It's not every day a band born in Tucson plays to an audience of more than 4 million people. Yet that's where members of the old-time string group Run Boy Run found themselves not once, but twice this year.
The five-piece outfit was invited to perform on the nationally syndicated radio program "A Prairie Home Companion" when the show swung through Arizona State University's Gammage Auditorium in January.
Its original works and classic interpretations of traditional material so impressed host Garrison Keillor that he invited its members back on the program a month later.
Keillor even thought enough of the group to contribute to its liner notes on Run Boy Run's first full-length album, "So Sang the Whippoorwill," released in March.
In the notes, he praised the band for its bold playing and beautiful harmony singing, saying that it reminded him of why he got into hosting a radio show in the first place.
"I hope they go on forever," he wrote.
The appearances were the latest in a string of high-profile gigs and major achievements for Run Boy Run.
Since forming in 2009, the band has shared its unique twist on old-time music - with its primary lineup of two fiddles, a mandolin, an upright bass and a cello - on stages across the Southwest, taking home prestigious awards and earning fans wherever it has performed.
The group is just as comfortable on the small stage as it is in a festival setting.
On June 5, Run Boy Run entertained a packed house during an evening set at Club Congress downtown.
In April, it performed for a sea of music fans at the 20th annual Country Thunder USA mega-festival in Florence.
"There is something that makes this band stand out," says Paul "Doc" Simpson, who served as president of the Tucson-based Desert Bluegrass Association for four years before stepping down in February. "There is a quality to what they are doing. They are off-the-charts good. I hear that sound and think 'That is the next Nickel Creek.' "
"We feel extremely fortunate," said fiddle player Bekah Sandoval. "It is really hard to wrap my mind around the fact that some of these things have fallen into our laps. It doesn't happen to everyone."
After all of the hard work, Run Boy Run is finally ready to take things to the next level.
Over the last two months, each of the band's five members, spread between Phoenix and Tucson, have quit their day jobs to give their full attention to their music.
Starting in mid-July, the musicians will embark on a 2 1/2-month tour that will take them into uncharted territory, hitting festivals and venues from Seattle to Big Rapids, Mich.
It will be the farthest the band has traveled and the longest it's been away from home.
"We are excited to have people hear what we have to offer," said Matt Rolland, 25, Run Boy Run's second fiddle player and manager.
In addition to Rolland and Sandoval, the band is made up of Rolland's sister Grace on cello, Sandoval's sister Jennifer on mandolin, and Jesse Allen, on the upright bass.
While Matt Rolland and Allen let their instruments do the talking on stage, Grace and the Sandoval sisters also provide the vocals and three-part harmonies.
Allen is the oldest at 29. Jennifer is the youngest at 23.
All five members come from musical families.
The Rollands grew up performing in the Rolland Family Band, an old-time country and cowboy ensemble.
Their father, Peter Rolland, is a professional fiddler from the Phoenix area. Their mother, Gail Rolland is a cellist with the Chandler Symphony Orchestra.
The Sandovals were also regulars on the festival circuit, performing as members of their own family's band, the Payson-based Mazatzal.
Allen's mother, Betty Allen, is a trained vocalist who has performed in operas regionally and was an adjunct vocal instructor at the University of Arizona for several years. Allen's formal background is in jazz guitar.
The collective experience makes for a dynamic team, Grace said. "It is so nice to play with people who like the music and who are willing to have a good time."
Run Boy Run took shape while Matt Rolland, the Sandovals and Allen were students at the University of Arizona.
Matt and Bekah had already experimented with an Irish Americana band, called The Hermit Tree, playing at The Hut, Auld Dubliner and other venues around the university and on North Fourth Avenue.
Attracted to the sounds of artists such as Bruce Molsky and Crooked Still, they enlisted the talents of Jennifer and Allen, as well as banjo and fiddle player Mary Jane Epps, to form a string band steeped in old time tradition but willing to dip into other genres, including bluegrass, folk and jazz.
Epps eventually left the group to work on her Ph.D. thesis, and Grace was brought into the fold.
Members had their first gig before they even had a name. Local trumpet player Dante Rosano invited them to perform as openers for a show at the Red Room downtown in 2009.
Rosano discovered the band after walking by Matt's home one night on East Eighth Street.
The group was jamming on the porch.
"I don't remember what song they were playing, but their sound carried well," Rosano said. "It was pretty raw in the best of ways. Good players, unique singers. They seemed to be having a great time."
The Red Room led to an open mic night at Shot in the Dark Cafe, then regular shows on and around campus and downtown.
"We got hungry to play anywhere," Matt Rolland said.
Run Boy Run's first big break came when the band entered the 2009 Pickin' in the Pines Bluegrass and Acoustic Music Festival band competition in Flagstaff.
The group dazzled the audience with a set of tunes that included "Lady Margaret" and Dirk Powell's "Waterbound." They took first place.
"It was a huge motivator for us," Matt said. "It was exhilarating. That got us hooked."
Things escalated from there. Run Boy Run returned as a lineup act at Pickin' in the Pines the following year and became regular performers at festivals and events around Southern Arizona.
In 2011, the band took the top spot at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival band competition in Telluride, Colo.
"That is when we really started to take things seriously," Allen said. "We realized that we had stumbled onto something bigger."
The group's appearances on "A Prairie Home Companion" gave it national exposure.
The radio gigs helped Run Boy Run earn spots at festivals along its upcoming tour route. They also boosted the band's album sales, which allowed the group to buy a new touring vehicle - a retired City of Phoenix 14-seat shuttle van, that they recently road tested on a two-week mini-tour through Utah and Colorado.
"It is all happening at the right speed and at the right time," said Rolland, who quit his job as a stockbroker with Charles Schwab in Phoenix to take the next step with the band.
Allen was a web developer. Grace was a nanny. Jennifer was an in-home caretaker after graduating from the UA last December.
Bekah, who, up until two weeks ago, taught eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders at Basis Phoenix, said putting in her notice was something that she had to seriously think about.
"I felt like I had a really good job," she said. "Basis is a good organization. There was financial stability. It seemed like an ideal situation."
But, she said, it was a move worth taking.
In addition to playing together, she and Matt Rolland also plan on getting married before the tour starts next month.
"It was the right time to try new things," she said. "We are in our mid-20s. We weren't really established in our jobs. We have no mortgage, no kids. It is now or never."
On StarNet: Watch and listen as the bluegrass band Run Boy Run performs "Willow Garden" in concert: azstarnet.com/video
Run Boy Run
Run Boy Run already has its first gig in Tucson scheduled for when it returns to Arizona in the fall. The show will be held at 8 p.m. on Sept. 28 at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 4831 E. 22nd St. Tickets are $12 in advance at inconcerttucson.com and $15 at the door. Follow the band at runboyrunband.com or on its facebook page, facebook.com/runboyrunband
Contact reporter Gerald M. Gay at firstname.lastname@example.org or 807-8430.