Sweet and low

Scrappy Hamilton manages to play swanky, uptown music without sounding aloof from the everyday, downtown blues. Frontman Scott Kinnebrew sings “Times are rough but they ain’t never been better … ” (from “Never Been Better”) — which pretty well sums up this Asheville group’s contradictory attitude.

Although the band’s ragtimey sound sports a contemporary twist — one of Kinnebrew’s guitars is an electric Gibson — its roots go back at least 100 years (his other guitar was handmade in the year 1850, for playing parlor tunes).

The five-strong ensemble was inspired by early-1900s American popular music, plus the “complete artistic license” of Kinnebrew (guitar and vocals); pianist/vocalist Walker Young; trumpeter Isaac Stanford; upright bassist Mike Holstein and drummer Bill Smith.

“We experiment with all that sounds good. Eastern European music, polkas and waltzes, and stuff that is just really rocking,” explains Kinnebrew. “We can [do] a really good rocking song, and people can dance around and stuff, and then we allow them to take a bit of a break, get slow and mellow.”

Until recently, Ashevilleans had few chances to groove to Scrappy Hamilton: Conceived and suckled in the recording studio, the band was let loose to do live shows only on rare occasions.

“We started playing together in July 1999 … [and] had a few shows over the winter, to allow our audiences to get to know us,” notes Kinnebrew, “but it’s [still] a brand-new band.”

In recording its debut CD, At Rock Bottom (Papa Roux Records, 2000), the band was texturized by one of the best crews ever assembled in these parts. Aaron Price and Bill Reynolds of Collapseable Studios worked on the recording and mixing; Steven Heller of Upstream Productions did the mastering.

Why the hurry to record?

“For me, personally, if I hear a band live and think they sound good, I’ll get the CD and sit in my own house and really listen to the music. When I’m away from all the distractions of the bar, that’s when my connection [to the music] really jells,” offers Kinnebrew.

In fact, fans have bonded to the disc like superglue — and not just here. Out for less than a month, At Rock Bottom can already be heard on radio stations across the state, while magazines from California to New York have shown an interest in reviewing it.

More-instantly gratifying feedback can be observed at a live show, where the music’s sex appeal often manifests on the dance floor. The Scrappy sound works its sweet way up the spine, one wiggling vertebra at a time.

“A lot of the stuff has an innocent sexuality to it,” acknowledges Kinnebrew, who wrote or co-wrote all the songs in the band’s current repertoire. “I definitely like talkin’ about sex, you know. I often write sexually laden lyrics.”

And that’s coming from the self-same fellow whose first band here was named Nola Bido (pronounced “no libido”).

Sexual entendre may be pervasive in this modern outfit’s wordplay — but the beat itself is unambiguous. Ragtime and hot jazz have been targeting the lower chakra for a century, from the juke joints and bootleg dance halls of northern Missouri to the riverboats and shotgun shacks of southernmost Louisiana.

Musically, the band treads a path similar to that of its pioneering predecessors in creating those sensual rhythms.

“I’m bringing home a banjo-ukulele from my next road trip, and I plan to start incorporating that, eventually,” says Kinnebrew, noting that “the first recorded sounds of ragtime and hot jazz included drums, but the microphones didn’t have the range they do now, so sometimes the drums weren’t picked up on the recordings.”

Nowadays, the drums have no trouble at all being picked up by the sound engineer — or the local police dispatcher, for that matter.

“Three times the first night [of recording], cops came by, because the neighbors who live around [the studio] were just not into the whole situation,” Kinnebrew explains. “A lot of it we had to do on the down-low, you know. … In between takes, we’d run down to the carpet dumpster and grab more carpet to put up on the walls, just to get more soundproofing. I threw a whole futon out in front of a window at the front of the house, just to keep the police away.

“Most people have pristine ideas of what a recording studio is like, all neat and orderly,” he continues. “But Collapseable Studios is orderly in its own way — with miscellaneous pieces of carpet hanging here and there on the ceiling or on the walls, foam everywhere. We used office-space dividers to give each other cubbyholes to kind of hold the sound. You’d walk into the studio, and people had little forts everywhere; the bass player had his own fort, the piano player had his. … I didn’t really have a fort at all; I just kind of sat there in the open and gave the salutes and commands.”

Nonetheless, Kinnebrew insists that the band is a team:

“We got together to play music, and bonded that way. … Anybody can form an outfit and play music, go present it to a bar and make it sound good, and it’ll sell. People will drink their liquor, bars will be successful, and everybody will go home happy. Or you can get some people who are creating songs together, [and] make it into more of a genuine interaction. Individuality in the band, everyone having their own individual lives, is crucial. That makes the times when we get together all the more necessary — and exciting.”

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