The Tarbox Ramblers, Boston's greatest roots-rock band, is finally making it to Memphis. "It's insane that we haven't played there before now," bandleader Michael Tarbox says. "We haven't been working enough, getting to these towns we should be playing in."
Memphis is somewhat of a cultural mecca for Tarbox, who's parlayed his love of blues and roots music into a fulltime gig fronting the Ramblers. Last year, the band traveled here to record their second album, A Fix Back East, at Sounds Unreel with producer Jim Dickinson at the helm, but, Tarbox laments, he hardly ventured outside the studio.
"I got to poke around a little bit when I came down to meet Dickinson, but when we came to record, I wanted to focus on the job at hand," he says, "so I hardly left the studio. Working with Dickinson really made sense. He knows a lot about the blues. He's seen a lot of those old guys work, and he knows about the spirit. He has this philosophy about capturing the moment, cutting a song while you're playing it for the very first time. It was very off-the-cuff."
This stood in contrast to the recording style Tarbox and his bandmates experienced on the album's non-Memphis sessions, cut in Boston with Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade. "They're a real team -- two bodies and one brain, very intuitive," Tarbox says. "Dickinson is such a one-man operation."
Listening to A Fix Back East, the two sessions sound seamless. Whether performing traditional tunes such as the toe-tapping "No Night There," foot-stomping originals such as "Already Gone," the moody title track, or jaunty gospel songs such as "Last Night of the Year," the Tarbox Ramblers carve a timeless, eerie niche within the contemporary music scene, connecting the dots between such transgenerational gloom-and-doom avatars as Dock Boggs, Johnny Cash, and Nick Cave.
On songs "The Shining Sun" and "Ashes to Ashes," the trio -- Tarbox on vocals and guitar, Johnny Sciascia on string bass, and Daniel Kellar on guitar, augmented by various session drummers -- sounds equal parts Morphine and the Flat Duo Jets, with a dose of Jimmie Rodgers thrown in for good measure. Tarbox's gruff voice easily slides into a malevolent Southern drawl as he channels Rodgers' wandering spirit, then moans convincingly on a gospel number before hollerin' in a juke-joint growl.
Most of the Tarbox Ramblers' material sounds as if it could be culled from The Anthology of American Folk Music, archived by famed eccentric musicologist Harry Smith in 1952. Smith's 84-track box set, released on CD in 1997, has become a Rosetta Stone for roots-music fans. More than a handful of songs in the Ramblers' repertoire, including American folk classics "The Cuckoo" and "St. James Infirmary" and Dock Boggs' "Country Blues," are included in this mammoth collection, while Tarbox originals such as the spooky, gospel-based "Were You There?" and the slow blues grinder "Honey Babe" riff on similarly time-honored themes.
"I like outsider music -- everything from old blues, bluegrass, and folk to free jazz and rock-and-roll," Tarbox maintains. "Musically, it all seems so immediate, but being from Boston, it was actually really distant. There are a lot of musicians out there whose music I could understand, but I couldn't conceive of their world. It's just so foreign to me."
For a boy raised in tiny Maynard, Massachusetts, a mill town located just outside of Boston, musical wellsprings like Memphis might well have been on another planet.
"Luckily, I grew up hearing the blues. My mother had some Robert Johnson and Leadbelly records and other folky stuff, and I had a really cool babysitter who would bring over records," Tarbox says.
"It seems like I always played music. I had all kinds of little bands -- true garage bands in the sense that we never left the garage," he adds with a chuckle. "The Tarbox Ramblers are the only musicians I've toured with and really tried to break through."
While Tarbox formed the group more than a decade ago, he's only been performing with the current lineup for the last six months. And, until now, the Ramblers had never embarked on a lengthy tour.
"We used to play regular gigs around Boston, but I felt like we needed to change our focus and get out of town on a more regular basis," Tarbox says. "I'm calling it the Red Roof Inn Tour. We ought to get an endorsement from them," he jokes. "We're gonna make you look good by staying in your place.
"When you're traveling, everything becomes one big blur," Tarbox says. Especially when you're droning down a big highway like I-95. Just walking into a club and hearing some good music and meeting some cool people can really change your head."