RVA#40: The Powerhouse That is Holy Roller! Classic Rock with a Nashville Vibe


A condensed version of this conversation is in RVA #40, which hits the streets this Friday. Pick up the print version around town for FREE or join our patreon and read the web version right now at patreon.com/RVAMag 

My first experience with the local Richmond band Holy Roller was at The Camel, when they were performing under the name Big Mama Shakes. I was 19 years old, new to the city, and mostly ignorant of the thriving Richmond music scene that I would soon find myself enthralled by. While my memory is hazy on the specifics of that evening for a variety of reasons, I do remember an intense and penetrating sound that shook me, and the audience, to our core. It was a sound that kept us moving all night long, and I found myself sinking further into the lifelong addiction that is Rock & Roll.

I showed up at the house of Peter Cason, the bass player in Holy Roller, and Brady Heck, the band’s guitar player, just as Cason placed an order for pizza. The other members of the band were about to go on break in the middle of a four-hour rehearsal, and they required sustenance. For the time being, as he ushered me inside, I heard through the basement door the screaming sounds of Heck and his twangy guitar tone. Up the stairs came Rebecca Rafferty, who introduced herself to me as the group’s “tambourinist,” and offered me a cup of coffee—Folgers, and they were out of cream. Peter began washing mugs for us to use as I descended into the chaos to be met by the intense faces of an actively practicing band. As the various instrumentalists unplugged and turned off, they came up to me one by one to introduce themselves.

Holy Roller LIVE @ The Camel 9.17.22 / Richmond, Virginia by Dominic Vizdos

Bryce Doyle, the current keyboardist for the band, played guitar throughout his childhood but didn’t start playing piano until 2012 before joining Holy Roller in 2015, just in time to play a pretty important show. “My first time playing piano in front of a crowd was a sold-out show at The National opening up for Nathaniel Rateliff. I was shaking, I was so terrified,” said Doyle. Coming from a military background as a VMI cadet, Doyle grew disenchanted with the program and began teaching himself piano, now daylighting as a motorcycle repair technician.

Cason played saxophone in the fifth grade before moving onto bass guitar in middle school, which he would turn into his main instrument. The summer before his freshman year of high school, he ran into a young Heck at a band camp, and the two struck up a friendship, with Cason saying, “He wouldn’t leave me alone!” Cason books shows for a variety of smaller venues around town, including The Camel, where he frequently works the door.

Ryan Davis was introduced to percussion in fifth grade and has been playing ever since. I acknowledged his commitment and the seriousness of his background, while he shrugged his shoulders and humbly said, “I was just jamming out to AC/DC and other bands I found on Guitar Hero.” Davis toured around for a while, playing with different churches before moving down to Richmond in 2013 to study dance at Virginia Commonwealth University. Davis dropped out after three years but quickly got a job as a percussion accompanist for the various dance classes at VCU, eventually moving on to perform the same duties with Richmond Ballet, and then meeting and joining Holy Roller in the early months of 2019.

Rafferty “grew up in a really musical family,” mentioning that every member of her immediate family was a musician to some degree. She began writing songs at the age of 12 and formed her own project, Rebecca Rafferty and the Wakes, which performs regularly around Richmond. Cason was introduced to Rafferty through a mutual friend and started booking her local shows. She was asked to sing harmonies in Holy Roller, and her first gig with Holy Roller was opening for Judah and the Lion in December 2018 at The National—a running theme for the band.

Heck began playing guitar at the age of eight, attributing this to his mother, who lived and played music in Nashville until she moved to Richmond to give birth to Heck. While Heck says the practical application of his skills came from his mother, he credited his father with helping him discover music, as he claims he was constantly listening to classic rock radio stations. “When I was with my Dad, I was listening to music, and when I was with my mom, I was learning music,” said Heck. He began writing his own music throughout his middle school years before meeting Cason at the start of high school.

