“I’m a ramblin’ guy” sang Steve Martin in his late 70s song that consisted of only those four words plus that bit in mock Chinese. So for the longest time as a kid I thought ramblin’ meant playing the banjo with a white suit on and a fake arrow through one’s head. Later I’d associate the word with Woody Guthrie riding the rails. And now we’ve just come back from IBMA’s World of Bluegrass, with its key club/showcase crawl called the Bluegrass Ramble. And the event introduced a new mascot, Ramble the Lonesome Squirrel.
So forgive me for overdoing it on this adorable word, but how could it have been more appropriate to ramble back from Raleigh for a rambling, season-opening Roots that concluded with Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers? I mean you couldn’t plan this stuff; it just seems to happen.
After Jim Lauderdale confronted the hard realities of having to compete with one’s own cardboard cutout doppelganger he sang “Don’t Count Me Out.” Then I spoke with Sandy and Natalie from the Nature Conservancy and Ascend Federal Credit Union respectively to get caught up on the If Trees Could Sing video project. Then we turned the stage over to the intense but serene Jeff Black. Wearing his namesake color and silver spectacles, he had a poet’s authority. We were soon enmeshed in his baskets of hand-picked words and phrases. The CD title track “Folklore” about his late father was a gorgeous rumination on imagination and how creativity transcends circumstances. He sang a slightly gothic children’s song about lemonade and a warm song about life’s guideposts called “The End.” And all this in a commanding, jagged baritone. He’s a reminder of what songs and only songs can do.
Emerging artist Gareth is into some new territory (definitely new for us). I certainly never heard traditional Native American flute twinned with Telecaster, and it sounded a bit like 70s jazz/rock fusion in two funky and absorbing instrumentals. The latter called “The Chase” featured three of his side musicians playing percussion or drums, so it had plenty of organic groove, and Gareth showed a lot of subtlety on his wooden instruments. When he did a sort of demo/story with two flutes like the call and response of loons on a lake and then blended them into two flutes at once, he definitely hit the most arresting part of his set. Spooky.
Those two contrasting artists set up a bluegrass double feature that presented exemplars from both ends of the music’s magic spectrum. I knew Front Country would earn enthusiasm from our crowd, and they did so with smoking instruments and rich three-way harmony. Their mid-set slow-burn take on the trusty Steve Young song “Rock Salt And Nails” was oceanic and moving. Then they kicked back into rhythmic territory with the pulsing, woven title track to the new album “Sake of the Sound.” Lead vocalist Melody Walker really soared, especially on closer “Gospel Train,” where the traditional harmonies were enriched by well-chosen departures from the norm. Deeply rocking and bluesy, the song invited luxurious instrumental breaks and showcased the band’s adept balance of great songs and great jam.
The old-school bluegrass came from those Radio Ramblers I mentioned and banjo man/singer Joe Mullins. The group came out two-stepping with a western swing standard “Miss Molly” and slid into the sweet and romantic swing of “I’ll Be There Mary Dear”. They offered a rich re-interpretation of Hank Williams’ “May You Never Be Alone” and told stories of regular folks in “Blue Collar Blues” and “Another Day From Life.” Joe plays commanding banjo and he shared lead vocal duties with guitarist Duane Sparks. These guys are among the elite in the business keeping the fires lit for the original bluegrass sound, and hearing them – at Roots and last week at IBMA – was sustaining.
So another season is underway. Ramble on down to the Factory for a show and a meal on a Wednesday evening.