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ORNL FCU/Summer Sessions – 6/10 – Po’ Ramblin’ Boys / Tim O’Brien
June 10 @ 6:00 pm
At a time when most people feel constantly distracted by technology and barraged by the news, authenticity and straightforward honesty are paramount. There’s something about the music of The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys that cuts right through the noise of the world and speaks plainly to the soul. Formed in the Smoky Mountains, The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys are at once exactly what you would expect and not at all what you would expect from a tattooed East Tennessee Bluegrass outfit. No strangers to hard work, the boys are as much at home riding in their restored Eagle tour bus as they are crawling underneath to fix it when it needs maintenance. But they take pride in being ambassadors of their genre, and the group has brought their music from rural bluegrass festival stages to the rock clubs of Europe, and even the GRAMMY Red Carpet, with stunning results. “I think to a certain extent everyone is just craving music that they can feel, and any music that feels real will reach any audience” says CJ Lewandowski, the groups founder, “We want to put bluegrass right where it’s least expected”. Perhaps this mindset is why the group earned the title of Emerging Artist of the Year at the 2018 IBMA Awards.
In 2014, Lewandowski was working at Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery in Sevierville, TN when the band first formed. The distillery employed musicians to play for visitors seven days a week, and Lewandowski, who primarily plays Mandolin and sings, was occasionally hired to fill in when the entertainment didn’t show. Eventually, the distillery approached him about forming a band for a full time slot, so he reached out to long time music friends Jereme Brown, who plays banjo for the group, and Josh Rinkel, who plays guitar. “Jereme was doing a lot of welding work at that time, and Josh was running a sign company”, says Lewandowski, “I think we were all ready to do something new, something with our music but we didn’t know when or how”. Bassist Jasper Lorentzen happened to be working in the tasting room at the distillery, and he turned out to be the perfect addition to the band. The four friends played multiple times a week for a year and half, honing their band sound, meanwhile word was spreading about their music. “The first gig we played out of town was a festival in Alberta, Canada, and a week later we went on a two week tour of Europe, it was crazy”, says Lewandowski. In 2020, the finishing touch, the cherry on top if you will, was added to the quartet. Laura Orshaw, a seasoned fiddle player and singer joined the Boys after contributing her talents to the Sound Biscuit Productions’ full Gospel album, “God’s Love is So Divine” and “Toils, Tears, & Trouble.” On the addition C.J. exclaims “after 5 1/2 together as a four piece, we needed that perfect fit that would not only fit us on stage and recording, but a personality that would add to the band and be a part of the family we have created. Laura was that person and we can’t think of anyone else that fits our music and our family better than her. The show has benefitted so much from Laura and the chemistry we have between the now 5 of us.”
Material for the group’s freshman Rounder Records album “Toil, Tears & Teouble,” was a combination of original songs and old numbers that honor the group’s mentors and bluegrass heroes. “We love to dig up old songs that haven’t been heard in years and bring them back into the spotlight”, explains Lewandowski. In fact, two of those gems on the Rounder album, “Next Train South” and “Hickory, Walnut & Pine,” were nominated for IBMA Song of the Year along with “Next Train South” taking the trophy for SPBGMA same category in 2020. The momentum of “Toil, Tears & Trouble” has continued to grow with the band’s first GRAMMY Nomination for Best Bluegrass Album.
The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys passion for bluegrass is as clear as it is contagious. With a heavy touring schedule across the United States and Europe and recent Grammy Nomination with Rounder Records, the Boys are well on their way to becoming the quintessential bluegrass band of their generation. Despite all of their recent success, they maintain a humble perspective. “Bluegrass has left such a mark on us that we feel like we owe something back to the music”, says Lewandowski. “We want to do something for the music to show our appreciation… There’s no telling what could have happened to us, what we would have become if we hadn’t found this music. It’s gotten us through a lot, the good and the bad. When I think about all of the damn medications that I didn’t have to take because I had music to turn to. We didn’t have to go to the doctor and pay for something to make us feel better, because we had this music, so we really want to honor it by bringing it out of the shadows and onto new stages and wider audiences. Because we know that if we can bring Bluegrass to new folks, those folks will come with us and support the bluegrass community.”
Born in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1954, Grammy winning singer songwriter and multi- instrumentalist Tim O’Brien grew up singing in church and in school. After seeing Doc Watson on TV, he became a lifelong devotee of old time and bluegrass music. Tim started touring nationally in 1978 with Colorado bluegrass band Hot Rize. His songs “Walk the Way the Wind Blows” and “Untold Stories” were bluegrass hits for Hot Rize, and country hits for Kathy Mattea. Soon more artists like Nickel Creek, Garth Brooks, and The Dixie Chicks covered his songs. Over the years, Tim has collaborated with his sister Mollie O’Brien, songwriter Darrell Scott, and noted old-time musician Dirk Powell, as well as with Steve Earle, Mark Knopfler, Dan Auerbach and Sturgill Simpson.
