Never Slow Down: The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys and The Eternal Importance of Bluegrass
It’s stiff competition at the top of the heap. The IBMA’s Album of the Year will be decided in Raleigh at the end of September, and it’ll go to Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, Danny Paisley, or Bela Fleck.
Renewal. Crooked Tree. Never Slow Down. Bluegrass Troubadour. Or My Bluegrass Heart. Two from the New Wave. Two from the Big Bang. And one from the Hall of Fame Tour.
If I had to survive for a year on a deserted island or in Portland, OR, someplace like that, and could only take one album from the five listed above to listen to all year in exile, the Album of the Year is obvious. Never Slow Down. The reason is obvious too. It’s as real as the moment we’re balanced on.
The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys came to Oak Ridge, TN with Sierra Hull in July 2021 for a late afternoon show at Summer Sessions, a free concert series in what the locals call the “Secret City,” a relic of the Manhattan Project that has a population demographic that’s an upside-down bell curve… lots of people over 60 and under 16, with very few in between. And the audience that day was the typical Oak Ridge crowd: grey-haired retired physicists, chemists, and school teachers, with a smattering of folks from the surrounding counties who actually wear overalls every day, own hound dogs, and carry .410’s to the wood pile ‘cause copperheads are everywhere in Morgan County.
The weather was a challenge. It poured all day until an hour before the show. The presenters (ORNL Federal Credit Union) and the hosts (radio station WDVX-FM) said “Let’s do it,” and PRB opened. Then Sierra Hull and her band came out, but half way through her set, something completely unexpected happened.
Apparently she had planned this with PRB. With the sound crew scratching their heads, Sierra led her band straight out to the middle of the audience, and PRB followed her, and in a minute or two they were tuning up for an impromptu unamplified al fresco jamfest surrounded by 100’s of white hairs and overalls.
They had just had enough of social distancing.
Luckily, several people shot really good video of it all from right in the eye of the hurricane, which has been quite the viral phenomenon over there on YouTube. Before the jam begins, you can see Jerome Brown tuning his banjo, and somebody calls out “What’s the difference between a banjo and an onion? …When you cut up a banjo, nobody cries!” At that, with half a shit-eatin’ grin, Jerome rips into “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” and jaws all around him splash in the mud.
What’s not to like about the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys? They started in a moonshine distillery not far from Dollarwood. They all wear fabulous threads and hats from Rockmount. And they’re kick ass. Every bit of what they’re reaping this year is 100% earned from good honest work.
C.J. Lewandowski, PRB’s founder and mandolinist who writes the best liner notes since the days of RCA Victor heavy black vinyl, is a dang genius, and Never Slow Down is the most recent result. But the album isn’t the only object of awards attention from IBMA. The group is nominated for Entertainers of the Year. They’re also nominated for Collaborative Recording of the Year for “East Bound and Down” on Sound Biscuit with the twin fiddles of Bronwyn Keith-Hynes and Jason Carter. And Po’ Ramblin’ Laura Orshaw is up for New Artist of the Year for what she has added to PRB with her fiddle, her voice, her song arranging insight, her performance élan, and her just-one-of-the-Boys self.
In addition to all this headline-making stuff, PRB slipped a most grace-filled gesture under the radar to help our brothers and sisters in southeast Kentucky. A re-mastered recording of “God’s Love is So Divine,” a tune first recorded by the Po’ Boys in 2018, has been released to raise much needed funds for flood rescue and relief efforts. See their website to help out.
Never Slow Down was co-produced, engineered, recorded, and mastered by Paul Blakemore. Several two-word responses come to mind. Look out. Stand back. ‘Nuff said. Yee haw. Get down. Grammy bait. The record was recorded at Sound Biscuit Productions. The mix has handled by Ben Surratt. The label is Smithsonian Folkways. Yes, that Smithsonian.
