Before they were the River Drivers, a group of four musicians were simply friends who indulged in jam sessions in the living room of Mindy Murray’s home. They’d long known each other through the small Bristol Borough community, but after a performance in 2013 for a folk Mass to celebrate St. Mark School’s 125th anniversary, a chemistry of talent and deepening friendship took root.
With their half-dozen instruments and what they call “good craic (entertainment),” Murray, Kevin McCloskey, Meagan Ratini and Marion Moran entertain audiences with their Irish songs and American folk music.
They’ve become increasingly popular and in demand at local pubs, a Bristol coffee shop, regional folk festivals and, last year, at the Cup of Tae Festival in Ardara, Donegal, Ireland.
Some of their songs are original, others from previous years — and sometimes centuries — are resurrected from obscure and nearly forgotten archives. In 2015 they released their first CD, “Blair Mountain.”
Now, in honor of 100th anniversary of the Easter Uprising in Ireland, the River Drivers have released their first single, “Cumman na mBan,” in honor of the women of Ireland who joined the fight to end British rule on the Emerald Isle and establish an independent nation.
“The women were activists, feminists, nationalists and socialists whose ultimate goals were long overshadowed by their male comrades in arms. They did not get much recognition,” said Murray, who wrote the song.
Murray admires those who joined this paramilitary organization, determined to step outside traditional roles set down for them and to make a difference in their country’s fate. As a physician who studied medicine at a time when women doctors were in the minority, she understands the desire to break out and follow a dream, she said.
The River Drivers jokingly call their collaboration “an act of God” because of the Mass that brought them together, but they’re anything but exclusionary. Whether entertaining at a small coffee shop or a tavern, they make room for “guest” performers, sort of a have-instrument-have-a-seat-and-play philosophy. And among the audiences are regular followers who make it a point to take in the music as they dine. Enthusiasm sometimes peaks as listeners spontaneously leap to their feet to dance.
Bristol resident Amy McIlvaine said she makes it a point to attend all local concerts. She likes all the music the River Drivers serve up, but especially enjoys McCloskey’s solos.
“The group has a real connection with the audience and it’s more than the fact that each member has his or her own following,” McIlvaine said. “I think it’s because their music is nice and easy to listen to. There are stories behind all of their songs that listeners can relate to from their own experiences or from some family folklore.”
Taking their show on the road, the River Drivers have performed at many venues including the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Bristol, the Delaware Canal Festival, the Buckingham Peace Fair, the Dubliner on the Delaware in New Hope and the New Jersey Folk Festival.
Their music has been played on radio stations across the country, and in Ireland, Germany and Britain.
Future appearances include: Calm Waters Coffee Roasters, Mill Street in Bristol (July 16, Aug. 15, Sept. 16, 7 p.m.); and the Albert Music Hall, Waretown, N.J., March 18, 2017, 9-9:30 p.m.
Each of the musicians showed talent early in life. McCloskey, who plays guitar, mandolin, banjo and bass, and got his start playing weekly at a Trenton pub alongside his father, Irish tenor Tommy McCloskey.
Murray started in her teens playing guitar and dulcimer, performing in coffee houses, pubs and for college radio stations.
She attributes the American mountain influence in her music to the years she spent in medical school in West Virginia, where she witnessed firsthand the life struggles of those who lived in Appalachia. Her daughter, Meagan Ratini, grew up in a house full of musical instruments and plays the flute, dulcimer, fiddle and tin whistle with her mother’s band.
Moran has been friends with Murray since they were college roommates. Her family’s roots go back to County Donegal in Ireland and, when she can get away, she steals back to Ardara, the coastline village of her ancestors. She plays concertina, tin whistle and small whistle.
The River Drivers don’t have a particular ambition but rather they’re taking it as it comes, taking their intensity and enthusiasm on the road, when asked. But they stay true to their Bristol roots.
“We really treasure our local sessions. People come from out of town, from all over, many bringing their instruments along to join us,” Murray said.
To learn more about the River Drivers, visit www.theriverdrivers.com/.