It was supposed to be a little different; the debut performances of both the much-heralded Masters of Bluegrass and The Rambling Rooks had been scheduled for the night before (1/25) in Bristol, TN, but winter ice storms made the outing too treacherous for the bands and the fans to attempt. By Friday morning, it was clear that the show in Bristol could not go on, and a new date for the concert is being planned.
Over in Bowling Green, KY, on Saturday, however, skies were clear and there was a brisk snap in the air as some 1500 bluegrass lovers settled into their seats at Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center to bear witness to the historic occasion. First up was the aforementioned Rambling Rooks. The Rooks are comprised of guitarist and vocalist Kenny Smith, mandolin player and vocalist Don Rigsby and vocals/bass player Ronnie Bowman, with rotating special guest banjo pickers. On this night, Kevin Haney, who normally features in country artist Josh Turner’s band, was the special guest “on the five.”
For the Rooks, being the opening act for a collaboration like the Masters of Bluegrass is more than a dream come true. Smith elaborated on the subject in a telephone interview last week.
“I remember going and seeing the Osbornes, you know, and that was probably the first bluegrass concert I ever went to. I guess I was probably eight or nine. Our dad took us to see The Osborne Brothers. I remember that just being captivating, Bobby singing and Sonny’s banjo playing, the whole band sound that night.
And then you’ve got Del McCoury – I look up to him as being one of the best rhythm [guitar] players I’ve ever heard, and a great singer. It’s really neat to play in front of those guys. I mean, that’s who we looked up to, all of those guys.”
Of course, the Rooks are hardly bluegrass newbies. The three men even played together for years as members of the Lonesome River Band in the ‘90s, and have been talking about a reunion for as long as two years. Although it had been over a decade since the friends had seriously tried to play as a band, it quickly came together and the men realized that they enjoyed it enough to take the show back on the road. Some might have been rattled by the prospect of taking the stage for the first time in a new incarnation, but Smith felt confident that the music, and the opportunity, would calm any potential nerves.
“It’s not too bad, because it’s great to be next to Don and Ronnie. We were there before for six years and we played some of best music I’ve ever been a part of. You get up there and all that [nervousness] kind of goes out the door, because it’s really something special.”
For the audience gathered at SKyPAC, it was special. The Rambling Rooks kicked off their energized set with the Stanley Brothers’ When You Go Walking after Midnight, with a solo from Smith that set the crowd to cheering right from the start. The lead vocals were alternately handled by Rigsby and Bowman, with Smith lending harmonies. The whole vibe of the set was dynamic, with vitality and excitement. As the group moved through their 45-minute set, they included songs from the deep well of bluegrass standards as well as some of their own earlier work, including the Lonesome River Band’s Carolyn the Teenage Queen and Harvest Time (via Lost and Found), Am I a Fool and Bowman’s 1998 solo Will I Be That Lucky Man.
It must be said here that in a genre blessed with so many magnificently great musicians, Kenny Smith has to be one of the most talented guitar players out there. He shares his extraordinary talent without flash or grandstanding, but he doesn’t need to create a distraction when music so naturally funnels through his fingers. It is a gift to watch and hear him play.
The Rooks also reached back to bluegrass icons for portions of their show. Ronnie sang lead on Jimmy Martin’s Mary Ann, which he had previously covered with LRB. One thing you can note about Bowman’s voice is just how versatile it is. He is right at home singing the bluegrass for which he is known, but it is easy to imagine him as a country singer, as well, with shades of Hank Williams, Sr. in his tone.
Don Rigsby declared that Ralph Stanley had been the main musical influence of his life, so it was no surprise when he sang his heart out on the Stanley Brothers classic, Little Maggie. To finish their time on stage, the trio came together to execute the soaring, amazingly layered harmonies that had prevailed throughout the evening with their version of the Stanley Brothers’ Bootleg John. If any of the Rooks had worried about how they might be received, they got a clear answer when the audience rose to its feet at the end of performance, cheering their approval of this “new” band of old friends.
The Rambling Rooks intend to take their music into the studio shortly and record a project to share with their fans. Smith says that people familiar with their past work may think they know what to expect from the trio, but don’t be too sure.
“We’ve all agreed that the material doesn’t need to be one kind of sound. I think that when we did our albums before, we had kind of a set sound, a set pattern of what people expected us to do. And I think this one’s going to be a little bit different. I think it’s going to be our style, but I think the material’s going to be a little bit different. It will be a mix, which I’m really gonna dig because it’s something I always thought we could do, but we never really had a chance to grow.”
Between the upcoming recording and continued live bookings throughout this year and beyond, it seems pretty safe to say that the Rambling Rooks intend to be around for awhile, and bluegrass lovers are delighted by that notion. It means a lot to the band, too.
“I enjoy getting back together with Ronnie and Don,” says Smith definitively, “because it was always natural. That’s one of the things we always liked about playing with each other, and it just feels like everything we’re doing kind of connects. It’s an exciting time for us to be on stage together again, and that’s pretty much the bottom line, you know?”