Free Range Folk: 444, family and farm
Thanks to my friends over at ReviewShine, a service that connects artists to bloggers, I recently discovered a band from my old stompin’ grounds in northeastern Pennsylvania that I’ve been listening to and enjoying for several weeks. About forty years ago I used to travel the highways and back roads throughout that part of the country, selling albums ranging from Myron Floren’s polkas to the early string bands and folk music of Flying Fish and Rounder Records, and a lot of music from Wales, Scotland and Ireland. When workers were solicited to come over to American and work the mines, trains and factories, they brought with them the traditions, food, culture and music of their homelands. Italy, Poland, Ireland and points beyond; it created a unique environment in the valleys and mountains.
Free Range Folk are a family band from Jim Thorpe…a town originally established in 1818 as Mauch Chunk, one of the many coal mining and train communities in that part of the state with a rich history. Home to the Switchback Gravity Railroad, considered the first roller coaster in the US and also the scene of a famous court case involving the Molly Maquires which resulted in four men being hung, it is a town that attracts tourists and day trippers from New York and Philadelphia today, because of it’s wide range of architecture and natural beauty.
After nearly a decade of singing and picking together, Free Range Folk was founded by Shawn McCarty (Mandolin, Guitar), Joshua Finsel (Banjo, Guitar, Harmonica, Theremin), and Kevin Ruch (Guitar, Dobro, Bass). The rest of the band looks like this: Amber Breiner Finsel (Upright Bass, Electric Bass, Guitar), Brad Konstas (Percussion), Dan Ruch (Trumpet) and Sara Ruch (Washboard, Musical Saw, Boom-bah, Harmonica). Everybody lends their voices in harmony and lead vocals are usually done by Shawn, Josh and Kevin. Amber and I have been emailing back and forth a bit, so when you see the quotes here, know that it’s the words of the band that she kindly assembled into one narrative for me.
Some members are tied by marriage (Kevin & Sara, Josh & Amber), others by blood (Kevin & Dan are brothers), but all members have a genuine love and respect for one another both on and off stage. “We each share a love for working with the land with the goals to support the environment, our families and community. Since 2004, Kevin and Sara have owned 14 Acre Farm, an organic farm, bakery, and catering company. Band members regularly get together at the farm to help out and make stuff like maple syrup, wild-crafted wine and herbal medicine, and to sing and play around a fire. Kevin and Sara are a wealth of knowledge and experience and thanks to their friendly and open personalities, they have built a community around their farm (of which the band members are all a part). Although the obvious connection to farming is Kevin and Sara, each individual member has their own history and interest in playing in the dirt.”
If you caught the non-traditional folk instrumentation of theremin, trumpet and having a drummer listed in the lineup, you probably won’t be surprised that their list of influences range from “The Band and Bob Dylan to The Meters, The Cure, The Violent Femmes, Fugazi, & beyond”. The newest album (444) is on Fuzztone Records and produced by both the band and Brett Haas, a member of Robert Randolph and The Family Band. “Brett has been a friend for almost 10 years. When he started the record company a few years ago he started asking if we wanted to come down to his studio and put down some tracks. We took a few months to write some new tunes and let some of our solo numbers gel together as FRF tunes, and Brett turned out to be a great collaborator who’s been helpful and eager to work with us.”
There’s something special to me when I think of families getting together, making music, breaking bread and sharing laughter and conversation. I think of the Carters, Seegers and latter-day Guthries. The music tends to be soft and warm, more fun and less angst. As if the delicate balance between family members needs to be carefully kept and nurtured.