‘Born into music’ and raised in a family band, River Glen is about to release one of the most ambitious Iowa music collabs ever

River Glen & Band album release show

The James Theater, Iowa City, 7:30 p.m., Friday, May 5, $15-$17

River Glen & Band album release show

xBk Live, Des Moines, 6 p.m., Sunday, May 7, $12

River Glen & Band (Justin Leduc, Dan Padley, River Glen, Blake Shaw and Megan Roeth) pose on the Flat Black Studios stage in Lone Tree. — Michael Weber / Shadow Fox Photography

“I was born into music,” River Glen Breitbach said. “I’m my parents’ fourth child, and by the time I came to be, they already had an existing family band with my older siblings called The One Hat Band.”

Less than a year after the Dubuque native began attending his siblings’ Suzuki method lessons around the age of 3, he was given a 1/32-size violin and was taught to pluck the high E string to create the “pop” in the song “Pop Goes the Weasel.” The rest is (family) history.

“My parents wasted no time incorporating this undeniably cute effort by such a tiny human into their act with The One Hat Band,” Breitbach recalled. “I clearly remember loving that when my part came, I received everyone’s attention and was, for just a few moments, a ‘star’ — and thus began my career as a performer.”

Before long, Breitbach was regularly playing bluegrass and other styles of roots music at the local farmers’ market, where his parents also had a vendor booth. The One Hat Band was led by his mother, who played upright bass, and his father, who played guitar and was joined by Breitbach’s siblings on violins, mandolin and other stringed instruments. If the group managed to draw a standing crowd, they’d do their best couple of songs and pass a hat for tips, which is how the family band got its name.

Soon enough, the One Hat Band was traveling to Galena, Illinois on weekends and holidays and, for several years, they made a handful of street corners their home, along with the downtown park where they busked. Breitbach and his siblings were homeschooled, which gave them the freedom to travel to big camping festivals in Wisconsin, Ohio and New York, and they also took the Amtrak train to Seattle a few times to play at the Northwest Folklife Festival, along with other street fairs around the country.

“We were a string band flirting with being a family circus,” Breitbach recalled. “I can remember failed attempts to incorporate things like juggling and walking on stilts. I think the lasting effect of this musical upbringing is that I am open to the humor and silliness that can be found in this life. I’ve grown into a prolific lyricist who writes about belonging and cherishing loss and death as a natural part of life, along with your standard love songs and all that, but I know not to take myself too seriously.”

After being homeschooled through primary school, Breitbach’s parents decided that the kids needed the socialization of high school, where he and his brother Jackson formed a band with other students. The band was called River and the Tributaries. They were essentially a folk-rock group, though with an eclectic style and a broad pallet of sound that incorporated four-part harmony, percussion, guitars, violin, mandolin, keys, bass, drums, flute, trumpet, cello and other instrumental odds and sods. The group created two albums, toured the Midwest and ventured out to Colorado before going their separate ways in college.

These combined life experiences have fed into River Glen & Band’s ambitious new album, As Above, So Below, which incorporates a kaleidoscopic array of musicians who call Iowa home. As longtime Iowa Public Radio DJ Bob Dorr observes in the introductory track, this record is a “patchwork quilt woven lovingly with voices and instruments of over 150 people.” Yes, you read that right: more than 150 musicians!

“I played the part of curator by demonstrating the depth of my understanding of the sound and style of each artist in how I grouped them with other guests,” Breitbach said. “I sought out ‘road dogs,’ the ‘weekend warriors,’ many of the working musicians who have been working their circuit in Iowa for years.”

A small sampling of artists include Kevin B.F. Burt, Bo Ramsey, Denny Garcia, Alyx Rush, Annie Savage, Courtney Krause, Ginny Luke, Penny Peach, Bob Black and Dave Zollo, along with members of Bridges 2 Harmony Gospel Choir, Flash in a Pan, The Host Country, Jack Lion, The Maytags, NOLA Jazz Band and the Uniphonics, to name a few.

Breitbach recorded As Above, So Below in Lone Tree at Flat Black Studios, where the recording engineers remained patient and supportive as he experimented and sometimes failed during the process of executing “this crazy endeavor.” The Iowa Arts Council also played a key role in bringing this project to life after Breitbach was awarded an Artist Fellowship in 2017.

“It was from this encouragement that I thought up the idea to create an album featuring as many Iowa artists as I could,” he said. “I saw it as a way to think of more than just myself, to show appreciation for the larger community that brought me up, to help all ships rise with the coming tide. So, I pitched the idea to the Iowa Arts Council and they were willing to work with me in terms of funding, which got the project started.”

He explained that the arc of As Above, So Below loosely mirrors the cycle of a life. One is born, one grows, leaves home, moves away from the familiar, finds love, loses love, hopefully finds more love and then reflects on where they’re from as the curtain draws to a close.

Referring to the album’s second-to-last song, “In Another World,” Breitbach said, “Death makes its presence known, in this case as the sound of a bagpipe, and after all the living and loving and reflecting, just like everyone who came before, just so naturally, one dies.”

The title track, “As Above, So Below,” was Breitbach’s attempt to connect the “personal” to something more “universal” — a plea for people to establish a shared understanding so that we might learn to appreciate, celebrate and respect our differences.

“I come from a very Catholic town, but my parents raised me without any specific religion or religious practice,” he explained. “As a songwriter, I see it as my duty to metabolize my culture and the world around me and to reflect it back to my listeners. On one hand I’m saying, ‘this is us,’ and on the other hand I’m asking, ‘this is us?’ or ‘is this us?’ There is a common saying among Catholics, ‘… thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven,’ and I found myself comparing that to the hermetic saying, ‘as above, so below,’ and just generally thinking about the sacred geometry of the world, or life itself.”

As Above, So Below closes with “Live Right, Love, Give, Die and Then… ,” which features dozens of singers trading off lyrics — creating an aural patchwork of vocal tones, timbres and singing styles from around the state of Iowa. This is the end of the album, and it feels like everyone has shown up to say goodbye.

“When I die don’t you go bury me in no grave / don’t have me hanging ’round taking up space / When I’m gone, when I regain my innocence, please pass around my instruments and coalesce… I fight the good fight knowing it don’t guarantee a good life / I’m just trying to live right, love, give, die and then … ”

As Above, So Below releases officially on May 1.

Kembrew McLeod is currently surfing the astral plane. This article was originally published in Little Village’s April 2023 issues.