One Riot One Ranger – Buckeyes gone bluegrass
To some, Columbus, Ohio, is best known for creating its own prickly brand of punk and garage rock. Nurtured by the bars and record stores that line High Street across from the sprawling campus of Ohio State, the Columbus “sound” has led some to say the city is a up-and-coming Seattle.
But punk is the only part of the Columbus scene worth listening to. Just a ways further south down High Street, away from the university and on the far side of downtown, there’s a small store called The Bluegrass Musicians Supply. If you’re lucky, you’ll wander in on a Saturday, when the bluegrass jam is taking place. Here, in a crowded basement room, you’ll hear the other side of Columbus: the high and lonesome sound of Bluegrass.
While it may seem surprising to find bluegrass in Columbus, a city that’s Midwestern to the core, one look at a map will show the route bluegrass took to get there: straight up Highway 23, the road many Southerners followed in search of jobs in Northern factories. Columbus became home to many of these people, and they brought bluegrass with them.
Perhaps no one in Columbus knows this better than Mark Wyatt of One Riot One Ranger. As keyboardist for the band Great Plains in the ’80s, Wyatt was a major instigator of the Columbus punk scene. Now a member of 1R1R, Wyatt is well-versed in bluegrass. “Ohio is firmly in the traditional camp, as far as bluegrass goes, and there’s some real hardcore bluegrass people in Columbus. What other city has a Bluegrass Musicians Supply?” Wyatt asks.
When Great Plains broke up in ’89, Wyatt was already smitten by bluegrass, having listened to it while on tour. He fell in love with the deceptively simple melodies, tight musicianship and vocal harmonizing. “The last two years of Great Plains, I was buying half bluegrass records, half rock records.”
Switching from keyboards to accordion, Wyatt formed 1R1R in 1990 along with dobro/harp/bass player Pete Remenyi. Several band members have come and gone since, but the current lineup of Wyatt, Remenyi, guitarist Mark Gaskill, fiddler/mandolinist Chas Williams and banjoist/bassist Carl Yaffey has been together for over two years. This lineup also recorded the band’s self-titled cassette.
Not a traditional bluegrass band, 1R1R has its own distinctive sound — a mixture of bluegrass, country, cowboy, blues and the odd Roky Erickson or Pere Ubu cover — that leaves the band members uncertain as to what to call it. When pressed, they hesitently label it “big city bluegrass” or “faux cowboy”. Still, it’s clear that their sound is rooted in bluegrass and old-time acoustic country. But while the band feels a sense of duty to traditional sounds — “no electric guitar, no drums,” says Williams — they also feel they must challenge those traditions.
“We do have a responsibility that if we’re gonna play the music, we do something original with it,” says Remenyi. “And I think we’re doing that.” Gaskill adds: “Bluegrass is traditionally rural. Nowadays, it almost has to take on more of an urban quality to hit the audience where it lives.”
Wyatt puts it simply: “To the purists, ya gotta say no, we’re not bluegrass; but to anyone else, hell yeah, we are.”
However they choose to describe their sound, the members of 1R1R are clearly onto something, as demonstrated by the enthusiastic responses they’ve received from both bluegrass purists and alternative-country fans at gigs ranging from Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, to the Millersburg Sweet Corn Festival in Ohio.
They’ve even been accepted down at the Bluegrass Musicians Supply. “They didn’t talk to me when I first started going in there,” says Wyatt. “Now, they’re real nice, they sell our tape at the store, and they even palled around with us at the Owensburg Bluegrass Trade Show.” For an ex-rocker now devoted to bluegrass, could there be a sweeter acknowledgment than that?