When J.B. Dunn and Kimbrey Havens first met in 2014, he was already a fixture on the Frederick music scene. She had just moved to town a few months ago, and started heading to open mic nights at Cafe Nola to scope out the local talent.
“When we met, it was only my second night out ever in Frederick,” Havens said. “And I didn’t actually want to perform. I just wanted to see what kind of artists were there, and what kind of music they were playing.”
Still, Dunn was impressed. A Damascus native, he began playing bars in Frederick at the age of 15, back when underage musicians could still perform at places like Bushwaller’s if they came early enough and brought a parent or guardian. At the time, Dunn said, his parents thought he was ready to branch out from their local church — his usual performance venue — so his dad would march him into bars and watch him play guitar, sitting there with his arms folded.
As he got older, Dunn only got more involved in the local scene. After a stint at the now-defunct Life Bible College in Christianburg, Virginia (he and the administration “mutually decided” that it would better if he parted ways with the school, Dunn said), he moved back to Frederick and started a band called The Secondhand Ramblers with his friend, Scott Blecman (once a co-worker at the Pizza Hut in Mount Airy). He was also booking bands for Cafe Nola at the time he met Havens, whose tactics immediately caught his attention.
“I knew what she was doing, and that impressed me right away,” Dunn said of Havens. “I was really impressed that she was playing the long game. So I encouraged her to come back the next week and bring an instrument ‘cause I wanted to know how good she was, at that point. I was playing the same game she was.”
Havens, for her part, took Dunn up on his offer. The next week, she brought her guitar to another open mic night at The Cellar Door, launching an unofficial “solo partnership” with Dunn. For a few months, she said, the two musicians played the same shows and open mic nights, occasionally collaborating but mostly focusing on their own material. Musically, their styles weren’t dramatically different. Havens had performed in a bluegrass ensemble at her alma mater, Denison University, and still drew from traditional bluegrass and folk artists. Dunn, she said, was playing “J.B. stuff” — the kind of pop and rock Americana he played with The Secondhand Ramblers.
“I feel like for a while, one of us would book a show and just bring the other one on,” Dunn added. “That was kind of it. It wasn’t necessarily my first inclination to say, ‘Yeah, I want to start a whole new project together.’”
Sometime in 2015, though, the inevitable happened — the two started a band together. It was Havens’ dad, a co-owner of her Walkersville-based doggie day care business, who came up with the name Israel Creek, a feeder stream into the Monocacy River.
“I think we were trying to find a name that was sort of earthy and indicative of where we’re from,” Dunn said. “And Kimbrey’s dad just threw it out there because Israel Creek literally crosses the property that their business is on.”
Havens played mandolin for the band and Dunn played guitar and they both shared vocals, a smaller, simpler sound that worked for gigs at coffee shops and wineries. But after a year, they started thinking about expanding their lineup for larger events. Blecman, Dunn’s long-time collaborator, had wanted to join Israel Creek “basically as soon as I came to him and told him, ‘Hey, I’m playing in this string band,’” Dunn said. Dunn was hesitant at first, but he and Havens wanted an upright bass player, and Blecman was looking for an excuse to buy the instrument.
“I think it kind of gave me the last push I needed to pick one up,” said Blecman, who also plays electric bass for The Secondhand Ramblers.
Around the same time, Dunn and Havens met Brian Murray, who introduced himself during an open mic night at Bushwaller’s on Christmas Eve.
“I think he was just trying to hit on Kimbrey, but he offered to play the fiddle for us,” Dunn said with a smirk.
Murray and Havens started dating a few months later after another chance meeting at Cafe Nola. A few months after that, Murray officially joined Israel Creek, and the two are now married with a five-month-old son.
“I think it’s been a good situation for us,” Havens said. “I’ve been in other bands where there are very strict rules about dating other members, so I can see why it would be an issue, but it never was for us.”
Dunn described Israel Creek’s sound as “neo-folk,” but the band has recently been working to distinguish themselves from The Secondhand Ramblers and delve deeper into traditional bluegrass, according to Havens. She’s introduced songs from artists like Alison Krauss into the band’s set list, and they also play a handful of original titles that she, Dunn and Blecman have all written independently.
Right now, the band plays about one gig a month, a pace that’s comfortable for Havens and Murray — currently occupied by their five-month-old — and for Blecman, who’s getting married in just a couple weeks. Dunn expects the band to maintain those performances even after he moves to Portland, Oregon, for “an extended stay” at the end of the year.
“I absolutely fell in love with that town,” he said. “It’s everything I ever wanted. But one of the best decisions I’ve ever made is to surround myself with people I genuinely trust as far as playing music, and outside of being a band, we’re all friends. So, the band wouldn’t dissolve any more than our friendships would.”