The western swing bands of the 1930s, '40s and '50s (Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies) were innovative musical ensembles, creating a new idiom of American music by cross-pollinating numerous vernacular styles like Dixieland swing, western cowboy songs, European polka, mountain fiddle tunes, Delta blues, New Orleans ragtime and Tin Pan Alley pop songs.
Many years later, the southern Louisiana-based Red Stick Ramblers are a talented and enthusiastic example of this omnivorous artistic aesthetic. They are equally adept at playing multiple strains of traditional American musical forms, including Cajun, zydeco, blues, honky-tonk, gypsy jazz, and (you guessed it) western swing.
What's even more impressive is that they write original songs that are as melodically and lyrically memorable as any of the timeless swing standards that they infuse with new life in dancehalls and theaters on any given night. In their 10 years of existence, they've released five excellent records and have been busy burning up the road. Xpresscaught up with Chas Justus, the Red Stick Ramblers' guitarist/singer/songwriter.
How's the road life? Has the band gone to any exotic places recently?
Justus: Road life has been both interesting and somewhat challenging, but it's taken us all over the U.S. and Canada, Europe and even Australia. It's been a wild ride but they don't call us ramblers for nothing; someone's gotta spread the Cajun swing gospel and it might as well be us.
What is it that makes the Cajun and Creole cultures of southern Louisiana so rich in spicy food, syncopated, funky music, great people and lots of dancing and partying?
Someone told me recently that studies show even though Louisiana is one of the poorest, least-educated, and in many ways most-disadvantaged states; it's also one of the happiest. I think it really comes down to a sense of community that seems to have been retained down here. And people seem to understand that everyone participates. Whether they're dancing, cooking or playing music, people seem to passively observe less and participate more in the party.
Speaking of Cajun/Creole culture, you guys started a music and food festival in Lafayette called Blackpot. How was the experience of starting up a festival from scratch?
Starting our own festival has been one of the most rewarding experiences you could imagine. After playing so many festivals, I think we've gotten a sense of what makes some more special than others. You're really just throwing a party, and that's something that comes natural to us. We wanted to put ourselves and our music in an ideal context with dancing, community and food that would make everything just right — the sights, the smells, the sounds. It's really not just us though, it's our friends and community whether you're from Louisiana or North Carolina — everyone coming together as friends in a comfortable, enjoyable context.
The RSRs are one of the few contemporary bands that have studied and absorbed the style of western-swing music. What is it about Bob Wills, Milton Brown, Bill Boyd and other great Texas and Oklahoma performers that grabbed your ear?
I think the things that grab our ear about the Texas Playboys and any of those western-swing bands is the same things that grabbed people since they were recorded. That music in many ways is the great American music combining jazz, country, Appalachian and blues into something danceable, listenable and undeniably fun. They were obviously having a great time and making people happy doing it.
The RSRs play for a lot of dances. Do you prefer those to seated theater performances?
I wouldn't say we necessarily prefer one or the other, I think we used to prefer playing to dancers because that's how we started, but over the years we've learned to appreciate listeners and enjoy entertaining them in a different sort of way. The best is when you have a happy medium of movement and listening, where people are dancing but you don't feel like you're just providing a dance soundtrack. Asheville is one of the best places for that; people love to dance and many of them have a good sense for it, and there are many conscious listeners, which makes the musicians feel like somebody cares.
[Parrish Ellis plays resonator guitar, banjo, ukulele and other stringed instruments in the Wiyos.]
who: Red Stick Ramblers, with Woody Pines (back from European tour!)
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Thursday, April 8 (8:30 p.m. $10/$12. www.thegreyeagle.com)