Sincerity blooms from singer Ruthie Logsdon like condensation on a Pepsi can. With a truly refreshing candor, she recently revealed to Xpress the force that led her to explore what she and her D.C.-based band like to refer to as “rockin’ American roots music”: “My exposure to country pretty much came from watching TV.”
That said, Logsdon amiably offered a bit more of her history. “The other exposure I had to country music was when my parents would take me to bluegrass concerts,” she explains. “But other than bluegrass, I was into, you know, Johnny Cash — he had a television show — and Glenn Campbell had a TV show,” she points out. “Dolly Parton had her own show. And [there was] Hee-Haw. Also, I watched the country-music-awards show. And I didn’t do it because I was a country fan. I did it because my parents were watching it. I was a little kid, and whatever they watched, I watched.
“As I grew up, I started playing guitar, and I would play whatever the popular stuff on the radio was — you know, not country radio, but whatever [was on] the local pop station,” she continues. “And then, when I was in college, I … was into all these underground punk bands and alternative rock. I totally just didn’t even think about country. … But when I started playing [my own] music, I immediately started writing country songs. I went back and started listening to Loretta Lynn and Buck Owens … Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. And those [remain] my influences.”
Along with her band, The Wranglers — featuring drummer Joel App, bassist Mark Noone and the swaggering lead licks of guitarist Phil Mathieu — Logsdon is well aware of the unique challenges presented in the confusing present climate of “real” country versus alt-country versus Top-40 fluff that passes as country.
“You hear a lot of stuff on the radio that people think is country, but I can’t really hear any of the [classic] influences in those songs,” she allows. “But when I perform, I can’t help but portray some of those influences. Some people may not notice it or recognize it, but I know that it’s there. … When I first started [playing music], I used to do all kinds of covers. I would be singing ‘Harper Valley PTA,’ or Johnny Cash tunes or George Jones kinda stuff … because that was the kind of music I loved, and the only reason I got into this band was because I wanted to play those songs. I loved those songs, and no one was doing them anymore, and I thought, ‘What a waste.’ Then I started writing my own stuff, and we started weeding out some of those covers.”
But once the band had established its niche as one of the truest outfits on the Americana scene (and rightfully so), Logsdon again unearthed her old favorites: “Now I’m bringing them back in, because I feel like those are really important songs. … We try to do most of our own stuff, but my night’s not complete until I play ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ or ‘Folsom Prison.'”
Logsdon is delicately disdainful about cash-cow country. “Commercial radio has kind of stolen the [country] name,” she says. “When people ask us what kind of music we do, I rarely say country, because then they’re like, ‘Oh, do you do any Shania Twain?'”
But Logsdon’s more forgiving of the sometimes-kitschy alt-country scene. “I think any genre of music that stems from [classic] country is a heartfelt thing,” she explains. “A lot of people want to rock ‘n’ roll, but they can’t help but have country roots, and so they do both. That’s kind of what we do. I mean, we take every kind of influence we have. And we don’t shove it aside — we use it.”
The band’s latest CD, Life’s Savings (Lasso Records, 1998), is a warm mixture of ballads and electrified honky-tonk. The most compelling track, hands-down, is “Honky-Tonk Man” — the uptempo tale of a transsexual country fan: “He’s a honky-tonk man/ But he wants to be a honky-tonk woman,” goes the chorus. While the song manages its tricky theme with surprising empathy, it has nevertheless stirred up trouble among more conservative country adherents (one DJ was fined $25 for spinning the tune).
Live, the band is honest and winning, with a golden energy that draws converts like yellow jackets to candy apples.
“One guy said to us [after a show], ‘I didn’t know what to think. I thought you guys would be kind of campy, and be making fun of country music,'” Logsdon remembers. “And I said, ‘Oh, no, not at all.’ We might make fun of ourselves, but no more than [performers in] any other genre of music. … [Another time] this one woman — she was a black woman and she had these little kids with her — came up after a show, and all her kids wanted autographs. She said, ‘Boy, I never liked country music, but I love you guys.’ It really stuck with me, and made me feel so good.
“You think to yourself, there’s one more person who had an undecided feeling about what country is, who had one thing in mind, and then said, ‘Oh, you say you’re country; well, then, I like country,'” concludes Logsdon, sounding oh-so-pleased.