If you scour the web for general music industry news, you may have noticed that the most recent successful recording artist from another genre to embrace bluegrass is Tommy Ramone, from The Ramones, the notorious alternative rock band of the 1970s and ’80s. They are often described as having ushered in the punk sound, in much the same way that Nirvana defined the grunge sound a decade later.
Ramone, along with Claudia Tienan, has formed Uncle Monk, an acoustic duo whose debut eponymous CD release is due May 22, 2007. The two first got together intending to form an electric jam band, but their joint appreciation of traditional bluegrass and old time music won the day. Tommy plays mandolin, guitar, banjo and dobro, while Claudia contributes guitar and bass. Both sing on the project.
We wanted to get some input from Tommy (born Tommy Erdelyi) before posting about this, and were able just recently to nail him down for some discussion and comment on Uncle Monk, and his turn at acoustic string music.
While those of us in the bluegrass world generally welcome such forays into the music from folks who have made a name elsewhere, I wondered whether his passion for the music was newly minted, or had perhaps been longstanding.
“I have been a big fan since my older brother brought home some recordings of stringband music when I was about eight years old, and soon after I heard Earl Scruggs, and I could not believe anything could sound so good. But it was the voice of Carter and Ralph Stanley that sent chills up my spine and opened my eyes to how special bluegrass music was.
My father and brother were big fans of the music, so it was around me all the time. I have always had a special connection to it.”
I also wondered what about bluegrass appealed to him at this point in his musical life and career.
“It is very real music at a time when there is a lot of plastic sounding music all around us. Old-time and bluegrass is just great music period. It makes you feel good. But mostly we just love playing the bluegrass instruments. There is nothing more beautiful to us than a mandolin or banjo.”
There are audio samples on the Uncle Monk site, and a contemporary bluegrass fan might find that the music owes as much to folk and old time influences as bluegrass. The performances are straightforward, and the arrangements sparse and uncomplicated, with some striking parallels to the early punk sound of the Ramones, which came to be seen as a backlash against the “over-produced” pop music of the time.
I asked Tommy is he felt that was an apt description.
“It is just our aesthetic I guess, we like things raw, we find that very beautiful. There is a similarity to punk and old-time music. They are both simple structurally but very deep in emotion and statement.
The songs on the CD are all originals. They represent our different moods and outlooks, and come from our deepest longings and experiences.”
Uncle Monk will be released on their private Airday label, with distribution through Burnside.
Tommy is hoping that bluegrass fans will take a listen and consider their humble contribution to the repertoire.
“We feel it is a great privilege to be playing bluegrass music and we are having the best of times doing it. Nothing would make us happier than to play our music for bluegrass fans all over the country.”