It was the summer of 2011, and the Whiskey Folk Ramblers were looking for some new direction. Wanting to keep a tight pace with recording their third album, The Lonesome Underground, the Whiskey Folk, a six-strong collective who've tasked themselves with bashing out the sort of songs you'd expect to find in a Wild West bar fight, found themselves in the first of several tight spots.
Well, that's not strictly true. They'd only just replaced their trumpet player in March, after he left to become the full-time bassist in another band. Let's call that tight spot No. 1. After finding a replacement, the band hit a second.
Founding member and lead singer Tyler Rougeux, possessed of exactly the same voice in person you'll hear on record, a smooth, rich, specifically Texan drawl of the kind made to hold together a rambunctious country-folk-rock band whose sound could fall apart and spill over at any second, had organized the band into recording a new session with longtime producer and collaborator Salim Nourallah. "The costs were just kind of building up, you know? Fifty bucks here, 50 bucks there, it adds up." Five songs in, they'd hit a wall, creatively and financially. Not especially enamored with the sound of the new record, and unable to countenance more expensive recording without any money coming in, the band got together and decided to quit the session.
Whiskey Folk Ramblers
Where does a band go from here? Rougeux looks at it positively. "We had a lot of time then, a lot of time to find our sound." While thinking about how they were going to do a new recording, and playing shows to raise the money, suddenly the guitarist, Mark Moncrieff, came up with a surprising revelation. "He just kind of put his hand up and said he'd been recording people in his studio," Rougeux says, "and we were just ... 'What? You're a producer now?'" He laughs. It turned out the guitarist not only had a studio, he'd already been recording in there for local artists like Cory Patrick Coleman. Given that they could now record virtually for free and take their time, in 2012 the Whiskey Folk Ramblers jumped into the studio and started recording The Lonesome Underground.
Then, a week into recording, one of the three remaining founding members quit out of nowhere. Richard Lee Davenport, who had been writing songs with Rougeux since they were both 11 years old, decided to call time on the band he'd formed in 2007. It shook Rougeux, who lost his long-term songwriting partner and old school friend. "So I called a band meeting, and said, 'Anyone else not up for this recording?' and the drummer raises his hand," Rougeux says, cracking a grin. I'm not sure he was grinning at the time. Trey Ownby was the other remaining founder member of the band besides Rougeux, and suddenly the band had lost not only Davenport's songwriting prowess and his accordion, an essential part of their sound live and on record, but the backbone of the 2/4 rhythms that had kept everything ticking over and characterized the feel and pace of the band. Replacing strings is one thing, but drummers are a different market altogether.
So, three lost band members (two of them founders) and one abandoned recording session in, the Whiskey Folk Ramblers were still essentially nowhere on the new album and now they'd lost gigging as a source of income. Thankfully, a chance text from King Bucks drummer Chris Carmichael after several unsuccessful auditions by other local musicians resulted in not only a great backbone they could finish recording with but a talented drummer of some repute who owned his own recording studios. Carmichael then helped the Ramblers lay down some of the drum tracks, but there was still the case of the missing accordion. Accordion players aren't exactly straightforward to replace either. Yet another chance encounter, however, solved that problem.
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"I saw an old piano, on Facebook as it turns out, that someone was selling for $500," Rougeux recalls, clearly still delighted with his purchase, "and I had to have it. I just couldn't resist." The piano, a Fender Rhodes '73, has been an absolutely perfect fit for the new sound. Sounding like a stand-up saloon piano made to be played in some of the more far-flung parts of Texas a century ago, the piano is what informs and fills out the sound on the new album, and suddenly it all made perfect sense for the band. "We were so excited we started retro-fitting it to old songs straight away," Rougeux says. Suddenly they had what Rougeux describes as a "parlor vibe," the kind they'd always been after. The piano, ably played on record and live by the excellent Cory Graves (a local musician who had originally stepped in to replace the trumpeter who, if you recall, departed at the beginning of this long and storied recording session), is such a perfect fit for the folk-punk saloon sound of the Ramblers that it's amazing they didn't get one earlier.
Nevertheless, the recording session was still dragging on. Teaching the new drummer the parts and working around his already busy schedule was time-consuming, so the band brought in a live drummer in the shape of local Denton drum legend Tex Bosley, owner of Tex's Tubs and one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. Though they had to gig to keep the band going, they were falling behind, forced to say no to shows because drummers weren't ready, and eventually the band decided to have one last push and go for a Kickstarter. The goal of $2,000 was funded within four hours, and although no one opted for the level of funding at which they and a member of the band could get matching tattoos, they could make that final move into finishing up the album.
Even after all this time, all this effort and all this turnover, the responsibilities of a band that were in their late 20s rather than the band in their early 20s that recorded the first two albums meant time had to be more carefully managed. "As we all got older, our jobs got more important, you know? We suddenly couldn't just quit jobs to go on tour, or take three weeks off to do a record," Rougeux says. While the first two Whiskey Folk albums were recorded live, this one was the result of all the band members recording their parts separately according to their varying schedules, and even uses the dreaded click track. "I worried it might not sound as live and exciting as the first two records," Rougeux says, "but I think it came out sounding great." And it really does.
The piano that has already passed into Whiskey Folk Ramblers legend gives the record a real pop, and opens up a whole new sound to them. Before, with an accordion, the songs might have veered into shanties. With the saloon piano they are firmly in a Texas bar, bashing out infectious fast-paced folk numbers while the men of the audience take the girls for a spin. It's precisely what a band of their ilk should be all about. If you asked me before I took the plunge and moved all the way over here from Europe what I'd like a specifically very Texas band to sound like, with all the impressions and romantic ideals I had about the state, I'm pretty sure I had in mind something like The Lonesome Underground, and I'm pretty sure that makes these guys Dallas-Fort Worth musical treasures.