Somewhere in the Arcadian Mountains between Sparta and Olympia, I first heard The River Company.
Dimitri, the bus driver, turned sharp curves dutifully without his pink tie or black gelled hair slipping out of place, and we safely traversed the abyss where ancient Spartans dropped babies who seemed too weak to be future soldiers.
My Millsaps group speculated that Dimitri, who squinted when taking drags from his cigarettes during breaks and made hushed phone calls, was a member of the Greek mafia.
It was under these circumstances that Travis Scharr, singer, guitarist, and pianist of The River Company, handed me his iPod and asked, "Do you want to hear some of my music?"
Since 2002, Scharr, brother Alex Scharr and friend Jamie Favors had performed and recorded under the name Cerberus, an apt title for a treacherous drive through the Greek mountains. In Greek mythology, Cerberus was the three-headed dog who guarded Hades.
"The recording is pretty rough," cautioned Scharr, a 2006 Millsaps alumnus. "We just recorded some stuff at home."
The name Cerberus proved much too sterile for the vibrant and eclectic music of the group. Maybe it was the threatening yet splendid backdrop of the Arcadian Mountains or the confidence with which the stone-faced but wily Dimitri took the curves, but the music Scharr played for me was almost soothing.
Perhaps it was for the best that the group recently discovered another band named Cerberus and brainstormed for other names. Guitarist Jamie Favors offered "The River Company," which well suits the music that bassist, pianist and singer Alex Scharr describes as a mixture of "classic rock, progressive, and jazz" with the occasional appearance of the sitar.
"I always think of The Beatles," says Travis Scharr. "They didn't have a style; they just wrote songs. However it worked out, that's how it sounded."
In fact, The River Company has an "I Am Sam" worthy intimacy with The Beatles. Like many other individuals, the three musicians have listened to and been inspired by The Beatles since childhood. A nod to George Harrison, Alex Scharr has even been teaching himself the sitar for the past couple of years.
"I really like The Beatles' versatility," says Alex Scharr. "Their minds work the same way ours do—we don't really have a single style."
"At the same time, you can hear a song and immediately recognize it as The Beatles," adds Travis Scharr.
In 2004 Travis and Alex Scharr, among friends, played two shows as a Beatles tribute band called the Un'Beatle'bles in efforts to raise money to build a music room at the Mary C. O'Keefe Cultural Center in Ocean Springs. The music room, which the Scharrs and other musician friends sponsor, is to operate as a recording studio and classroom for local musicians.
"We had always loved The Beatles and always wanted to do a tribute band," says Alex Scharr. "In the past we had mostly been a cover band any way. It seemed like it would be a lot of fun and a good fundraiser because The Beatles are so recognizable."
The two sold-out shows, in addition to other community efforts, helped raise $10,000 for the Scharr-Ello music room in one summer. In the summer of 2005, the Un'Beatle'bles re-emerged at the first annual Ocean Springs Music Festival, which the Scharr brothers and Favors pioneered in order to raise more money for the music room. Sponsored by Peavy of Meridian, the 2005 Ocean Spring Music Festival showcased youth musicians in a talent show and had a day's line up of Mississippi bands.
Since then, over $50,000 has been raised for the Scharr-Ello music room since 2004, including grants and donations. With much of the needed money for the music room raised, a focus of the 2006 festival is to create a community and support-base for Mississippi musicians.
Take a road trip and spend a summer day in Ocean Springs for the 2006 Ocean Springs Music Festival, which features a talent competition for young musicians on Friday, Aug. 4, and seven bands, including The River Company, performing in downtown Ocean Springs at Marshall Park Saturday, Aug. 5. Suggested $5 donations for each day will go toward the building and running of the Scharr-Ello music room. Visit www.oceanspringsmusic.com for more information on the Ocean Springs Music Festival.
The first time I saw The River Company perform was at a Biloxi fair about a month after the delicate climb through the mountains in Greece. Driving along the coast to the show, it seemed as if roles had been reversed as toothpick buildings stood as modern-day ruins. Neon Carousels and ferris wheels revolved majestically above the shambles of once-lucrative businesses.