Kind of blue

Blue Rags poster
artwork by Jason Krekel

So here’s the scoop: The Blue Rags are back together, and they have a new CD.

But don’t believe everything you read. While it’s true the group will debut songs from a still-unnamed album at their upcoming Orange Peel gig, the “new” disc was recorded back in 2000.

Furthermore, this makes at least the second reunion show in six months for the Rags, all of whom are now involved in other projects.

So, is the band really getting back together?

Well … who says they ever broke up?

Long-time Blue Rags fans know that Asheville’s seminal makers of music and mischief have rarely ever approached anything straight on.

“All these people … from the old days in Asheville,” as band guitarist/vocalist Scott Sharpe calls them, also know that the Rags are arguably the most influential band this city has ever produced.

The Blue Rags are in themselves a mini-movement of social and musical upliftment; as such, they instigated a revolution with their ragtime-syncopated, ol’-timey-feeling Appalachian punk rock when members showed up in Asheville a decade ago. There have since been imitators and spin-off groups, but no rivals: The Blue Rags are the Davy Crockett kings of Asheville’s music revival.

“I cherish every opportunity to play with these guys,” says drummer Mike Rhodes. “The old recordings are an audio snapshot of a moment in time. Nothing in this country has been the same since.”

Rude awakenings

After the success of their last Orange Peel gig in April, the band was asked to play there again. And club owners’ timing couldn’t have been better — the upcoming show coincides with the release of the Rags’ long-lost album.

“This is our election-year CD,” quips Rhodes. “We cut [it] four years ago — which is more like eight years in Asheville time, because so much has changed here since then. But it was an election year then, too.”

Of that time, piano player Jake Hollifield remembers “driving through Virginia … and they announced on the radio that Al Gore had won the election. And so I went to sleep in the van, kind of relieved. But an hour-and-a-half later, I woke up and they said that the other guy was president.”

Finally, band member Bill Reynolds offers specific insight.

The mystery album, half of which was recorded live at a small studio in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle, is described by the bassist as being “about 90 percent original tunes, [with] peaks and valleys — some slow, sad stuff, and some high, uplifting gospels.”

The Rags completed the rest of the disc in New York state, in a church with great acoustics. (During recording, band guitarist/vocalist Aaron “Woody” Wood was “on hiatus,” as he puts it, resting back home in Asheville; Rhodes sings backup vocals on the album, and Sharpe plays all the guitar parts.)

“We finished recording, and felt really good about it,” Reynolds continues. “Then some guy walked up and handed us the bill. We thought the record company was paying for it.”

Not so.

“That was the day we learned how the music business works.”

Severing ties, demolishing reflectors

After the band’s contract was up with Sub Pop, the Seattle company that released both Rag N Roll (1997) and Eat at Joe’s (1999), the Rags say they were courted by several different labels. That included the one they assumed was bankrolling the new CD and providing the studio space, Reynolds reveals.

“But then the music industry folded, because it consolidated into big companies,” he adds. “The guys who funded our record were out of jobs. So the CD ended up in this legal limbo, because if you cut a record and then don’t pay, [then you don’t] own the rights to it.” (Just last week, the band found out they had regained legal ownership of the master recordings.)

Back around 1995, when there was no place to dance in Asheville — as there still isn’t — the Rags booked a “dead night” slot at the now-defunct Be Here Now, turning it into a weekly musical happy hour. Then they hit the road, creating a fan base through grassroots volunteerism and sheer endurance. The group developed a network of safe houses and dance halls that snaked across the country, and what band members lost in body weight from living on the road, they gained back in fat creativity born of playing together at a marathon pace; frequently, they performed three different gigs in the same day.

Now that their record is out of hock, Hollifield says he might write their memoirs.

He jokes that it will be a kind of handbook — “How to Live on the Road Cheaper Than Anyone.”

“We were living in a tent for three or four months,” he reveals, “the whole band in a pole tent.”

They learned how to get the most out of their motel dollars, too.

“If you check into a motel at four in the morning, you have to check out at 11, and they charge you 50 bucks,” explains the piano player. “So we would check in at 5:30 in the morning, and then we could stay all day, and that night, and the next morning. By the time we checked out, after being there just one day, that room looked like we had been living in it for a month.”

Sometimes, things got dangerous.

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