Here and Real Gone: The Rockhouse Ramblers

The inclusion of the Rockhouse Ramblers on the Twangfest bill will surprise no one who knows their music. Quite simply, regarding neo-traditional country, the band (bassist Dade Farrar, lead guitarists John Horton and Gary Hunt, drummer Danny Kathriner, and rhythm guitarist Kip Loui) can boogie with the best.

 

Between Kool-Aid and cognac yawns a gap as wide as the one dividing most contemporary commercial country music and the Rockhouse Ramblers—to the delight of that band’s fans, who relish them for something more potent by far than the aural equivalent of a quick sugar fix.

Such fans should have a field day with the band’s schedule for the next two months. During June and July, that is, the Rockhouse Ramblers will stage almost a dozen performances, one of the first (Friday, June 6) occurring at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room as part of Twangfest 7, St. Louis’s acclaimed four-day celebration of Americana.

The inclusion of the Rockhouse Ramblers on the Twangfest bill will surprise no one who knows their music. Quite simply, regarding neo-traditional country, the band (bassist Dade Farrar, lead guitarists John Horton and Gary Hunt, drummer Danny Kathriner, and rhythm guitarist Kip Loui) can boogie with the best.

In roughly three years, in fact, their artistry has earned them diverse accolades and attention. PlaybackSTL has praised the quintet variously, and local music maven Steve Pick profiled them last fall in No Depression, the main magazine devoted to alt-country. Moreover, in 2002, the Rockhouse Ramblers won in the “Best Honky-Tonk Band” category in the Riverfront Times’ annual music poll (in the 2003 incarnation of which they’re again nominated, under “Roots/Americana”). Otherwise, St. Louis journalist Thomas Crone once noted that they “sound (and look) old-timey, like they just stepped out of a downtown Chattanooga juke joint in 1957, their Levi’s and shirtsleeves rolled up.”

The Rockhouse Ramblers themselves would likely not quibble with that characterization; a love of country from the ’40s to the ’60s infuses their own work. “I think if you took a musical sample from jump swing, bluegrass, hillbilly, rockabilly, even a little blues from that era,” Hunt mused during a recent collective interview conducted by e-mail, “you would have a pretty good idea of our sound.”

Loui expanded on that catalog: “I’d say the Rockhouse Ramblers enjoy and are influenced by almost any kind of pre-’70s country music styles, which include honky-tonk, rockabilly, western swing, Bakersfield or West Coast style, bluegrass, and hillbilly boogie stuff. We don’t really get too much into ’70s styles, even though we can appreciate Waylon [Jennings] and Willie [Nelson] and Merle [Haggard] from that era.” With characteristic self-deprecation, he continued, “‘Outlaw’ country is cool by us, but we kind of consciously don’t go there so as not to bite off more than we can chew.”

Conversely and perhaps predictably, the members of the band expressed a general lack of interest in the sort of contemporary commercial country popularized by rock wannabes like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain. Farrar referred to such country as “the watered-down new stuff,” and Hunt confessed, “I try to listen to the mainstream once in a while, but it’s mighty hard to keep it there. Not much holds my interest.”

Loui concurred: “As for the majority of what’s played on commercial radio, well, it doesn’t sound much like the hard country music we prefer, so we don’t pay much attention to it. Which is not to say we’re total purists or Luddites or anything like that, ’cause we’re not. But in terms of what we most dig and what we play, our interests are rooted in the older stuff.”

Among such “older stuff,” in specific, the Rockhouse Ramblers cited as inspirations artists like Johnny Cash, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Buck Owens, Johnny Paycheck, Ralph and Carter Stanley, Hank Williams, and many others. All such citations made perfect sense: the spirit of classic country galvanizes not only the band’s live performances but also their two CDs from Tempe, Arizona’s Hayden’s Ferry Records, Bar Time (2000) and Torch This Town (2002).

Those discs, which together feature more than two dozen numbers, should satisfy anyone interested in the best the genre can offer. They include two covers: Charlie Feathers’ “One Hand Loose” on the former CD and Frankie Miller’s “Truck Drivin’ Buddy” on the latter. “Dade brings in these great songs, which he sings the hell out of,” Hunt related, “and we work up some guitar parts and arrangements, play them out at gigs, and they turn up on the keeper list.”

