“The Blue Rags [are] something that will never die,” hypes the local band’s keyboardist, Jake Hollifield.
“We could record right now. We could have a manager, we could do anything we want. But the Blue Rag is the last artistic beast that will not be tamed.”
If you’re not sure what a Blue Rag is — in other words, if you weren’t here for the band’s atmospheric, and admittedly influential, mid-to-late-’90s heyday — bassist Bill Reynolds resurrects this vintage quote, from Felt Art Chronicles: “The Blue Rags are the voice of Asheville, North Carolina.”
At one point, perhaps — but, as a current artists’ statement goes, it’s a fairly lofty claim for a group that hasn’t played together in its entirety in a decade.
However, with a full reunion show slated for the Orange Peel and a disc of previously unreleased material from the band’s last show (in Switzerland, no less) in the works, the Blue Rags are poised to bring their rowdy rag ‘n’ roll, their determined-underdog attitude, and a healthy dose of new material back to the town where it all started.
Preserved for purity
Reunions are a dime a dozen these days. Case in point: The Dead Kennedys are headlining two European festivals this summer. While few would argue that they weren’t major players in the late-’70s hardcore scene, is it really necessary to see a nearly 50-year-old East Bay Ray execute a stage dive?
The Blue Rags, on the other hand, are only in their early-to-mid 30s, still a decade away from middle-age spread and contemplation of Hair Club memberships. However, despite commendably maintaining their waifish figures, the band has a penchant for nostalgia usually reserved for Woodstock veterans.
“When we started there were just two clubs [Barley’s and Be Here Now],” reminisces multi-instrumentalist Scott Sharpe, a self-proclaimed musical archivist.
“Malaprop’s had a back porch. [Salsa] had [just] a window [for ordering], and you could eat there for three dollars,” Hollifield adds. “Vincent’s [Ear], Malaprop’s and Beanstreets were the three coffee shops.”
“If there had been more clubs, it would’ve kept us out,” Sharpe muses. “Today, there’s so much guerrilla warfare with your flyers.”
But the Rags — originally Sharpe, Hollifield and charismatic lead vocalist Abe Reid — found themselves in the right place at the right time. Childhood friends, they relocated to Asheville from the Statesville area, bringing their frenetic, then-unique spin on a vintage collection of ragtime, old-time, country-blues and gospel tunes.
Soon, a live-music-starved following emerged from the woodwork.
“The Blue Rags have created that rarest of musical phenomena, a bona-fide scene — bigger than its subject and feeding on itself as much as on the music that inspires it,” Xpress reported in 1996, a few years into the group’s climb — and within months of its initial unraveling.
Courted and signed by proto-grunge Seattle label Sub Pop, the Blue Rags put out two discs, but they did so without front man Reid, who was fired in 1996 for a dalliance with substances usually linked to the likes of Hendrix and Joplin.
And then there were the business problems.
“We had a major deal on the table,” Reynolds reveals — and though he won’t say with whom, he’s not talking about the Sub Pop contract. The label in question offered the Blue Rags serious backing, if only they’d allow themselves to be made over like pop stars: slicker hairdos, tidier clothes, the works.
“They tried to strip the purity of it,” notes the bassist (who has, ironically, morphed into a bit of a fashion plate). “We decided then we were burned out. We had a major deal on the table and we never signed it.”
Next stop: iTunes
But there are no grumblings of regret. Rather, the band seems to look back on their brief tenure with something like awe.
“We were on MTV for a while, with Janeane Garofalo,” Reynolds reminds Xpress. In the late ’90s, their label sent them to New York to play a couple weeks’ worth of shows, and convinced the network to follow the band, reality show-style.
“We were playing subways in New York City. We played the street a lot — that was part of our thing,” the bassist continues. That segment was aired several times, including coverage of the band talking up its home base.
“I guess it’s pretentious to say people moved [to Asheville] because of us,” Reynolds opines. “People were saying there’s a big music scene here.”
Actually, the music scene has boomed exponentially since the Blue Rags threw in the towel, and the increasing number of venues — not to mention prospective fans — hasn’t hurt the group’s members. The award-winning Reid currently fronts his own band, the Spike Drivers; Reynolds, co-founder of local Collapseable Studios, tours with festival favorites Donna the Buffalo; guitarist Aaron “Woody” Wood enjoys a strong following with Hollywood Red and Zeppelin cover band Custard Pie; Hollifield can be heard around town as the Manic Pianic; drummer Mike Rhodes has a pottery business; and Sharpe with his pedal steel is pursuing the various hallowed avenues (sacred and otherwise) of that weepy instrument.
Bands break up every day, and the Blue Rags, individually, have done just fine. The hipness quotient of early-20th-century music swells and deflates: Long gone are swing revivalists the Squirrel Nut Zippers (who toured with the Rags) and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, though the local retro acts that came later — Scrappy Hamilton, for instance — certainly confirm the Rags’ early reign.
Still, maybe Asheville’s original ragtime rockers have simply had their day in the sun. Maybe they were fortunate to get out before their fans moved on. The question becomes: Why have a reunion at all?
“This is a first step, to see what will happen,” Sharpe offers. “There’s a small demand that’s starting to happen.”
“Believe it or not, there’s a whole [teenage] contingent with the Blue Rags on their iPods,” Hollifield adds. “A lot of people who missed out on Abe [in the band] are coming [to Asheville] just to see him.”
And then there are the fans, an aging but still enthusiastic nucleus (many of whom have gone on to form bands of their own) who never seemed to get their fill. Several dozen have left encouraging messages on the Blue Rags’ MySpace site (“I’m really hoping it gets low down & dirty like Be Here Now days,” gushed one) — not to mention a couple potentially randy offers of places for band members to sleep, should their weary bones require it.
The Blue Rags reunite with Abe Reid for an Orange Peel show (101 Biltmore Ave.) at 9 p.m. on Friday, June 2. $13/$15. 225-5851.