The music of Louisiana has a lot in common with the cuisine. An initial blast of heat usually commands attention right off the bat, but then -- slowly, but surely -- all sorts of subtler notes start to creep in, making for an irresistibly captivating experience. Thats the vibe that emanates from The Red Stick Ramblers, an appropriately-named aggregation that builds stylistic bridges spanning the decades -- not to mention connecting styles as diverse as traditional Cajun, western swing, blues and old-school jazz.
"From day one, we were just interested in all sorts of music, from Django Reinhardt to Duke Ellington to the Cajun stuff that a few of the guys in the band grew up around," says Mississippi-bred guitarist Chas Justus. "We never put any limits on what we listened to or what we played. "At first, we didnt think that hundreds of college kids would come out to hear that kind of music, but when we added a little extra drive to it with a drum kit and all, it was really a revelation to see how contagious it could be."
On Made In The Shade, the Baton Rouge-based quintets fourth album -- and first for Sugar Hill -- the Ramblers romp and stomp through a crazy-quilt of originals and classic covers with the high-octane energy that could only come from a band accustomed to keeping dance-floors jumping for hours at a time. From the kick-up-your-heels raucousness of "Laissez Les Cajuns Danser" (which positively bursts with both local pride and universal merriment) to the smooth, slinky swing of Count Basie and Jimmy Rushings "Evenin," the band conjures up a mood thats both heady and heartfelt.
"The common thread is that its all dance music," fiddle player Linzay Young says of the genre-jumping nature of the Ramblers repertoire. "Three hour dances are not uncommon where we come from, and were there to please the dancers, so its less like a performance and more like a party and youre the entertainment. We could probably pull out a hundred or so songs on a given night if we had to."
A dozen of those find their way onto Made In The Shade, with tracks like a souped-up version of "Some of These Days" two-stepping with originals like the wickedly wry title track -- which Young says was inspired by both George Joness "White Lightning" and the real-life moonshine-distilling adventures of a Louisiana pal.
The Red Stick Ramblers first scooted out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana -- where Young, Justus and drummer Glenn Fields were studying at Louisiana State University -- about eight years ago, suits crisply pressed and bows rosined-up and ready to rollick. They quickly developed a following around the Gulf Coast region thanks to their unflaggingly energetic live shows, and spread the message even more widely with the 2002 release of their self-titled debut album -- a disc that brought them the tag "the great Cajun hope."
The Ramblers certainly demonstrated the musical firepower to don that mantle, but deftly sidestepped the pigeonhole it threatened to place them into on their sophomore outing, Bring It on Down. That disc, which nodded to forebears like Bob Wills and Johnny Cash, prompted the New Orleans Times-Picayne to tout them for proffering "a potent brew that swings so hard that its almost sick, and rocks like crazy."
After a few lineup changes -- notably the amicable departure of co-founder Marc Savoy, the progeny of one of the first families of Louisiana music -- the group solidified into its current five-piece form. The revamped Ramblers, buoyed by fiddler Kevin Wimmer -- a longtime member of Cajun mainstay Balfa Toujours -- and Eric Frey, an Alabama native who was schooled in bluegrass by his bassist dad, then in jazz by one-time Basie sideman Cleveland Eaton, made their entrée into the recording realm in 2004 with Right Key, Wrong Keyhole.
"That was the album where we really established a style that was really ours," says drummer Glenn Fields. "We have some really great writers in the band and they started to show that on Right Key, just like they do on Made In The Shade. Its not focusing on a nostalgic sound, but were not trying to drag modern elements into the traditional songs just for the sake of it."
While theyre not slaves to tradition, the Ramblers have a good deal of respect for it -- as borne out by the stellar backing they provided on Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoys acclaimed Adieu False Heart, as well as in their marshalling of the annual Black Pot Festival, a celebration of south Louisianas culinary and cultural history.
"We were touring around and talking about having a party where we could invite a bunch of our friends to play music and do cast-iron cooking, which is a big tradition where we come from," says Young, whose own specialty is a zesty sauce piquante. "It snowballed to the point where we had a couple thousand people coming through, roasting pigs, camping out, jamming together. It was great."
That sense of community bubbles up from just about every groove on Made In The Shade, whether the mood is vivacious (as on the Red Stick rendition of Clifton Cheniers "Hot Tamale Baby," coated in Wimmers deep, earthy baritone) or gritty (on the old-timey "Katrina," which was written in response to the storm that devastated the Gulf Coasts infrastructure, but not its spirit).
"Even though the circumstances were tough [around Katrina], it gave people a good chance to get together with friends and family and draw strength from each other," says Justus. "Traditional music has a lot of social and cultural implications that pop music doesnt, in terms of getting people together. Its not as much about performance or virtuoso musicianship as it is about community and I think people are attracted by the approachability. Thats a rebellious thing in a way, the desire to be real and not be co-opted or homogenized, and thats what wed like to be seen as representing."
Linzay Young -- vocals, fiddle
Kevin Wimmer -- fiddle, vocals
Chas Justus -- guitar, vocals
Eric Frey -- bass, vocals
Glenn Fields -- drums