Although the Rockhouse Ramblers perform memorably on the covers, however, they approach the unforgettable on the originals, regarding which Farrar, Hunt, and Loui split the songwriting and singing duties. Capsule descriptions of a sample of their songs should prove instructive. On Bar Time, Farrar’s romping “Bloody Williamson” deals with labor unrest, Loui’s “Here and Gone” meditates on contemporary deracination, and Hunt’s “Hillbilly Bound” swings with a city mouse–country mouse narrative. On Torch This Town, meanwhile, Hunt’s “Learning How to Live With the Blues” makes heartache sound fun, Farrar’s “Between Home and the Honky Tonk” makes loneliness sound ennobling, and Loui’s “Making It Up as I Go” makes loss (whether past or prospective, accidental or intentional) sound like a gain.

As the preceding hints, the presence of three accomplished singer-songwriters gives the band an impressive range, and indeed, Horton specified that as one of the Rockhouse Ramblers’ strengths: “Dade, Gary, and Kip all have their own material with their own different style or flavor to their songs.”

More philosophically, Loui enlarged on the interaction of the quintet: “I’d say the Rockhouse Ramblers are the first genuine democracy I’ve ever played with, where everyone has an equal say and there are three singer-songwriters sharing the stage. And I really like that about the group. We’re all a little older and have lives and stuff, so I think there’s less ego involved than if we were all snot-nosed kids. And this is all to our benefit, I think.”

In any event, Farrar joked about the response to Bar Time and Torch This Town from critics and consumers alike: “They seem to be sniffin’ around like there might be something worthwhile goin’ on. Kinda like an old, hungry dog checkin’ out somethin’ on the side of the road. If they’re hungry enough, they’ll eat it.”

“From the reviews we’ve seen and from what we’ve heard,” Loui noted less jocosely, “everyone seems to really like the band and our two records. Mostly it’s fans of hard country that discover us, but I’ve also had people come up to me and say, ‘You know, I don’t really care for country music, but I like you guys!’ That makes me feel really good when that happens.”

The discussion of the band’s first and second CDs led naturally to an inquiry about a third. Hunt responded cagily: “Everybody has new material floating around, just a matter of time to get it together and record again.” Farrar, meantime, sounded almost like a Zen master on the matter: “We’re probably preparing right now. We may be planning now. We just haven’t talked about it.”

Happily enough, Loui clarified: “I think we want to record a third record, certainly. But we’d like to find a situation where someone can give us an actual recording budget this time. We paid for the recording sessions ourselves for our last two records, and now we’re like, ‘Damn, we’re poor, we can’t afford to keep doing this!’ So hopefully, some label somewhere will give us a modest advance so we can start work on a follow-up to Torch This Town.”

More immediately, beyond taking the stage at Twangfest 7 as featured performers, the Rockhouse Ramblers are anticipating that event as fans of Americana themselves. “I haven’t seen Bob Reuter’s new project, Palookaville,” commented Horton. “I’m looking forward to that, Dale Watson, Tim Easton, and Bobby Bare, Jr.”

Similarly, Loui (who also numbers among the “Twang Gang,” the volunteer board of directors guiding Twangfest) expressed enthusiasm for honky-tonk hero Watson, who will perform at the nonprofit festival the same night as the Rockhouse Ramblers: “Dale’s records are good, but live, that’s when you can really see what he’s about.” He added: “Joy Lynn White plays on Thursday, June 5, I believe, and I’ve long been a fan of hers. She kind of reminds me of a grittier Linda Ronstadt, if that makes any sense.”

After Twangfest, as stated earlier, the Rockhouse Ramblers will remain busy, according to a schedule provided by Loui. They’ll play the following dates in the following locales: June 7, Maplewood’s Maple Days fair; June 8, the Riverfront Times Music Awards Showcase, Riddle’s Penultimate Cafe & Wine Bar; June 12, Riddle’s; June 26, Riddle’s; June 28, Blueberry Hill; July 12, Off Broadway; July 18, Frederick’s Music Lounge (tentative); and July 26, Schlafly Bottleworks (the “Rockhouse Trio”—Farrar, Hunt, and Loui). As a result, opportunities to see and hear the Rockhouse Ramblers will abound for music fans who can’t attend Twangfest but who remain interested in or curious about them.

Such fans won’t regret the effort. In conversation, Loui (who customarily functions as the P.R. point man for the band, as previous paragraphs should suggest) neatly impersonates a codger; according to him, the Rockhouse Ramblers can’t possibly appeal to anyone who doesn’t also belong to the AARP. On the stage and on disc, however, he and his cohorts make music so fresh, vital, and true it steals the breath away. Such music exudes assurance enough to border on the fundamental: one can almost hear Ralph Peer’s car, laden with recording equipment, rumbling into Bristol, Tennessee, in the summer of 1927.

In that regard, if indeed the Rockhouse Ramblers’ brand of country qualifies as the musical equivalent of cognac, it ranks as an Extra, a Napoléon, an X.O.—heady stuff indeed.

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