Brothers Christopher and Owen Thomas are the impetus behind the Elms, one of the recording industry’s more unlikely success stories. Staunch and true in their religious beliefs, yet contemporary in their musical bent, they have been called refreshing and unfettered, having conceived and set into motion a successful Christian music ensemble in the classic tradition of 1960s rock ‘n’ roll. This band has been cited also for the depth and originality of its repertoire, which is written almost exclusively by brother Owen. Overall, the Elms have been compared to a range of 1960s rock ‘n’ roll legends, most notably the Beatles and the Who.
Owen Thomas, the eldest of the two siblings, was born in 1979; his younger brother, Chris, arrived in 1982. The sons of a Welsh minister, the two were raised in the small town of Seymour, Indiana, with a population of 16,000. There the brothers became involved with the church. Even during the dynamic and often difficult years of adolescence, the Thomas brothers set concrete goals for themselves and stayed the course.
In the mid-1990s, they established their first band, to serve as an outreach arm for their church. They initially called the group by the name Just Visiting, with Christopher on percussion and Owen providing lead vocals and rhythm guitar. With the exception of the Thomas brothers, Just Visiting went through a series of personnel changes during the early years of their existence in the late 1990s. Bass player and producer Jeff Sutton toured with the group for two years; Malcolm McLaughlin remained until 1999; and guitarist James Thompson continued as a member through the morphing years, from 1997 to 2000.
The group released a debut album, Garden Show, in 1996 before embarking on an extended tour. More than one year passed before Just Visiting slowed the pace of their travels, by which time the band had been seen in concert on more than 100 occasions. Just Visiting released their final album, a self-titled disc, in 1998 before becoming the Elms.
In June of 1999, with 6,000 units sold as Just Visiting, the band was renamed the Elms, and the brothers signed a multi-album contract with Sparrow Records. The new band was named for an old English carriage house called the Elms, which belonged to an uncle of the Thomas siblings. According to Owen, who is also the group’s songwriter, the old carriage house property was an inspiration in defining the Thomas brothers’ new band because the estate sits on land that is protected from the outside world by a group of elm trees. To Owen, the trees provide a constant reminder of the presence of a protective being, synonymous with God. This tactful reference to religion is typical of the subtle Christian theme that underlies the band’s music.
On the heals of the contract signing with Sparrow Records, the Elms released a self-titled EP disc. Comprising five tracks, the disc was produced by Brent Milligan and features a popular song, “Lifeboat,” which found favor among Christian Radio (CHR) listeners and earned an impressive share of airplay. The song later secured a spot on the Elms’ official debut album, Big Surprise, released on Sparrow in 2001. Described as “feel-good [and] light and airy” by Rachel Hoskins Lioi in the Washington Times, the album earned praise also for the upbeat simplicity of the Elms’ acoustic sound, “reminiscent of when music was fun.”
Although Florida-based bass player Matt Erickson, still with the group, continued as a member through the production of this debut album as the Elms, by the early 2000s the band had gelled into a four-piece ensemble with permanent members. Joining the brothers Thomas were guitarist Thom Daugherty and bassist Keith Lee (“The Cowboy”) Miller.
Daugherty, originally from Indiana, was born in 1979. A former schoolmate of the Thomas brothers, he grew up in a home filled with 1960s rock music—the Doors and Rolling Stones—and had since relocated to southern Missouri. Upon his return to Indiana to join the Elms, he maintained that this musical hook-up with his boyhood pals seemed inevitable in retrospect.
Newcomer Miller, the youngest of the four permanent band members, was born in 1983 and came from Louisville, Kentucky, to join the group.
As on previous releases, producer Milligan brought his input to the ten-track debut mix, injecting trumpets and
Members include Thorn Daugherty (born in 1979), guitar; Keith Miller (born in 1982), bass; Christopher Thomas (born in 1981), drums, percussion; Owen Thomas (born in 1979), vocals, guitar.
Group formed in Seymour, IN, as Just Visiting, mid-1990s; signed with Sparrow Records, renamed the Elms; released EP, 1999; released Big Surprise, 2001; released Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll 2002; extensive touring, 2001-03.
Addresses: Record company—Sparrow Label Group, P.O. Box 5010, Brentwood, TN 37024-5010. Website—The Elms Official Website: http://www.theelms.net.
concert strings to enhance the music whenever appropriate. This first full-length album by the Elms was deemed at once raucous and rowdy, melancholy, lamenting, and softly psychedelic. It attracted attention from critics, soliciting positive reviews and serving as a stepping stone to greater notoriety for the young band.
Following the release of Big Surprise, there ensued a second round of extensive touring. The Elms were seen in concert on approximately 200 occasions during the one-year interim between the debut and a follow-up album.
With the release of the group’s second album, Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll, in 2002, the band revealed a new maturity. On this follow-up release the Elms tempered their style, adding a new edge to their sound. A single track from the album, called “Burn & Shine,” reached number 24 in airplay on CHR by May of 2003, and the Elms returned to the road for their first-ever headlining tour.
In the spring of 2003, the Elms went on a 20-city leg of the Festival Con Dios tour, beginning in Fort Meyers, Florida. The Elms indicated their intention to continue to tour independently at the end of the festival commitment.
In 2003 the Elms emerged with a growing battery of credentials, including two MTV videos, four Dove Award nominations, and two performances at the Gospel Music Association’s awards ceremony. Sparrow Records announced that year that the Elms’ percussionist, Chris Thomas, had signed an endorsement deal to perform exclusively on Vater and Sabian equipment. What is more, Thomas proved also to be accomplished on bass, having performed in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a studio musician.
The Elms’songwriter, Owen Thomas, has received ongoing praise for the mature emotions revealed by his lyrics and for the unencumbered rock-and-roll style espoused by the band. As for his personal favorite instrument, “I don’t know that it gets much better than a ‘59 Les Paul through an old AC30 [amplifier],” he told Barry Cleveland in Guitar Player. He explained his philosophy of simplicity and strong musicianship to Christina Cox of the Sarasota Herald Tribune: “If it ain’t there when it’s you and your acoustic guitar, it ain’t going to be there with 50 bleeps and blips.”
The Elms (EP), Sparrow, 1999.
Big Surprise, Sparrow, 2001.
Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll, Sparrow, 2002.
Garden Show, self-released, 1996.
Just Visiting, self-released, 1998.
Guitar Player, January 2003, p. 26.
Orange County Register (California), May 27, 2001.
Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA), May 31, 2002.
Sarasota Herald Tribune, April 18, 2003, p. 7.
Washington Times, August 18, 2001, p. D4.
“The Elms,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 10, 2003).
“The Elms,” SparrowRecords.com, http://www.sparrowrecords.com/artists/artist.asp?action=bio&id=5 (June 10, 2003).