INTERVIEW: Backroad Anthem coming back from the depths of sadness brought on by loss of bandleader, friend

In the days after Craig Strickland’s body was found near an Oklahoma lake where he and a friend had set out on a duck-hunting expedition, the band he led promised to move forward. Backroad Anthem was the collective dream of all of the bandmates. There was no doubt they would continue, said Toby Freeman, the band’s lead vocalist.

The remaining members mustered their strength, and fans of the country-pop outfit rallied to the cause, too. A series of memorial shows followed almost immediately after Strickland was discovered by law enforcement officers near Kaw Lake on Jan. 4 of last year, more than a week after he went missing. One of those memorial sets found the band at George’s Majestic Lounge less than two weeks after Strickland succumbed to hypothermia following a winter storm.

What: Backroad Anthem
When: 9:30 p.m. March 3
Where: George’s Majestic Lounge, Fayetteville
Cost: $10-$15; tickets available through

Backroad Anthem appeared to be back. Then came the grief. It was real, powerful and it stopped the band midstride.

“We had this whole process where we were all working so hard for the fans, and the people who were following the story [of the search for Strickland]. We started strong. Then true sadness and grief set in. We didn’t have a chance to grieve for one of our best friends,” Freeman said.

So when the grief did come, the band stopped. They took time off. Freeman played a few solo gigs just to remind himself what that was like and started writing songs, too. But the eventual mourning period and hiatus that followed did not change the resolve of Backroad Anthem. The former six-piece group is now moving forward with five men all dreaming of country music success. “This has always been the dream for all of us. Craig put it together,” Freeman said.

And, in many ways, he helped set them up for success in the future, Freeman said. That future is now. The band is recording again, touring again and will on Friday (March 3) visit George’s again.

In the months before Strickland died, the band had been working to change its internal structure. Strickland started serving as more of a band leader and co-vocalist. Freeman started to take on more vocal duties; he sang almost all of the songs on the band’s most recent studio recording, an EP called “Torn.” They didn’t know what would happen at the time, but it allowed them a path forward. Freeman only has one explanation.

“God knew what was going to happen, and he started transitioning us,” he said.

They kept the roster at five instead of adding a sixth member.

“It felt like that was the honorable thing. We felt like adding another member was a slap in the face,” Freeman said.

When the post-mourning-period restart occurred, Freeman said the band wanted a fresh start courtesy of new songs that highlighted their current capabilities while also finding ways to perform old songs in ways that honor their departed frontman. Backroad Anthem has completed work on five songs that will be assembled for a new EP expected out this spring. Freeman said the band hopes to ink a major label record deal on the strength of the new songs. He knows few bands get a big contract, but he believes in the songs, too.

“We have five songs on the EP that are single-caliber songs,” he said.

The band’s plan to achieve country music stardom included a move by Freeman, formerly of Lowell, and drummer Isaac Senty, formerly of Bentonville, to Nashville, Tennessee, where they’ve worked with producers and agents and songwriters to advance their position. The band is still partly based in Northwest Arkansas, and they often come here to regroup before heading out on tour dates, Freeman said.

The way forward – with new songs and a new stage show – is what Backroad Anthem plans to bring to George’s on Friday for a headlining performance.

“We want people to be proud of all the hard work we’ve put in,” Freeman said.

Hard work necessitated by the hardest thing Freeman and his bandmates have ever gone through, he said. Backroad Anthem won’t ever forget that, and they won’t forget to keep working because of it.

“This is what we need to do,” Freeman said.


The band has recently released a new video in advance of an EP due out this spring.

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