Bright As You Can, the rocking new album from The Mike + Ruthy Band, celebrates the grit and glory of kinship, blood and otherwise. As with previous Mike + Ruthy endeavors, the rootsy material covers much ground, but the through-line remains family. And this time out, the tempos are brisker, the playing more fervent than ever before. The atmosphere crackles with the excitement of a kick-ass, seasoned band of road warriors, a gang hunkered in the Catskill Mountains, laying down 14 road-tested tunes of radio-ready acoustic pop, broody rock, country soul, and boot-stomping porch folk.
“Word on the street: you’re my family / I’m not just talkin’ to Ruth, I mean everybody / The big and the proud and the soft little sound / Every last lost believer the whole world round.” “Word On the Street” – Bright As You Can.
Over countless miles on the ribbon of highway, playing gigs in wood-stove-warmed living rooms one month and Carnegie Hall the next, husband-wife singing songwriters Mike Merenda (guitar, banjo) and Ruthy Ungar (guitar, fiddle) have built a troubadour life inclusive of family. Ruthy, daughter of GRAMMY-winning Jay Ungar (“Ashokan Farewell” – “That song put me through college,” she says) and folksinger Lyn Hardy, was born to it. She first appeared onstage at age three, and joined her dad on A Prairie Home Companion at twelve. After studying theater and living the thespian life, she met aspiring playwright and fellow floor-sleeping New York denizen Mike Merenda. An erstwhile guitar thrasher of the punk and ska variety, Mike was grieving the loss of three close friends in succession. Mike + Ruthy heard and felt the songs in one another, and two paths leading away from music became one consumed by it. They headed for the hills, embracing life as a duo – musical and otherwise.
From the start, they wrote what they knew, weaving ardent friendship, warts-and-all couplehood, bittersweet loss, unabashed joy, and modern gypsy domesticity into song, while keeping an edge consistent with the scrappier end of the folk spectrum. They’ve always been an open book; fans have borne witnesses to – and often participated in – Mike + Ruthy traversing the world for seven years with Tao Seeger (Pete’s grandson) as The Mammals, embarking on their own musical path as Mike + Ruthy (first post-nuptial release: The Honeymoon Agenda), scoring an Americana hit with third release, 2010’s Million To One, and bringing children into the fold.
Nora Guthrie, daughter of Woody and keeper of his legacy, was so moved by Mike + Ruthy’s performance at a benefit for Huntington’s Chorea research, she gave them unrecorded Woody lyrics entitled “My New York City,” and asked them to complete the song for the collection My Name Is New York: Ramblin’ Around Woody’s Town. An epic ballad, telling Mike + Ruthy’s tale as much as Woody’s, was born. The song, buoyed by a band, became the centerpiece to 2011’s acclaimed The NYC EP, and its dramatic scope further set the stage for the swinging-for-the-fences sonics of Bright As You Can. No Depression editor Peter Blackstock wrote, “Quite a few folks have done this ‘set-Woody’s-lyrics-to-music thing’ over the past couple decades. I’m not sure anyone’s ever done it better than this.” Soon after, Canadian neofolk supergoup The Duhks, fans of the The NYC EP, hired Mike + Ruthy to produce their well-received 2014 Compass album Beyond the Blue, recording it at Mike + Ruthy’s own Humble Abode barn studio in upstate New York, and further inspiring our heroes to do the same for themselves with Bright As You Can.
While writing songs for Bright As You Can, Mike + Ruthy produced an ongoing biannual music festival, designed with their distinctive ragged-but-right family template in mind. With toddler Opal and youngster Willy in tow – the kids accompany them everywhere – they put their nurturing energy into The Hoot, drawing acts like Josh Ritter, David Bromberg, Natalie Merchant, and none other than Pete Seeger, who sent them a postcard not long before he passed: “Your Hoot was one of the best song gatherings I’ve seen in all my 94 years. I hope next year I can be there for more than one day.”
“I love to make you laugh. This guitar’s all I have / Empty pockets, topped off jars, makin’ love beneath the silvery stars / What are we waiting for, when do we leave and where do we go?” “What Are We Waiting For” – Bright As You Can
In May, 2014, Mike + Ruthy decided to make a high octane record, comprised of songs they could tour with a band. They tapped drummer Konrad Meissner (Brandi Carlisle, Tracy Bonham), bassist Jacob Silver (Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie) and pedal steel man Charlie Rose (Elephant Revival, Josh Ritter), and enlisted master engineer-producer Adam Armstrong to capture it all on an eight track recorder at Humble Abode Studios. Guests include Jay Ungar, Amy Helm (Levon’s daughter), and ace keyboardist Marco Benevento, all adding texture, intensity, and family love.
Single “Rock On Little Jane” written for daughter Opal, taps into Ruthy’s deep soul well; a vintage-y horn-and-string-section complements her most impassioned vocal yet.
Because the Bright As You Can repertoire has been road-tested, the songs are already on YouTube, captured by fans. Three unexpected cover versions of their Carter Family-ish “Simple and Sober” are already viewable, courtesy of teen sweethearts, a young golden-throated woman, and a gray-bearded grandpa in recovery, who thanks Mike + Ruthy at the end of his touching, much-viewed performance. The tune shares an almost-eerie timelessness with “The Farmer,” which could’ve been written a century ago. By contrast, “Golden Eye” creates a new genre, funk folk, and the autobiographical “Chasin’ Gold” is offbeat swagger, while Mike’s cinematic “Cigarette” bestows on him heavyweight singer-songwriter status.
Mike + Ruthy, like most folkies, love ghosts, particularly songs about ghosts, and especially “The Ghost of Richard Manuel,” written by their friend Joshua Davis. They’ve performed this ode to the tragic genius of The Band many times at Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble in Woodstock, NY, to rapturous response. Here, it fades into fuzz-rock companion piece “Legends Only Appear In Black and White,” a tune that would not be out of place at a Pink Floyd arena show.
“Bright As You Can” not only kicks everything off, it sums everything up. Over churning acoustics, driving rhythms, and keening pedal steel, Mike + Ruthy jubilantly sing of those who have loved them – mothers, fathers, lovers, children – who gave them words of strength, placed their hands on strings and steering wheels, inspiring them to make make music filled with as much love as possible and take it to a world in dire need of connection, joy, and family. And that is what they have done.
“O my lover he once told me you gotta be as sweet as you can, yeah you gotta be as sweet as you can / My love comes to me like a sword of light / On this battlefield you’re a flag of white.” “Bright As You Can” – Bright As You Can
“Easily a new favorite” – Daytrotter
“Pristine” – The New York Times
“Some of the best songwriting of their generation” – LA Weekly
“Infectious new folk rock” – Boston Globe
“These two will shatter any stereotypical misconceptions of what it means to be a folk musician.” – The Coastal Journal