Living in Nashville since 1996, O’Brien’s skills on guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and banjo make him an in-demand session player. He tours throughout the US and abroad, most often with his wife Jan Fabricius on mandolin and vocals. A voracious reader who loves to cook, he has two sons, Jackson (born 1982) and Joel (born 1990). The International Bluegrass Music Association awarded him song of the year in 2006 and named him best male vocalist in 1993 and 2006. He was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2013 and into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame in 2022.
O’Brien’s latest release, 2021’s “He Walked On”, weaves historical and socially conscious themes through songs about ordinary and not so ordinary people just trying to “keep it between the ditches”. Other notable O’Brien recordings include the bluegrass Dylan covers of “Red on Blonde”, the Celtic-Appalachian fusion of “The Crossing”, and the Grammy winning folk of “Fiddler’s Green”. His duet recording “Real Time” with Darrell Scott is a cult favorite, and he won a bluegrass Grammy as part of “The Earls of Leicester”. His 2017 release “Where the River Meets the Road” paid tribute to the music of his native West Virginia. A new release of original material “Cup of Sugar” drops June 16.
TIM O’BRIEN talks about Cup Of Sugar:
“The songs started with ‘Bear.’ It was December of 2021, and the news was all about Russia and would Putin invade Ukraine. I had just read a book on the history of dancing bears. White Nationalism was a prominent topic, the flip side being Black Lives Matter. Trump had lost the election but was ramping up his spoiled brat act. I could imagine the gripes Putin, Trump and the White Nationalists had, even if I didn’t agree. I’d also reread some of a favorite book by Rafi Zabor: The Bear Goes Home. In the plot, this guy in NYC wins a dancing bear in a card game, and after he gets busted trying to busk with it, he leaves the bear in his flat during work. One day he comes home and the bear’s talking and playing clarinet. The bear becomes a jazz sensation but he’s also the ultimate outsider. So I was thinking about all that. I think the bear represents anyone or any social group that feels their world has changed too much while they weren’t looking. The bear comes out of his cave in spring and all the trees are cut down. He’s just pissed off. ‘I’m a bear’ he cries, ‘but damn it, I’m more than that.’ I can identify with the bear because I’m old. I don’t relate to a lot of new stuff and while I do fairly well in spite of all the changes, sometimes I’ll swear at them.
“The saddest song is one I wrote with Jan. We were driving along talking about some folks we know who are locked into a dysfunctional relationship, how we wished they could figure it out, change things. Jan said, ‘She can’t.’ I said, ‘He won’t.’ and then we both said, ‘They’ll never’ in unison.
More songs started coming in the spring of 2022. I got with Ronnie Bowman and these brothers from West Virginia, Chris and Donnie Davisson, to co-write. I try to bring something to a session so we can start right in, and I thought how about ‘thinkin’ like a fish.’ I played a funk lick on the banjo and we spit out some words to it. After we were done that day, I played it for Jan’s son Lane, who’s crazy about fishing, and he gave me an idea for the last verse. Another song that fell out one morning is ‘Let the Horses Run.’ I happened on the funny story of Lulu the Nashville border collie who inherited a fortune when her owner died with no heir. The dog’s master was a guy who helped put up a notorious statue of the first Grand Wizard of the KKK here in Nashville, and his death resulted in the statue finally coming down. Ronnie and I got together again and came up with ‘Diddleye Day,’ which rhymes dogs with hogs, and so I’m thinking maybe there’s a whole theme here.
“But I also had written ‘The Anchor’ which was just something I was just ready to write. It’s in line with the social justice songs on ‘He Walked On,” but again it’s from the point of view of someone old who realizes they’re a throwback, in this case ‘Walter Cronkite’ who’s commenting from the great beyond. I’m in my late 60’s and doing fine but I’m looking at things from that older perspective. One of my closest friends, J.D. Hutchison was in hospice care when Ronnie and I wrote ‘Goodbye Old Friend.” (J.D. passed away soon after.) With ‘Cup of Sugar,’ “The Pay’s a Lot Better Too’ and maybe even ‘Gila Headwaters,’ I’ve got that elder perspective again: life is short but it’s wonderful so don’t sweat the small stuff. The guy in ‘Stuck in the Middle’ is taken by surprise but he takes it lightly.
I let the songs dictate the arrangements. I asked myself is it all acoustic, is it an electric country record? Is it time to go electric?. But I ended up making another pretty eclectic set of acoustic tracks. Jan and I work on the form, tempo, and key for each of them at home, and she sings and plays her parts live when we get to the studio. That builds a strong frame before we get to the studio. With session guys like Mike Rojas, Russ Pahl, and Jaimee Dick, as well as with my bandmates Mike Bub and Shad Cobb, you just get them in the room and play the song. They find the way. Dennis Crouch came one day when Bub couldn’t make it, and Paul Burch joined in too on a couple. I had a lot of fun writing the songs and had just as much fun recording them. It was a blast having Del McCoury come in to play some real first-generation bluegrass. I think Cory Walker crushed the banjo part.”