Although it’s been three years since Whiskey Folk Ramblers’ last long-player, … And There Are Devils, the North Texas quintet’s patented John Steinbeck-meets-Tom Waits atmospherics are fully intact on the alt-Americana band’s new album. On The Lonesome Underground, mandolinist-fiddler-singer Mark Moncrieff, drummer-singer Chris Carmichael, bassist-singer Jack Russell, and pianist-trumpeter Cory Graves create a dusty sonic quilt of twangs and rolls that lead singer-guitarist Rougeux embroiders with his deliciously world-weary, ironic vocals. And while the musicians still sound like they’re forever playing in a Prohibition-era midnight Okie jamboree, change is inevitable even in the Ramblers’ bleakly nostalgic universe: Carmichael and Graves are new band members, and The Lonesome Underground underwent some major birth pains before its release.
“We’re still the same band as we were with the first two albums,” Rougeux said. “We just went in a slightly different direction along the same lines, if that makes sense. We got [Graves] as our trumpet player, and he ended up being fantastic on the piano, too, so we incorporated more [piano] in the studio and the live shows. It gives some of the songs a parlor sound, a honkytonk feel.”
After the Ramblers released … And There Are Devils in 2010, they did a small regional tour and played some Midwestern dates (Kansas, Illinois, Missouri), including a few with The Old 97’s. For The Lonesome Underground, the Ramblers went with a longtime 97’s collaborator, Dallas producer/singer-songwriter Salim Nourallah. They’d completed only five tracks when two of the band members moved on to other projects. (Original trumpeter Patrick Adams joined the Quaker City Night Hawks as their bassist.) At that point, Rougeux said, everyone just sort of lost track of time, and the Nourallah project was shelved. By the time the Ramblers had regrouped with Graves and Carmichael, the band collectively decided to save money by self-recording The Lonesome Underground. The album was produced by Moncrieff and recorded at his home studio in Denton as well as Carmichael’s place in Dallas.
While self-producing started out as a cost-cutting measure, it also allowed the band to record at its own pace and spend a bit more time fiddling with styles and textures. Although Rougeux is the main songwriter, the tunes are really developed in the rehearsal process. The Ramblers, Rougeux said, try to find new ways to challenge themselves during band practice, and one of those experiments, interestingly enough, was learning to play some old Bruce Springsteen tunes before laying down tracks for The Lonesome Underground.
The new album “doesn’t sound like a Springsteen album,” Rougeux clarified with a laugh. “I’ve always been a big fan of Nebraska, but one of the albums I hadn’t listened to much was Born to Run. He wrote those songs on the piano so that he could have a loose vibe but still keep it tight. I had written a lot of the new songs with a piano in mind, though I’m not much of a piano player myself. We learned to play [Springsteen] songs that sounded simple but had a lot of structure to them. That was inspirational for us.”
With their third album fresh on the streets, the Whiskey Folk Ramblers are eager to promote the songs with live shows, both local and out-of-state. They’re currently in the process of booking Midwestern dates for the rest of the year and are talking to another band about the possibility of touring together. They also don’t want to let another three years pass before going into the studio, so discussions are under way about who’ll produce the fourth album and where it will be recorded. Everyone’s so happy with the sound of The Lonesome Underground, though, they may take the self-recording route again.
Carmichael and Moncrieff “are going to be a lot busier this year,” Rougeux said of the new album’s studio maestros, “but if they’re up for the responsibilities again, that’d be great.”
Whiskey Folk Ramblers
Sat, Apr 27, at Prairie Fest in Tandy Hills Natural Area, 3400 View St, FW. Free.