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Chartbreaker: There’s No ‘Wondering Why’ The Red Clay Strays Are Positioned for Their Biggest Year Yet

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In 2019, Alabama-born country-rock quintet The Red Clay Strays were plugging away at building a core fan base, playing small clubs and festivals around the Southeastern United States in hopes of exposure. “We were a bar band at the time, playing honky-tonks [with] no stability, really just chasing the dream,” harmonicist/guitarist/vocalist Drew Nix says. In the same breath, he acknowledges the toll such commitment took on their romantic partners. “We were like, ‘Our women have the short end of the stick of this. I wonder why they even like us.’”

The notion led Nix and the group’s lead singer Brandon Coleman, along with songwriter Dan Couch, to write “Wondering Why,” the band’s breakthrough hit from their 2022 album Moment of Truth, putting them on the mainstream map.

The bluesy romantic ballad depicts a committed, if unlikely, love story between an upper-class woman and a working-class man. (“I don’t know what happened, but it sure don’t add up on paper/ But when I close my eyes late at night, you can bet I thank my maker,” Coleman croons in the opening verse.) More than a year after its release, “Wondering Why” made its debut on the Billboard Hot 100 — in late December, no less, even amid the typical influx of holiday songs on the all-genre chart. Now, the band’s first entry rises to a new No. 71 high on charts dated Jan. 20 as it builds at radio and streaming.

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Composed of Coleman, Nix, Zach Rishel (electric guitar), Andrew Bishop (bass) and John Hall (drums), The Red Clay Strays have been making music since 2016, with most of the group meeting during college or through prior gigs. Crafting an amalgam of rockabilly, gospel, soul, blues and hints of country, Coleman’s barrel-chested vocal and 1950s Johnny Cash-meets-Jerry Lee Lewis onstage aesthetic shape what he refers to as “non-denominational rock’n’roll.”

While crafting its sound in the local circuit, the independent band began to add pieces to its team, including Conway Entertainment Group’s Cody Payne as manager. He first met the group in 2019 as a booking agent and later began working with the group through the company’s management arm, Ontourage Management. As his position continued to grow, so did the group’s fan base within the community and online: by the time the members felt ready to record a debut album, Payne played an instrumental role in igniting crowdfunding efforts to help with the financial struggles of paying for studio time.

“I built it on their website, straight PayPal,” Payne says. Despite not having an official monetary goal in mind, he recalls thinking that $30,000 would be enough to get the job done — and was floored as the total quickly soared past that number. “The first week we did over $50,000; by the end of it we had about $60,000.”

The Red Clay Strays
The Red Clay Strays

Using analog methods at a Huntsville, Ala. studio, the band spent just over a week creating Moment of Truth, which was subsequently self-released in April 2022. Though it was initially met with tepid commercial returns, at the start of the following year, Payne hired Coleman’s younger brother, Matthew — who is also one of the band’s primary songwriters — as a videographer to help grow The Red Clay Strays’ online presence. The band also signed with WME for booking representation in January 2023, and within the span of a few months, announced a series of high-profile opening gigs for Elle King, Eric Church and Dierks Bentley.

In May, the band began taking meetings with a handful of labels, with the members parsing the decision of whether to sign or remain independent — until they met with Thirty Tigers co-founder/president David Macias. “It just made more sense for us,” Coleman says. “Instead of giving us the dog and pony show, David gave us straight advice. There was no pitch. That’s what I wanted to hear. If I’m betting on anybody, I’m betting on us every time.” By September, following months of touring festivals including Lollapalooza and CMA Fest, The Red Clay Strays had officially signed to Thirty Tigers.

With Matthew’s help, the band began to upload an influx of clips, largely consisting of live performances, to TikTok, Instagram and Facebook. “He was putting out reels and social numbers kept going up,” Payne says. “Wondering Why” has soundtracked more than 71,000 TikTok videos to date, along with a lyric video for the song that has compiled more than 2.5 million YouTube views.

In the time since, “Wondering Why” has grown across formats and genres: on charts dated Jan. 20, the breakthrough hit holds at highs on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs and Hot Rock & Alternative Songs charts, reaches a new No. 19 best on Adult Alternative Airplay and sits at No. 22 on Hot Country Songs. Labels have again reached out, says Payne, though the band has no plans to move from Thirty Tigers.

Additionally, despite plans to release a follow-up project by early summer, the recent chart success has spurred second thoughts to “let ‘Wondering Why’ and Moment of Truth breathe a bit,” Payne adds. When the new album does arrive, it’ll boast production from Dave Cobb, thanks to Conway Entertainment Group’s Brandon Mauldin setting things in motion with mutual connection Shooter Jennings. “Since we’ve started, the goal from day one was to work with Dave Cobb,” Coleman says. “The fact that it actually happened is surreal.”

The Red Clay Strays
From left: Drew Nix, John Hall, Brandon Coleman, Andrew Bishop and Zach Rishel of The Red Clay Strays with their manager Cody Payne (third from left) in Red Rocks, CO.

In the meantime, the band will continue its Way Too Long headlining tour, in addition to more festival dates, including Boston Calling and Hinterland. Coleman knows as the hype for “Wondering Why” mounts, so too may the pressure to follow it up while the iron is hot — but he’s keeping his cool amid the band’s breakthrough moment.

“Everybody yelling at us to play it from the beginning of the show is kind of crazy, but it’s cool. I’m thankful for the recognition, but I always have it in my mind that people [go] viral for a month or two, then the next thing comes along.”

A version of this story will appear in the Jan. 27, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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