The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys are C.J. Lewandowski, mandolin, like I said; Laura Orshaw, fiddle; Jasper Lorentzen, bass; Jerome Brown, banjo; and Big Josh Rinkel, guitar. Everybody sings. I believe everybody dabbles in writing music and lyrics. On stage, there’s not a slacker in sight.
Never Slow Down consists of 11 songs: “When Are You Gonna Tell Me?” and “Missing Her Has Never Slowed Me Down” by Josh Rinkel; “Where Grass Won’t Grow” by George Jones; Ralph Stanley’s “Lonesome;” “Take My Ashes to the River” by Ken Irwin; “Blues are Close at Hand” by Jerome Brown’s dad, Tommy Brown; “Ramblin’ Woman” by Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard; Carter Stanley’s “Little Glass of Wine;” “Mason’s Lament” by Chris Brashear; “Wake Up With Tears in my Eyes,” by Don Brown; and “Old Time Angels” by Jim Lauderdale.
Lauderdale’s tune, at a considerably slower tempo than his band’s version, will haunt you all night if you listen to it too close to bedtime. It brings the Louvin Brothers’ Knoxville Girl back to life. “Mason’s Lament” is a tapestry as lonesome as a Scott County cedar chopper lost in the towering pines. And “Ramblin’ Woman” gets its true voice in Laura Orshaw’s performance. What self-respecting ramblin’ boy wants to hear his woman start a song with I hate to disappoint you, but…
Laura Orshaw is also behind the record’s biggest surprise, singing “Where Grass Won’t Grow.” It was like, I didn’t know George Jones and Dolly Parton had a daughter. And she sings!
“Take My Ashes…” was painful listening. The song’s beautiful, the singing’s beautiful, but you know this record was written and recorded in the grip of the pandemic. The whole album is a declaration that we’ve had enough. But this song is as painful as watching your grandmother dying with COVID in a haz-mat isolation room and you can’t go in to hold her hand. I hear her calling out to me…
Tommy Brown wrote a blues romp for his son Jerome to eat up. “Blues are Close at Hand” is a race through the high weeds, with the blues gaining ground on you faster than a blue tick hound. You can feel it nipping at your ass.
I knew a guy named Bond in South Knoxville who had a dog that did that. One of those loopy Louisiana Catahoulas. Every time you took your eyes off him, he’d sneak up from behind and nip at your butt. He used to race across the pasture and leap up onto “Pardon Me, Gov’nor,” Bond’s 16 hands Tennessee walking horse.
Josh Rinkel’s songs were my favorites on Never Slow Down. “Missing Her” is the first cut on the record. I don’t know the technical term for what fiddlers do when they start a tune by bouncing their bows off the strings in a sort of percussive fiddler’s fanfare, but this tune starts with the most attention-grabbing fiddler’s fanfare I’ve ever heard. And then Big Josh’s almost bashful voice wails I know I should be back in East Tennessee / I wonder just how long she’ll be waitin’ there for me…
And “When Are You Gonna Tell Me?” cut through me like a scythe through a blackberry patch. It’s about a lyin’ woman who is slowly dissolving the ties that bind. I’m living this song right now. Too close to home. It’s one thing to feel like you understand a song. It’s another when the song understands you.
I’m pulling for PRB at IBMA. Ever since I saw them light up a soggy crowd of Oak Ridgers who had no idea why the band was following Sierra Hull right into their midst, they’ve been my favorite band.
You know how to sum up the eternal importance of bluegrass, this music so rife with the high lonesome echoes of poverty, struggle, inequalities, hunger, want, and faith? It’s that sadness isn’t the antithesis of life. Sadness is the signal fire life springs out of.
Heartbreak doesn’t kill love. It gives birth to love. Disaster and disappointment don’t exist outside of hope.
All y’all in Breathitt, Clay, Floyd, Knott, Leslie, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin, Owsley, Perry, Pike, and Whitley Counties in Kentucky, remember that. Don’t lose sight of tomorrow. Never slow down. A better day’s coming, God willin’ and the creek don’t rise. https://www.theporamblinboys.com