You can see it in someone’s eyes when they are really listening to you. Not just nodding along, but empathizing with the substance of what you’re saying.
The Arcadian Wild really listen. You can see it in their patience with fans, their gentleness with each other, and most of all in the cohesive interplay of each melodic line in their music. Like mycelium spreading nutrients throughout a forest, each individual is inseparable from the whole.
The band began in a choir course at Lipscomb University in Nashville in 2013. An impromptu post-class jam session catalyzed a decade of friendship and collaboration. The lineup has shifted so often over the years that founding member Lincoln Mick refers to the band as a “revolving door,” but he remembers the band’s five-or-so departed members with much more sweetness than bitterness.
“To take a turn of phrase from Fred Rogers, so many people have ‘loved this band into being’ over the years,” he told BandWagon.
In its current iteration, The Arcadian Wild is one of the best-loved and most innovative acts in the “newgrass” scene. Though Mick will be the first to tell you they’re indebted to acts like Nickel Creek for inspiration, their sound is more expansive than derivative. Like other newgrass acts, they have dazzling technical chops. But, unlike their contemporaries, the band traces its songwriting lineage to religious choral music.
“Lincoln and I grew up in churches that sang acapella music exclusively,” Singer and guitarist Isaac Horn explained. “From a young age we were surrounded by this four-part vocal tradition.”
This influence is heard in the evocative layering of harmonies as well as the philosophical themes of the band’s compositions. Even the instrumentation is reminiscent of vocal music. Melodic motifs and countermelodies far outnumber chords and simple basslines.
Horn and Mick, who plays mandolin and sings, are the creative core of the band. While Horn is at once thoughtful, humble and sarcastic, Mick is friendly and outgoing, waxing romantic about Horn’s song “Civil War.” In it, Horn describes his experience living with Tourette’s syndrome.
“In my opinion he really embodied the experience of what it’s like to be physically and mentally him,” Mick said. “It was so impressive, honest and courageous. I’m really grateful that he wrote that song.”
“It’s a perfect song,” Mick interjected with a chuckle, “that’s what he’s trying to say.”
The pair have been inseparable for years, both responsible for the lyrics, arrangements and compositions in the vast majority of the band’s catalog. When Horn joined in 2014, the band was talented but shapeless, searching for a creative niche at Nashville house parties and Colorado dive bars. When Horn joined, they found it. The partnership was kismet, and their vision propelled them into new sonic territory.
Eight years later, Mick and Horn’s partnership is the only holdover from that era, and they would be lying if they said the tumultuous turnover hasn’t been hard at times. In 2017, the band had just tracked a fresh album’s worth of songs when singer and banjo player Sarah Jane Wood decided it was time to split, investing in a solo project. Mick and Horn weren’t sure if the band was viable without Wood’s exceptional vocals.
“She has this crazy powerful voice,” Mick said. “People would come up to me and Isaac after a show and say, ‘you guys did such a great job.’ Then they’d go up to Sarah like, ‘wow your voice is amazing. You’re an angel.’”
As hard as Wood’s departure was, their continued success afterwards gave Horn and Mick confidence in the band’s ability to thrive as it changed shape. Since 2020, they have been joined by fiddle player and singer Bailey Warren. Mick and Horn met Warren at a Hawktail concert in 2019 – she was a college senior and an immense fan of The Arcadian Wild.
“All of the greats were there. The room was full of bluegrass legends,” Horn said. “Bailey and her boyfriend came straight up to us.”
A few months later, the band was suddenly down a fiddle player – two days before a gig. Horn texted Warren at midnight to ask if she might step in. After a brief and incomplete one-hour rehearsal, Warren performed flawlessly in front of a live audience.
“I don’t think she made any more mistakes than the two of us do on a regular basis,” Mick said.
When the pandemic shuttered venues just months later, the band was still full of the new energy Warren brought to the quartet. With no shows to play, they took to the studio to reinvigorate an old project: A sprawling, lyrical folk and classical composition from Horn’s senior year at Lipscomb. Mick and Horn unearthed and reworked the piece for a new band and a new era.
“It was really good to have those few years of distance,” Mick said. “It was good to sift through it so we could find, ‘okay what is the heart of this and what is just kind of silly and adolescent.”
The resulting EP, Principium debuted at #3 on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart last year. The band describes it as a “four-movement song-cycle that explores human relationship.” Complex divergent melodies are woven together by emotion. Even in its darkest moments, Horn’s lyrics stem from a place of compassion.
It’s this worldview of careful observation and unconditional love that pervades The Arcadian Wild’s creative efforts. Perhaps it can best be summed up by the words of one of the band’s long-time mentors, Nashville singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson.
“He told us, ‘Your two basic jobs are to tell the truth and love your audience,’” Mick remembered. “That’s all you have to do.”
BandWagon presents The Arcadian Wild on Friday, June 17 at LuLu’s Downstairs in Manitou Springs and Saturday, June 18 at The Moxi Theater in Greeley with Ellsworth. More on the band at thearcadianwild.com – tickets at BandWagonPresents.com