Though its members are not all blood relations, it’s no exaggeration to call the River Drivers a “family band.” For the local Celtic folk-rock quartet, family extends beyond actual kin — though the trans-generational band does include the mother-daughter pair of Mindy Murray and Meagan Ratini. The other two musicians are Marian Moran, a friend and collaborator of Murray’s since high school, along with Ratini’s former classmate Kevin McCloskey.
The group performs Friday as part of the Philadelphia Ceili Group’s 45th annual Irish Traditional Music and Dance Festival at the Commodore Barry Club in Mount Airy.
More family ties: McCloskey, who shares songwriting and vocal duties with Murray, is a second-generation performer, the son of Irish tenor Tommy McCloskey. Then there are the songs themselves, which often find inspiration in the travails of Murray’s family.
“Writing songs about your own family history brings them to a more personal level,” Murray said in a phone interview from her home in Bristol. “It just adds another dimension when you can associate with what happened and bring it to life now.”
Two of the songs on the River Drivers’ forthcoming second album, Big Oak Road, are drawn from Murray’s family lore. The title song, named for the Bucks County thoroughfare where Murray’s father grew up, recounts the hardscrabble labor and simple pleasures of farm life, while “Going Once” recounts her grandmother’s experience trying to find a new home for her nine children after the family’s Torresdale farm was auctioned off for back taxes.
While it broadens the perspective to a more familiar historical figure, the gut-punch opener “Children’s March” also hits close to home for area listeners. With its first line, “From Kensington to New York City,” the urgent song traces the march led by Mother Jones from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home to protest the exploitation of child labor in Pennsylvania mines.
“When these big moments in history can be linked to your hometown, it really hits home a bit more and makes it more personal for everyone,” McCloskey said from South Philadelphia. “Obviously Philadelphia is filled with history, and so is Bristol, where we’re from, but I we always have to fight a lot harder to preserve labor and working class history.”
The River Drivers’ sound brings together its members’ experiences and influences in unusual ways. Though rooted in traditional Irish music via his father’s work, McCloskey also spent years playing punk music with the hardcore band Wrong Answer, and carries that aggressive vitality into the new band.
“In the hardcore punk world, people hold bands to a certain standard of authenticity,” McCloskey said. “You need those principles in the folk world as well, especially when it comes to songs of struggle and resistance. We sing a lot of songs about subjects that we’ve never lived or never had to live, but we believe in telling these stories and want to do it with some reverence.”
While Murray has played Irish folk music since her teenage years, she also experienced a firsthand encounter with its musical offspring in Appalachia while working with miners in the region during medical school in West Virginia. “I internalized a lot of those issues and put it into the music, and picked up a lot of music down there as well,” Murray recalled. “We may not have lived these things day to day, but we do know a lot about the things that we’re singing about, we feel them, and that translates into the passion that we’re able to bring into these songs.”
Along with their own music, the band draws on folk tunes from a variety of sources on Big Oak Road. Irish songwriter Dominic Behan’s “Crooked Jack” depicts the backbreaking conditions under which workers toiled at a Scottish hydroelectric plant, while “Moonshiner” relates the evils of whiskey. The Clancy Brothers’ “Isn’t It Grand Boys” provides a bit of comic relief, facing mortality with dark Irish humor.
Whether dealing with problems from the distant or recent past, the band sees their material as speaking to the present political moment. Murray says the River Drivers’ cross-generational collaboration adds perspective.
“I feel like our generation dropped the ball somewhere along the line,” Murray said. “Where did we lose this connection with helping people, with trying to help what’s wrong with society? Being in a band with a younger generation has been like working and playing with your conscience.”
Philadelphia Ceili Group Traditional Irish Music & Dance Festival