After our introductions, the pizza had yet to arrive, and Cason became restless, going up multiple times over the course of the next few minutes to see if the driver was at the front door.

holy roller, joey Wharton, RVA Magazine 40
photo by Joey Wharton @joey_wharton

Having formed bands off and on in high school and beyond, Cason and Heck finally got together a group of people they felt really had something. After quitting the other bands they were in at the time, they started calling themselves Big Mama Shakes in 2013. The band played regularly over the course of the next few years, culminating in an album release in 2015 titled As She Does. However, in 2018, having gone through multiple lineup changes and confusion with the band Alabama Shakes, they decided to change their name—they just didn’t know what. On the 4th of July, Cason went to their Facebook page to see if they could change their name, and without realizing it, he accidentally submitted the name change before leaving his phone at his house to go party on the James River. Other members of the band were notified of the name change—even though they had not all necessarily agreed—and they made the choice to commit at that moment. Said Cason, “I had like 10 missed calls from the band members asking, ‘are we doing this?’ and I’m like, ‘we already did it!'”

In December of that year, Rafferty joined the group, and the lineup that still stands to this day was solidified. 2019 started with the release of the self-titled first album as Holy Roller, and that year was all about the band establishing themselves in their roles and filling out their sound. However, something terrible was looming just over the horizon. “By the time we finally got a little bit of wind under our wings, the world shut down,” said Heck. While COVID killed many young and small-time bands around Richmond and the world over, Holy Roller managed to stay together. Heck attributes the group staying together mostly to Davis, who had a solo project that he was recording at the time and pulling from the members of Holy Roller to keep chipping away at over the course of 2020. “That kept the ship afloat,” said Heck. “The process kept me going and reinforced that we could still do stuff,” responded Davis. Cason acknowledged that but said, “really, we just stayed friends. We kept hanging out with each other.”

holy roller, joey Wharton, RVA Magazine 40
photo by Joey Wharton @joey_wharton

The music of Holy Roller is based in the classic tradition of Rock and Roll, but the Nashville influence of Heck is felt in almost every aspect of their sound. While As She Does offers consistency in tone, Holy Roller provides a lot more variety in not only tone and sound but also lyrical and musical content, giving the whole album an air of unpredictability. On the opening song “Raised Alright,” there is a beautiful free rhythm section with trills on the acoustic instruments under Heck screaming “oh lord!” accompanied by the band’s harmonies. The next track, “Honey, Where’d You Sleep?” starts off with a country sound and retains it for the majority of the song before launching into an intense breakdown with avant-garde guitar effects before transitioning into a riff that wouldn’t sound out of place at a punk concert. This ebb and flow continue throughout the whole of the album, such as with the minimalist “Death Letter,” in which Heck explores a host of dark themes surrounding death, entirely exposed for the majority of the song. Rarely featuring anything more than just Heck’s low voice, a guitar, and an electric piano, it stands in stark contrast to its predecessor, “Muscle Up,” a powerful anthem with a choir singing about the hardships of romantic malaise and an absolutely killer electric guitar solo.

If Holy Roller’s sound excites you, then you should be stoked to hear that they are releasing an album later this year. At Heck’s announcement of this, Cason jokingly screamed, “you said ‘this year,’ why would you do that?!” to which Heck responded in a sing-songy voice, “because if it doesn’t come out this year, I’m gonna become a fisherman!” While they have little to share in the way of details, fans of the band can rest assured that we will be getting some more music before the year’s end.

At this point, Cason got a phone call that the pizza had been delivered to the wrong address and would not be arriving anytime soon. Rafferty apologized for the inconvenience and that they wouldn’t be able to feed me that evening. I thanked them for their hospitality, but I wanted to allow them to return to their practice anyways as they appeared to be working out the new material, and I didn’t want to get in the way. 

Holy Roller are an exercise in finding and filling a niche; a long time band that only improves as they age, find the right people, and the right sound. Cason likened themselves to a pot of chili that gets better the longer it cooks prompting the room to crack up with Heck declaring, “that’s us: old chili!” The metaphor isn’t lost on me entirely though, as they have changed some of the people many times, always mixing up the ingredients, but the main course has never changed, all the while they just keep on stirring the pot to see what happens next. 

Holy Roller haven’t strayed too far from their roots; they are an ever evolving organism that seems to be settling into a routine that I wouldn’t be surprised took them far and away from Richmond on to something grander, where pizza is delivered on time. 

Follow Holy Roller @holyrollerrva

Andrew Bonieskie

Andrew Bonieskie

But you may call me Bones. I'm the Associate Editor of RVA Mag, and a writer and musician living in Richmond, Virginia. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in music and a minor in creative writing I have gone on to score feature and short films, released a book of poetry, an album of original music, and perform lead vocals with the band Pebbles Palace.

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