Every year around this time, the Savannah Music Festival holds a high-profile, invite-only soiree that’s part press conference, part horn-tooting, and part arts-scene-and-regional media shmoozefest. Ostensibly, the intention is to announce the majority of the lineup for next year’s lengthy celebration of roots, traditional and fine arts music.
There’s always a short speech by SMF Executive and Artistic Director Rob Gibson — followed by a video presentation and the ceremonial handing out of the first printed brochures or catalogs to publicly tout the respected and/or famous artists on tap for the next festival.
In addition, there’s usually a brief, mini-set by some standout local musicians, to further reinforce that the SMF’s focus is squarely on live performances by top-notch acts.
This year, there’s still an invite-only press conference — but, for the first time, the event concludes with a full concert. Better yet, that show is open to the public.
This time around, the entertainment comes courtesy of Baton Rouge, La.’s own Red Stick Ramblers, a neo-traditionalist acoustic swing band whose self-titled 2002 debut album was famously described as “the great Cajun hope.” Viewed by many in the know as perhaps the premiere group of their kind making records and touring today, this singing quintet of fiddles, bass, guitar and drums make a joyful noise that draws liberally from early jazz, rural and hokum blues, Western swing and French folk music. It’s feel-good, dance-oriented party music filled with history, attitude and an anachronistic flair.
They’re a near-perfect match for the high ceilings and wooden dance floor of the 1940s-era ballroom at American Legion Post 135 on Forsyth Park — where this press conference and show takes place on Wednesday, October 24.
I caught up with guitarist and vocalist Chas Justus for a brief chat about the Ramblers' career, inspirations and ethos.
Tell me a bit about the band’s early days. Was the intention to tour and make records, or was this initially just a fun way to pass the time and make some pocket change?
Chas Justus: In the early days, yes we were mostly just having a good time. A few of us were still in school and we started playing things we were interested in, like Django and manouche jazz, country, Cajun, really any kind of somewhat traditional music. This was usually acoustic on the street or at parties. It was really all spirit. We didn’t really think of this music as something to necessarily sell or perform, which I now think is a big part of its appeal.
When did it become obvious this particular band had the potential for widespread acclaim among aficionados of this genre? Chas Justus: Which genre are you speaking of? Trad jazz, county, blues or Cajun? I guess it’s all southern American — except for the Parisian jazz which is still routed in New Orleans, and stuff by Louis Armstrong. We’ve noticed that whatever we play seems to have a beat and is functional for dancers. That’s one thing I’ll say about our music, it’s functional! The reason it exists is not to impress you or make your mouth drop, although that might happen. We’re trying to encourage participation, dancing, etc... It helps build community and bring people together. We’re very proud of that aspect of our band. I believe it’s the essence of this music.
Your band is known for creating music that’s respectful of the past, but which speaks to a young, contemporary crowd as well as to older folks raised on this type of regional folk music. Do the Ramblers consciously try to maintain that delicate balance when in songwriting (or song-learning) mode?
Chas Justus: I try not to be too heavily conscious of what people think of our music, but I would say we like to make the older folks who know and love this music feel that it’s being respected and is in good hands. Also, it’s not just the notes or the tunes — it’s the dancing, the food, the language and the culture which we hope to help keep going. Of course the music is a part of this, but music without a sense of context doesn’t really give the whole picture. I mean, just listening to Bob Wills, Hank Williams or the Balfa Brothers you don’t get to see the dancers or the sweat or the people out falling in love and doing their thing. It’s taken out of context you see. Which is especially true with Cajun music.
What’s the biggest misconception about Cajun music?
Chas Justus: To be truthful, I’m not really sure what conceptions or misconceptions there might be, except maybe there are certain bands that travel and (bill themselves as bringing) people “Cajun music,” which have their own particular sounds. People wind up equating these bands with Cajun music. But, you know, it’s a very eclectic and nuanced genre. I mean, some people think of Shania Twain as country music. How would you feel if you’d played country music all your life and someone says, “Oh yeah, country music! I’ve heard Shania Twain.” (laughs)
Savannah’s Historic District is often likened to New Orleans for its architecture, swampy Southern Gothic vibe, and relatively laid-back approach to nightlife. What - if any - effect has the general vibe of Louisiana had on the way this group operates?
Chas Justus: It would be impossible to separate our music from where we come from. People down here just live differently. They’re more laid back and know a lot about what’s really important. And they absolutely love to party!Musicians from that part of the country are increasingly seen (and see themselves) as emissaries, spreading a little bit of Cajun and Creole atmosphere and art to the rest of the world. Do the Red Stick Ramblers see themselves in that capacity?
Chas Justus: Absolutely. We can’t help but spread our music and culture. It’s just in us! I personally like the idea of maintaining any culture in a time where things like that are under attack from corporations like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart — and the sort of pre-fab rootless music that appeals to peoples’ lowest common denominator. I mean, I hate to knock anyone, but that stuff is a product made to consume and sell. It’s like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. If they advertise it enough and keep the alternatives out of sight, then we have little choice but to eat it. Or listen to it, as the case may be. These days you have to be active in your search to want something more nourishing and fulfilling. That’s why our Black Pot Festival (www.blackpotfestival.com) is so important to us. It shows another way for people to come together and be a community, which we need as humans to feel connected and to have something to live for. Also, I would say the French influence is important to us in that it’s another example of the cultural diversity that makes this country so great.
Over the past few years, the market for acoustic swing music, Old-Time, traditional country, gypsy jazz and all manner of retro-themed and Vaudevillian genres has virtually exploded. To what do you attribute this? Does it feel like a fad to you, or is it a backlash against commercialized music that’s made more with technology than passion?
Chas Justus: There’s definitely been a backlash against corporate music! It’s sort of like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols in that it’s a revolt against this lifeless junk put on us all by people whose only agenda is to sell! It’s no wonder so many people who used to bang three chords in punk bands now play Old-Time music. The approach is similar. Of course, that being said, both the Old-Time and Cajun genres are having their rough edges smoothed out in order to appeal to a wider audience. To make it more palpable, if you will. I heard an old Cajun guy tell an aspiring accordion player —who was bringing in all these influences to his music and making it slick— “Just keep doing what you’re doing, ‘cause there’s no money in the real thing.” How true.
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