Standing in a bustling second floor corridor at Nashville's Omni Hotel, Backroad Anthem are basically indistinguishable from any other first-time attendee of Country Radio Seminar: a group of wide-eyed kids hoping to make some kind of lasting impression on the hordes of radio tastemakers in call letter-embellished polo shirts.
Of course, Backroad Anthem's story is anything but typical. In late December, the Fayetteville, Arkansas-based group's co-lead singer Craig Strickland disappeared while duck hunting with his friend Chase Morland in Oklahoma. His body was found January 4th after an extensive search, his cause of death ruled hypothermia in the wake of the intense snowstorm that capsized their boat.
At the time, the rest of the band members — Toby Freeman, Eric Dysart, Josh Bryant, Brandon Robold and Isaac Senty — were spending the holidays in various locations with their families. It wasn't uncommon for Strickland's phone to exhaust its battery, so the lack of communication was initially no cause for alarm. But when Strickland's father notified them of the search party, everything began to resemble a slow-motion car accident.
"I remember getting up and getting dressed and sitting in a hotel room just knowing that I couldn't do anything," recalls fiddle player Dysart, who was visiting family in Minnesota. "Everyone was in a similar situation. There wasn't a lot we could really do except pray."
They were in contact with one another through the ordeal but they didn't reunite as a band until the day Strickland's body was found, as coincidence would have it. The reality and finality of that, just a few weeks later, is still sinking in.
"Ever since he went missing, it's like living in a dream," says drummer Senty. "Things are happening around you, but. . . it's like, 'Is this really what's going on?' Like, [maybe] Craig's gonna show up one of these times."
Strickland's tragic death happened right as Backroad Anthem were beginning to make a push beyond their devoted regional following. They'd lined up booking representation through William Morris Endeavor, hired a Nashville publicist and secured a management agreement with the same team guiding Dustin Lynch's career. They were courting record labels as the next piece of the puzzle.
They made the decision to continue performing under the same name, with Freeman assuming lead vocal duties and setting their sights back on a label deal. He and Strickland had been sharing the lead role for some months, so the transition wasn't as terrible as it might have been. But all agree that Strickland brought a certain energy and spirit that will be impossible to replace — indeed, in the video for their single "Torn" (released immediately after the tragedy as a tribute to the singer) Strickland carries himself and works the camera with a confidence of a seasoned entertainer.
"We're all doing music to try to keep us going"
Acknowledging the big question that is undoubtedly lurking in many people's minds, Freeman says their decision to continue as a band was a relatively easy one.
"For the most part it's knowing that this is what [Craig] would want us to do for sure," he says. "He would not want us to stop. He would not want us to take one second to think about it, and we never did, honestly. We just carried on."
Backroad Anthem also has to contend with the issue of association. For many people, Strickland's death was the first time they'd heard of the band and thus the two will be inextricably linked. There is also the very delicate tightrope walk of trying to honor his memory but not resort to leaning on it for their gain.
"We'll definitely always have a part of our show and part of us that will always honor Craig," says bassist Robold. "Because he was so influential — this band was his idea. He started putting the pieces together."
Freeman understands the potential risks inherent in their decision to keep going. "It's hard sometimes to talk about it, but I think what we're just trying to accomplish is to have his legacy move with us forward and for everybody to remember him as this guy who just loved life," he says.
While "Torn" has yet to chart, its poppy, radio-friendly nature fits well with the band's name and a particular sound that has dominated country radio for the past couple years. The Torn EP, released in September 2015, may well be the final recordings featuring Strickland's voice and establishes the band's aesthetic as nearer to Dan + Shay than Florida Georgia Line — polished and approachable, without being too squeaky clean. Pulling from diverse musical backgrounds, they felt like they had something special from the time they formed.
"I think one of the first times we ever played together, we heard that," says Dysart. "Even if we couldn't label it, we wanted to have that sound."
More than anything, that original feeling may be the thing that is still driving Backroad Anthem. Through the unimaginable loss of their bandmate and friend, they've found solace and comfort in continuing to make music together — the way they did when Craig Strickland helped set it all in motion.
"We're all doing music to try to keep us going," says Freeman. "All the family support, all the fan support really helps too, but I think the main thing is just being really busy and staying really busy with the music. Because it's that great reminder of everything he strived hard for."