Jason Sanford, chief songwriter and vocalist for the Mississippi folk-rock septet Rosco Bandana, learned at a young age that rock and roll was the Devil's music.
"We watched this video one time," Sanford says. "It was talking about how most of the bands like AC/DC and a lot of heavier bands were into witchcraft, heavy drugs, demonic stuff." For a time, Sanford steered clear. "I didn't want to be a part of that."
But change rolled in like the tide. When Sanford was 17, his family broke away from the church they had been attending and started having church in their own home. At age 18, while working at the Chick-fil-A in a Biloxi shopping mall, Sanford mustered up a tiny act of defiance and walked into the mall tobacco shop, where he met his first hipster. The guy behind the counter started asking Sanford about his taste in music, and Sanford confessed he was a fan of Bob Marley, Jack Johnson, and the local oldies station. The smoke shop employee introduced Sanford to Bright Eyes, Elliott Smith, and Iron & Wine — artists who still inform Sanford's songwriting today, at age 27. "It all is from the same vein of just honest music, if that makes sense," Sanford says. He likens the sensibility to that old folk truism: "All you need is three chords and the truth."
The music Sanford makes today is certainly honest, with plenty of direct confession and a boot-stomping, gospel-harmonizing rhythm section that keeps the sound sunny. Sanford can moan like Dylan, but he also isn't afraid to rock out like Skynyrd. From the triumvirate of indie luminaries he first heard in the tobacco shop, Sanford retains a naked lyrical honesty but foregoes the younger Conor Oberst's self-pitying woe-bemoaning, Elliott Smith's breathy delivery, and Sam Beam's metaphor-laden mysticism. And even with only one full-length album to the band's name, 2012's Time To Begin, Rosco Bandana already sounds like a seasoned ensemble.
After eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and indie at age 18, Sanford started seeking out more earnest songwriters to listen to. It was also around that time that he met his sweetheart Emily Sholes, who was a few years younger than he. "Emily was the first person I met in my life that played me a song she wrote," Sanford says. He says Sholes inspired him to pick up his guitar and write originals rather than just play covers. Sanford and Sholes broke off the relationship eventually, but they re-entered each other's lives after Sanford organized a regular open-mic night at a wine bar where he was working. It was there that Sanford met the musical collaborators who would eventually become Rosco Bandana, and it was there that he and Sholes reunited — first in song, then in love. "Eight years later down the road, we get back together and start singing again, and the spark was still there, and the music drew us closer and closer together," Sanford says.
The band grew and morphed over the years until arriving at its current stage-swamping lineup: Sanford on vocals and guitar, Sholes on vocals and keyboard, Jenny Flint on vocals and percussion, Josh Smith on bass, Jackson Weldon on mandolin and lap steel, Barry Pribyl Jr. on percussion and vocals, and Patrick Mooney on guitar and banjo.
Miraculously, the recordings don't sound cluttered, with tasteful mandolin peals and subtle vocal harmonies that are rarely ostentatious. At the front of the mix, Sanford has developed some serious pipes, and it's almost disconcerting to hear his high and gentle speaking voice on the telephone.
Rosco Bandana is a recent success story, having signed as the first artist on Hard Rock Cafe's new record label just last year. Sanford still sounds awestruck as he describes getting to see his hero Sam Beam perform some new Iron & Wine songs at SXSW. With the taste of fame still fresh in his mouth, he doesn't even regret the seven-and-a-half years he spent working in fast food. "I feel like that really helped me out in the long run," Sanford says. "As a musician, you're still in the service industry. You want to be kind to everyone you meet, and you want to be as humble as possible."