What does it take to bring a seemingly crazy idea to fruition? Ask the folks behind Elk River Sessions, a Denton-based collective of musicians who holed up in Missouri's Ozark Mountains to write, record and produce an album in three days. The formula is a couple of cabins in the woods, several bottles of whiskey and a good cause.
For years, Dentonite Aaron "Catfish" Anttila had been devising a plan to bring some of the town's best musical talent to his Noel, Mo., cabin, which has been in his family since the early 1970s. The idea was simple enough: A handful of musicians would come and produce a record that was distinctly Denton.
But as he began to write his talent wish-list, Catfish realized the scope of the project was beyond his expectations.
"It just started happening ... like, oh, we know engineers. Oh, we know who has gear to bring up there. Denton Film Company wants to come film it all," he says over beers at East Side Denton, the bar where he works. "It just became this whole thing."
On April 19, local music and film lovers will get to experience what happened during that 72-hour trip, when the documentary Elk River Sessions premieres at Denton's Campus Theatre as part of the Thin Line Festival. The screening will be followed by a concert featuring its starring musicians at Dan's Silver Leaf. Both events (at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., respectively) are free to attend.
The riverfront property in Missouri is an inspiring place, Catfish says, recalling the days when he would canoe, pick blackberries and mow the lawn there as a kid. (Always with a push mower, he says; his father was insistent about that.)
There are four cabins on the two-acre property, each of which served a different function as part of the Elk River Sessions project. The 22 musicians featured on the album, titled Elk River Sessions Volume One, were split into three bands called River, Mountain and Eagle, and each rehearsed in their individual cabins. At the end of the trip, the groups took turns recording in the fourth cabin.
Even in theory, the idea seemed a little crazy — in a good way. Stefanie Lazcano, who plays bass in the Mountain group and Denton band Pearl Earl, wanted to be involved immediately after hearing from Catfish, "one of the coolest guys in town," she says.
"I thought, 'Man, that sounds like some sort of movie,'" Lazcano says. "Little did I know at the time, it would be a movie."
Musically, Elk River Sessions Volume One is all over the map — which makes sense considering its creators are from vastly different bands. When Catfish and Chuck Crosswhite, one of the film's producers who organizes a similar event called Rock Lottery, were dividing the musicians into bands, they intentionally tried to push them out of their comfort zones.
That's why listeners will hear folk songs like "Blue Collar Ball and Chain" by River band weaved in next to the synth-driven "Cowpatty Mushroom" by Mountain and the foot-stomping country vibes of "Let's End It Here" by Eagle. In a live setting, the experience is much the same, Catfish says. The musicians on stage will rotate depending on which song is next on the set list.
In a word, "Mountain was organic rock 'n' roll," says Cory Coleman of Denton band AM Ramblers, who sang and played guitar and mandolin on the album. "River was definitely more the country-folk. And Eagle ... they had Irish folk and a little bit of Appalachian folk."
Many of the musicians involved with Elk River Sessions say they would have participated just for fun. But the project was more compelling once they knew they'd be helping a friend in need.
Dentonite Traci Batson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2015. In the years since, her disease has progressed more quickly than doctors anticipated, leading to several months of expensive chemotherapy treatment.
"Today, I'm OK," Batson says during our interview. "Two days ago, I was in hell."
Batson's journey is also chronicled in the documentary, since she was named beneficiary of the Elk River Sessions project. Traci and her husband, Michael, joined the trip to Missouri and are also featured on some of the songs. Proceeds from the album's sale go toward helping with Traci's medical bills — as will proceeds from the next edition, Catfish says.
He's already putting together a new roster of musicians to take to those cabins in the woods this summer with a couple bottles of whiskey to produce Volume Two.
"It was the best weekend of my life," Traci says of visiting the Elk River. Even as her disease gets worse, the strength of her support network helps her get through. "We left out of that weekend ready to take it on."