Blue Rags – Life during ragtime
Picture, if you will, the Fugs jamming on the soundtrack of the old black-and-white Steamboat Willie cartoon. Or the Replacements testing their Gershwin out on Prohibition-era speakeasy crowds. Or maybe Bill Monroe and Scott Joplin swinging together in the Whiskey A Go Go, circa 1979. Got that? Neither do I.
But that might be a starting point for describing the Blue Rags, a rollicking young band from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, whose debut, Rag-N-Roll, appeared last fall on Sub Pop. Recorded live in a single day, the album sounds sort of like the lounge car on a steam locomotive full of hillbillies, punkers and Deadheads jitterbugging blissfully in one great, glorious cloud of B.O.
“The most interesting thing about the crowds we draw is probably the multi-generational thing,” says vocalist and pianist Jake Hollifield over a slice of pizza and a cup of coffee. “Sometimes I think we connect better with the scholars and the older people. I mean, I’ve had more meaningful conversations about what we do with some old-timers playing tuba on a pier in Key West than I have in some punk club in Seattle.”
The Blue Rags’ take on old-time music draws significantly on the spirit of ragtime, that most jolly of American musical forms. And the Blue Rags are definitely jolly — a carefree bunch of boys who just want to make you dance for a few hours and go home smiling. “We’re positive people,” guitarist and vocalist Woody unapologetically asserts. “We’re sick of all the gloom and doom. The world’s had enough of that for now.”
The Blue Rags’ music hearkens back to the early part of the century, back when acts such as Bascom Lunsford and the Memphis Jug Band were gigging across the Southeastern United States. The Rags incorporate so many influences, in fact, that it’s difficult to try to pin down their sound. Which is fine by them; the only generalization that does rankle the band’s collective hide is the one using that damn P-word. “We get called a lot of things,” bassist Bill Reynolds says, “everything from alternative country to jug band to good-time bluegrass. The only thing we don’t like being called is punk ragtime.”
The punk stamp started out, it seems, because of the difficulty of miking acoustic instruments. Most soundmen, the Rags say, simply turn everything up. But the band is gradually figuring out how to combat that problem. “We’re gonna take the time to get into the tone and the timbre of the instruments,” Hollifield says. “We’re gonna play listening rooms instead of clubs, and show people what having a good time is all about.”