New sounds in Oxford
By Davis Coen
Thistle Ridge Band has been carving out their way in the Oxford music scene since they began doing live performances in mid-2022.
The band’s core is made up of two Oxford High School graduates, Lucas McKeown and Cole Campbell, who both sing and play guitar and first met during their senior year.
After playing a couple of shows in the spring of his freshman year at Elon University in North Carolina, Lucas returned home to Oxford, still pondering how to brand his music venture to better promote live performances.
He began playing piano at Christ Presbyterian Church while home for the summer, where he was allowed to use the sanctuary as a sort of audition space for band personnel, particularly bassists and drummers.
“Just to see what worked well together,” said Lucas. “Then it dawned on me that Cole played guitar and sang a bit.” He then called up his high school buddy to coordinate a jam session and share ideas and thoughts on music.
He also made a connection with drummer Sam Lewis, who was still only a junior at Oxford High, as well as a bass player who lasted only briefly.
Around this time, Lucas grew tired of driving around backroads looking at street signs for inspiration, so he just settled on naming the band after his family farm off Highway 30, Thistle Ridge Farm.
He and Cole quickly made many connections when it came to music tastes, and both shared a liking for classic artists such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Michael Jackson. Also, country singers like Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Tammy Wynette were touchstones – since Lucas grew up hearing their songs by way of his grandparents.
“I walked around the Square one day, and went into Rooster’s Blues House, The Library, Funky’s, Rafter’s, and Proud Larry’s, just sort of saying ‘Hey, can we play here?’”
The first opportunity that came was an appearance at the long-running, Tuesday open mic night at Rooster’s. “It was just to get any type of live performance out there,” Lucas said. He also recalled that members of another rising young Oxford rock band, The Pinksheets, performed songs that evening.
Since he was still attending Elon University, Lucas would also have to strengthen his live set with another set of musicians in North Carolina, as a sort of extension of his Thistle Ridge project. “There’s kind of two branches of the band,” he said.
The summer of 2023 was a productive one, as they managed to book a short residency at Proud Larry’s, as well as multiple shows at the popular outdoor venue The Green at Harrison’s.
Other local live performances included Taylor Grocery in Taylor, Rafter’s on the Water in Sardis and the Old Armory Pavilion on Bramlett Blvd. – the latter, as part of the Velvet Ditch Music Fest. The pavilion being unenclosed made the fest audible to passing traffic and pedestrians at the busy intersection. This gave them an opportunity to showcase their eclectic cover songs and engaging originals and vocal harmonies to a broader audience than the usual restaurant/bar crowd.
Lucas also maintained an internship at a church in Johns Creek, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, during weekdays throughout the summer, and would drive back to Oxford for weekend shows.
He recalls the highlight of his summer being the result of signing up for a songwriter’s open mic, at renowned music venue Eddie’s Attic in nearby Decatur, Ga. Winners of the cutthroat open mic competition take part in the bi-annual Shootout, which has been won in past years by the likes of John Mayer, Clay Cook and Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland.
Although the band didn’t win, they made it to the top three out of over 20 competing acts. The evening was also significant because it was the first time his North Carolina bassist Julian Brown had sung and played with Lucas’ other collaborator Cole, who attends community college but entertains the idea of relocating to Elon for the band.
The open mic at Eddie’s Attic was also significant because they were soon after contacted by a casting director of American Idol about auditioning. We made it to the winner’s circle, but sadly did not get to Hollywood,” said Lucas. “It’s still a pretty cool story, that one random Monday open mic in July led to that.”
Thistle Ridge Band now has two singles available for streaming but has plans to return to the studio and release an EP in 2024.
They also intend to book a tour for the album, stopping in all of the band member’s hometowns, to theme along with one of the album’s tracks, “Everybody’s Hometown.” This would prospectively include the Raleigh-Durham area, Arlington, VA, New York City, and Boston, from which additional members, drummer Kai Evans; guitarist Peter Collins; and keyboardist Nicole Bazos hail.
Referring to Sam, Lucas said, “I don’t wanna ask a drummer who’s still in high school in Oxford to leave his senior year and travel.
Upcoming local shows for Thistle Ridge were Dec. 8 and 21 at Proud Larry’s. It was their first time back since they opened a show for nationally touring band, Easy Honey, Sept. 27.
Lucas left Elon the day before the show, which kicked off his Oxford holiday. “So we’re hitting the ground running with a gig.”