking about moving to Nashville as well.”

The next summer, they moved to Nashville together.

Saks jumped into the bluegrass scene there and spent years paying her dues in local honky-tonks en route to a longstanding gig playing fiddle with Terri Clark. With Clark, she’s played the Hollywood Bowl, Madison Square Garden, Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, and the iconic Grand Ole Opry.

Saks also performed with rising star Hailey Whitters and toured this fall with Kimberly Perry of The Band Perry.

Published December 2023
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