RAMBLE ON: Michael Tarbox plays new music that sounds old again.
by Jack Neely
The Tarbox Ramblers tend to leave audiences speechless. Afterwards some try to speak anyway. Most want to describe their music as really old, deep, backwoods, primal, elemental, Delta, something. But the fact is nobody ever sounded much like the Tarbox Ramblers. Their music does sound old, and much of it is old, but the way they play it doesn’t hail from an era, exactly. When the Ramblers play old country, old blues, old gospel, but they make it all sound urgent, as if they’ve just learned some guys in the back are going to kill them after the show.
Think of the war-drum rhythms of Bo Diddley, and the growl of pre-war Kentucky’s proto-gangsta hillbilly Dock Boggs, and the postindustrial decadence of the latter-day Tom Waits. That’s not it, exactly. But if you were to fire a 12-gauge at any of those guys, the Tarbox Ramblers would catch some shot.
When I first heard the Tarbox Ramblers, I thought maybe a tarbox was some cast-iron contraption for spreading tar on roads during the McKinley administration, a clunky thing with a lot of gears and a noisy steam engine attached. In fact, Tarbox isn’t an industrial machine but the real last name of the lead singer.
Bostonian Michael Tarbox grew up with his parents’ blues records. He later played bass in a few obscure rock ‘n’ roll and punk bands but kept gravitating back to the classic blues, Booker White, Skip James, Charley Patton.
“That churning, dark quality appeals to me,” he says.
Tarbox learned to play electric guitar and started the Tarbox Ramblers in the ’90s. They put out an album in 2000, an unusual collection of country, blues and gospel standards, from “St. James Infirmary” to “Columbus Stockade” to “Oh Death.” None were much like the original versions, but all of them sounded somehow authentic.
“We got some good exposure, but then we kind of retreated a little,” Tarbox says. “[Sept. 11] happened, and it felt different. ” He leaves it at that.
The personnel has changed some over the years. The current core of the band is Tarbox and stand-up bassist/percussionist Scott McEwen, who’s from Nashville. He seems to share Tarbox’s sensibility and even his look. They look like NASA engineers from the Mercury era, maybe after getting into the liquid hydrogen.
Last time they were here, as Tarbox sang, McEwen stepped up to whale away on a snare drum. He put his tambourine on it first and watched it hop up and down, rearranging it like a frying egg, until, inevitably, it hopped off the drumhead and landed on the floor. Well-meaning Knoxvillians tried to pick it up for him and slip it back onto the snare drum, but he didn’t seem to mind that they did, or didn’t. He just kept whomping away.
“It’s interesting the way we came together,” Tarbox says. About four years ago, he was hanging out in a honkytonk on Broadway in Nashville hearing a band. “All remarked what a great bass player this guy was,” he says. “Then we had a gig in Rochester, and Scott walks in. I recognized him, said, ‘If I ever need a bass player, I’ll give you a call.’” The need came sooner than he expected, when his previous bass player quit the rambling life to take a day job. McEwen has been a Tarbox Rambler for about two years, but he still runs a recording studio in Nashville.
Day jobs have been a hazard for the band; on this tour they’ll be joined by new drummer Adam Mujica. For Tarbox himself, though, it’s a career.
The Tarbox Ramblers’second album, A Fix Back East , includes more original compositions, a little wilder than the first, pushing beyond the boundaries of blues and country. Tarbox is reluctant to categorize his music, as the best musicians are. Of his new compositions, he says, “they seem like city songs.” Then he quickly recants even that.
They were on the West Coast a few weeks ago. Touring is a mixed experience; some crowds don’t seem to get them, but they often find “sympathetic spirits.” They’ve had good experiences in Knoxville, especially this past June, when his invitation to broadcast live on WDVX’s noonday show turned into an unexpected spectacle before an appreciative and frankly stunned lunch crowd. Tarbox is looking forward to the Halloween show at Preservation Pub, an occasion and a venue that seems befitting of their fatal sensibility.
What: The Tarbox Ramblers w/ The Wilders and Uncle Earl When: Monday, Oct. 31, 9 p.m. Where: Preservation Pub How much: $5