Sunday, July 15, 2007

CHESTERTOWN, Md. — They perform songs you’d expect from a bluegrass group made up of 20-somethings who play barefoot in an old barn in the woods. Tunes about lost love. A few wordless jams. A Grateful Dead cover or two.

But then Chester River Runoff launches into a blistering indictment of what the band sees as unchecked sprawl development on the rapidly growing Eastern Shore. It’s protest with a banjo, a message that is winning fans in cities as large as Baltimore — all for a five-piece group that hasn’t even signed a record deal.

“Your life gets cheaper,” sings banjo player Samuel Guthridge, “when you sell off all your farms and homes to greedy developers.”

In another song, guitarist Ben Armiger paints an even darker picture of the growth he’s seen around his grandparents’ farm, where he lives and raises corn and soybeans. “Our town fathers have disgraced us and sold our souls for a song,” Mr. Armiger croons in “Plastic Houses.”

He sings, “Gone are the days when we went fishing and ate what we had grown/ We’ll be a suburb for all the strangers who drive from the Western Shore.”

Times are tough, it seems, for these men who want an Eastern Shore minus the outlet-mall shopping and new housing developments on former farmland. But times are good in a way, too, because the band’s music and message are drawing fans to shows across Maryland, with old folks and urban hipsters mingling to hear the music.

At a recent show in Chestertown, about 200 people came out to see the band. Gray-haired fans sat and watched the fiddle, banjo, two guitars and drummer, while a few dozen younger folks discarded their shoes and danced in front of the stage.

“It resonates because of the lyrics about development going on and the problems it’s going to cause,” said Emma Shivers of Chestertown, who has lived on the Eastern Shore for 30 years.

Chester River Runoff now plays several times a month on the shore, sometimes playing in Baltimore or as far away as Maine, where friends set them up with a show.

The band started three years ago and practices in the barn where Mr. Armiger lives on the banks of the Chester River. The name refers to the river that runs through their hometown and to the pollution runoff caused by development.

“There’s a lot more houses, a lot more traffic,” Mr. Armiger said. “There’s starting to be a new culture. There are fewer watermen, fewer farmers. We have a lot of commuters now.”

Mr. Guthridge’s song about development, called “Where the Speed Limit Changes,” tells the story of a man who builds houses for wealthy weekenders who drive up his own cost of living. Mr. Guthridge wrote it while working as a builder here after graduating from Washington College in Chestertown.

“Rents are going up all the time,” Mr. Guthridge said. “I was just sitting there thinking, all these houses I’m building are just driving up my cost of living. They’re for people from out of town who aren’t going to participate in the community.”

The band members say growth itself isn’t the problem. What bothers them is the kind of construction they see happening around Kent County: retirement communities and housing for commuters who can’t afford land closer to where they work.

“Basically, we’re not building a sustainable community,” Mr. Guthridge said. “They’re building houses with the intention that people aren’t going to be working because they’re retired, or they’re commuting 50 to 90 miles a day.”

At the show, “Where the Speed Limit Changes” is a hit with the crowd. Many who aren’t dancing are clapping along. But some fans say they’re there for the music, not the anti-development message.

“There is some growth, but it’s not what I’d consider major growth,” said Jim Harbeson, who retired to Chestertown from New Jersey. “I think we need some more jobs here. The kids get out of school, and if they’re not a doctor or a nurse at the hospital or working at Washington College, there’s nothing for them to do.”

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