Between pecan and live oak trees, the dark water of the Lumber River flows through the low-lying swamplands of Robeson County, home for generations to the Lumbee Nation. It's also the home of Dark Water Rising, a sextet of Native Americans who piece together Southern rock full of gospel harmonies, hip-hop inflections and Motown soul with a journeyman work ethic. With bold songwriting and bewitching arrangements, DWR breaks rules effortlessly—maybe because nobody told these novices there were rules to be broken.
The name Dark Water Rising taps in to Lumbee identity, rooted in a strong sense of place. Known as "People of the Dark Water," the Lumbee took refuge in the swamps—essentially, land nobody else wanted—and eventually took their name from the Lumber River that runs through them. These swamps have long harbored outlaws. Back in the 1860s, Henry Berry Lowry, a sort of Reconstruction-era Robin Hood, defied the Home Guard and federal authorities for years within these woods.
"He was a distant relative on my father's side," says Charly Lowry, one of Rising's three frontwomen. "Some of his old stomping grounds, and places where he did battles and hung out, is the same swamp that I live in."
While the flood zone started out as a hiding place, it grew into a community over the generations. Today, some 50,000 Lumbee live in Robeson County, concentrated in Pembroke—known on the maps of Henry Berry Lowry's time as "Scuffletown." Seclusion bred self-sufficiency among the Lumbee, giving rise to the same do-it-yourself audacity that motivated DWR's members—all college grads in their mid-20s, with no formal music training—to take up instruments for the first time.
"It was right when Guitar Hero came out for Wii, in 2008," says Corey Locklear, who made the improbable leap from four buttons and a strum bar to 19 frets and real strings. "I had a passion after Guitar Hero to actually pick up an acoustic." Soon, he invited over childhood friends Eric Locklear and Aaron Locklear (all no relation; Locklear is a common name in Robeson County) to jam. Eric—who had played a little guitar in church—played bass, and Aaron fooled around on a First Act drum set.
"The hi-hat was bent every which way," remembers Aaron. "But it was enough to have fun." Aaron knew Lowry from his time at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where the two had co-founded GreenSky Records. He invited her to join, and Eric's wife, Ciera Dial-Locklear, entered the band as second vocalist. When they needed yet more harmony, Lowry asked her college roommate, Brittany Jacobs. At UNC, Jacobs and Lowry had been two-thirds of the Native vocal trio One Voice.
"I'm Coharie. It's a much smaller tribe, concentrated mostly in Sampson and Harnett counties," says Jacobs, originally from Clinton. "[Between] my tribe and the Lumbee tribe, there are a lot of similarities, like last names, the culture, those kinds of things."
Living in Morrisville now, she's the only member of Dark Water Rising not based in Robeson County. She rehearses long-distance, building her parts via demos and ideas the band sends her through email. Besides vocals, Jacobs adds textures and colors via glockenspiel, tambourine, saxophone and a vintage Gretsch concert drum.
"We only use it on 'Love Me,' but everybody loves the sound of that drum," comments bandmate Lowry. "It's not a traditional Native American drum, but it's probably the way that Brittany plays it, with a straight beat. That's similar to the beat that you would hear around a drum at a powwow."
Rising incorporates some elements of Native American music, but their lack of training means that they're not creating some direct synthesis of old and new forms, nor do they want to. Dial-Locklear, for instance, did a little singing in the Lumbee pageant scene growing up, but she never performed music with a group before this one.
"I'm still learning vocal techniques, learning how to control my voice, and how to harmonize and blend," says Dial-Locklear, who has also picked up the keyboard for Rising. "When the band came around, it kind of gave me a second chance to get back in the groove again. I didn't know what a chord was. I didn't really start learning to play piano until the year after the band started, so I've only been playing for about two years."
A former Junior Miss Lumbee, Lowry also sang in pageants, as well as in her church growing up. But her most visible entertainment gig prior to Rising was her stint on the third season of American Idol, in 2004, while still a sophomore at UNC. Even though Lowry lost in the semifinal round, her Southern warmth threw a memorable curve-ball into the world of reality TV.
After American Idol, Lowry joined Chapel Hill's Mr. Coffee and the Creamers, singing covers of Motown funk and soul, strains you can now detect in Dark Water Rising. At the same time, she put out two limited-release solo EPs as GreenSky's first artist. Those releases contained songs that would prove essential for Dark Water Rising—"Brownskin," from 2006's eponymous EP, and "Movin On," an anthem for federal recognition of the Lumbee, from 2007's Southern Belle. The latter won Lowry and Aaron Locklear their first Native American Music Award for Best Video; in 2010, they won a second time with Dark Water Rising as Debut Group of the Year.
Lowry and Jacobs wrote "Brownskin" during their a cappella days with One Voice.
"We just started thinking about the young girls back home and some of the things that they were doing, giving in to peer pressure and outside forces, like society really," Lowry recalls. "It says, no matter where you're from, or where you intend to go, always walk with pride, with your head held high, no matter who your parents are, how much money you have or don't have."
When the band came together, "Brownskin" shifted from a simple arrangement for voices and Native American hand drum into a full-blown rock song with noisy guitar riffs and hip-hop attitude. At a recent show at Mighty J's, a sports bar across from Pembroke's UNC campus, women's fists pumped the air during "Brownskin."
"It's not a cookie-cutter band," said Shay Jones, a drummer who attended the Mighty J's show. "I became a fan of theirs the first night I saw them at the Rock Shop in Fayetteville. Harmonies, structures, time signatures, changes—that's not normal for a new, baby band. The words, the writing, it was already dynamic."
"We're trying to make music that feels good and feels right. And if it feels good, then it is right," says Corey Locklear about DWR's unconventional songwriting, which makes plenty of sudden left turns.
With a smile, Lowry adds, "We like to watch the audience try to keep up."
Dark Water Rising's goal has always been to get their music to a wider fanbase, not to tour the casinos and reservations and make easy money based on their niche appeal. "If we were portrayed [primarily] as a Native American band, we would probably be on that circuit," says Lowry. She and her bandmates prefer to develop a fanbase the old-fashioned way—appealing to indie and mainstream audiences who are seeking out good music, regardless of genre.
In a 34-foot Coronado RV purchased on Craigslist, DWR has traversed the state to play clubs and festivals, sharing stages with bluegrass, heavy metal and salsa bands. Rising has even gotten a foot in the door at some of the Triangle's canonical indie rock venues, such as Local 506 and Kings. And their tour footprint has expanded as far away as Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia and New York.
"The ultimate goal is doing it for a living, and not just for peanuts and peanut butter sandwiches," says Corey. For the time being, nearly every member holds down a day job. Though restless with big, rock 'n' roll dreams, they return to the place that gives them their name, and their strong sense of community, at the end of each road trip.
"Because it's home. And I don't know, it has this strange allure," says Corey. For the cover of their debut album, the six waded up to their necks in the Lumber's cool, muddy waters for a photo shoot.
"Our values are mainly developed on love, togetherness, doing what it takes to make things work," adds Eric Locklear. "Working together, going the extra mile; we have that in our community, no doubt, but through our music we're trying to spread that message to everyone."
Correction (Sept. 29, 2011): The Native American Music Award for Best Video for "Movin On" was awarded to Charly Lowry and Aaron Locklear, not Dark Water Rising (which hadn't officially formed yet).