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Red Stick Ramblers bring it on

By Brian Steinberg, May 2004

Mandolin player Josh Caffery's voice doesn't necessarily conjure up Bob Wills. But his playing - and that of his band mates in The Red Stick Ramblers - certainly does.

This six-man combo raises many ghosts, and the first few notes on the band's second album "Bring It On Down," (Memphis International) make one nostalgic for toe-tapping swing tunes from the nation's past.

The Red Stick Ramblers add a little spice to the gumbo, with Cajun influences and other interesting bits.

"We kind of started out playing mostly swing, hot jazz, genuine early jazz from the 1930s and Western swing," Caffery recalls.

But one of the group's fiddlers hails from Eunice, La., he says, and things began to evolve. "It's in the air around here. We were playing swing, and every once in a while we threw in a Cajun tune more and more - until today, it's more of a balance of swing-inspired stuff and Cajun stuff."

"Bring It On Down" is a rollicking affair, with seductive blues, call-and-response vocals and all sorts of musical bells and whistles. What else would you expect from a band that boasts - at various points - fiddles, banjo, steel guitar, piano and even triangle?

"We try to throw in a hodge-podge of stuff, but I'd say that the two guideposts of what we do is Cajun swing and the music of southern Louisiana and Texas," Caffery says.

The Ramblers met in Baton Rouge, where they were living, working and attending school around Louisiana State University. Caffery made a trip with a band mate to a weekly Cajun jam session at the Savoy Music Center in Eunice to learn about and listen to Cajun music. While there, he learned that fiddler Joel Savoy was a freshman attending LSU, according to the band's web site.

Eventually, Savoy joined Caffery and drummer Glenn Fields, in a Baton Rouge band called Brother Teresa, and Savoy began honing his fiddle chops. The band played regularly in the area, but graduation meant migration, and the band members moved in various directions.

Brother Theresa disbanded, but Savoy eventually met Chas Justus, a musician from Memphis. The two began taking part in daily jam sessions. Acoustic bassist Ricky Rees came to the group by way of an ad in a local paper. Fiddler/vocalist Linzay Young, a childhood friend of Savoy, also joined up.

A first gig was booked at a coffee house in Mandeville, La. In tribute to legendary Cajun music players The Hackberry Ramblers, the group outfitted itself in fancy suits, now a hallmark of their performance, according to the web site. As time went by, the set list grew to encompass everything from bluegrass to so-called "gypsy jazz."

In early 2002, the group released its first disc, a self-titled effort, and began playing several big-name festivals. The second disc came out last year and included a range of cuts, everything from the peppy Bob Willis tune "Bring It On Down" to Caffery's bluesy piano stroll, "Main Street Blues," a perfect remedy to a tough day at work. There are waltzes such as "Two Step des Condamnes" and "Parting Waltz" and the dark, haunting "Rattle My Cage."

Different songs have different inspirations. "Speaking for myself, I'm sort of inspired by the landscape down here, the culture, I would say, just the way people are, the way people act, the way the land looks here. Natural settings, the beauty of, just the natural environment. That's just personally what I'm into. The other guys would say (they are inspired by) heartbreak," Caffery says.

While Caffery reveres older songwriters like Jimmie Rodgers, he also has a taste for modern forms.

"I'm honestly really into rap. I like Outkast, of course. I think everyone does these days. I'm definitely inspired by rappers. I think the cadences of the songs and some of the rhythms are more like what you might find in a rap song," he adds. In a demonstration of how wide personal musical tastes can range, Caffery also enjoys Bob Dylan albums including "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blood on the Tracks."

Count on a lot of travel in the Red Stick Ramblers' future. "Around here, we are one of the only bands playing swing that's more rooted in an early jazz sort of feel, sort of more straight swing. On the festival circuit that we play - hmm, I don't know that there are other bands doing what we do."

Fellow disciples might include Hot Club of Cowtown or Asleep At The Wheel, he says. Still, most of what Caffery hears "seems to be centered more on bluegrass and old time and Appalachian roots. There is a lot more of that than there is Deep South roots music, like south Texas music and southern Louisiana music. There aren't that many bands out there on the circuit."

By the end of the year, that circuit will be a well-traveled one. "This summer, we're going to be out, pretty much all of May, June, July," he says. Festivals are in the offing, as are trips to New England, Texas and French Canada.

Even with all the travel in the next few months, the Ramblers have another album in mind, he says, and have some early plans to start "recording a little bit, just on our own."

He envisions a disc "really based on some of these traditional musics that we have been learning how to play since we became musicians and sort of creating something new and very exciting and solid."