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The Fishback Boys at House Cafe in DeKalb

The Fishback Boys at House Cafe in DeKalb. From left: Tyler Morse, Wesley Carr, and Mitchell Leahey.
Photo credit: the Fishback Boys (from band website)

Wesley Carr was driving through Virginia on his way to a bluegrass competition when he saw a sign at the side of the road.

It said “Fishback Creek”.

“I thought this was one of the most unique names I had ever seen,” Carr said in an email.

Around that time, Carr and his high school friend Mitchell ‘Mitch’ Leahey had been tossing around the idea of turning years of interest in folk music and casual jam sessions into an actual band. That band needed a name.

“I knew I couldn’t go with Fishback Creek…because that would be too reminiscent of  [another band] Nickel Creek,” Carr said. So he suggested the Fishback Boys instead.

The name stuck.

Originally just Carr and Leahey on the mandolin and guitar respectively, the Fishback Boys began mostly as a way for them to develop original bluegrass and folk-based songs.

“It’s always been on the back burner for Wes and myself,” Leahey said. “So it [the band] just took off from there.”

Two months ago, as they started playing more shows and writing more original material, they added a third member: banjo player Tyler Morse. Morse met Carr at the guitar shop Ax in Hand in DeKalb, IL, where Carr gives guitar and mandolin lessons.

“I stop by the store sometimes for fun,” Morse said, ” We got to talking… and then we started getting interested in playing a couple shows…so we did.”

Today, with an EP (“Shallow Breaths“) under their belt and an increasing number of gigs–including Elbo Room in Chicago back in September–the boys from northern Illinois are still happy with their leap of ambition. They are experimenting with different types of sound, so asking them “what kind of music do you play?” can be tricky.

Or, as Morse succinctly put it: “there aren’t a whole lot of words to aptly describe sound.”

Indeed, describing the Fishback Boys’ music is a bit like herding cats: just when you think you’ve pinned down a category, it slips away again. The song “Fading” has a distinct folk-infused sound that evokes images of Southern back porches on humid summer nights, while “Valiant Heart” has a jazzy riff that calls to mind early Dave Matthews songs.

Leahey likes to call the music “newgrass”, which he describes as “a combination of blues, jazz, rock and folk…old instruments in the modern age.”

Carr says the variation is intentional as the Fishback Boys try new things and push the boundaries of their traditional instruments.

“Two-thirds of the instruments in our band have been pigeonholed into bluegrass or Irish music,” Carr said, referring to Morse’s banjo and his own mandolin. “But there are a lot of people coming out now that are trying to push these boundaries, like Chris Thile and Kym Warner…we want to be able to help push them too.”

While they say they would like to pursue music full-time, the Fishback Boys know that success won’t arrive overnight. For now, they promote themselves through aggressive use of Twitter, Facebook, and a YouTube channel, and when they aren’t playing they work on their day jobs–Carr with his lessons, Morse with a delivery job, and Leahey is finishing a Criminal Justice degree at the University of Wisconsin Platteville.

“I think everyone wants to make money doing what they enjoy doing,” Morse said of the future. “If that became a possibility, I would welcome it.”