Deep-rooted bluegrass troupe The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys kick it into high gear on Never Slow Down, their newest collection of classic songs and soon-to-be-classic originals. The GRAMMY-nominated group pours every ounce of passion they have into these recordings as they always have, this time with even more fervor and zeal with the addition of new band member Laura Orshaw. Taking on material by their heroes the Stanley Brothers, Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, George Jones and more, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys bridge the gap between the past and present, proving the eternal importance of bluegrass and making it accessible to all.
A good old truck shouldn’t be locked up in a garage, away from the road and the adventures it once had.
The red-and-white 1973 Ford F-100 that C.J. Lewandowski bought last fall was a good old truck indeed, needing only a new battery and a bit of a brush-up to get running again. And it came with a backstory too: in its heyday it was the hunting truck of the King of Bluegrass himself, Jimmy Martin.
Lewandowski remembered seeing the truck in old VHS tapes of Martin he’d pored over growing up. To say that the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys founder is a fan is an understatement: One Halloween in his youth, while other kids donned costumes of superheroes or princesses, Lewandowski dressed up like Jimmy Martin.
Lewandowski bought the truck not for a new set of wheels—truth be told, he’s a GM guy, not a Ford guy—and not even for a collector’s bragging rights. What he sees in this truck is a tangible way to share the bluegrass heritage he loves with a new generation.
He hopes to bring it to festivals and other events to let people sit in it. Maybe they’ll notice the Jimmy Martin album that Martin himself kept in the 8-track deck. Maybe they’ll put their hands on the steering wheel and take a moment to soak in a bit of history. Maybe they’ll create their own connections to Martin and other first-generation bluegrassers who provided the spark for the music that the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys play now.
Tradition, after all, is what the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys run on. In the spirit of Jimmy Martin and so many other bluegrass legends, big names and small, they’ve been barreling ahead since their founding in 2014, when they were a house band at the Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. They’ve toured all over the United States and Europe (but they still stop at Ole Smoky for a set every now and then). They were named the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA)’s Emerging Artist of the Year in 2018 and have earned several nominations since, including Entertainer of the Year. Their third album, Toil, Tears & Trouble (2019), marked their debut for Rounder Records and earned them a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album. It’s hard to imagine a bluegrass band riding in a higher gear than this one by the time they took the stage for their Grand Ole Opry debut in fall 2019.
But, of course, a global pandemic a few months later put everything, for everyone, in park.
“The first three weeks I got a lot of stuff done around the house,” Lewandowski recalls. “Everything was cool, but as it started getting longer and longer and longer, and then dates just kept falling apart, it was like, ‘What are we going to do?’”
What they did is what artists always do, in good times and bad: they got creative. In August 2020, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys assembled in the studio and recorded a handful of songs, reigniting their spark and remembering how to be a band again. They also used the downtime to rethink their plans and their path, signing with Smithsonian Folkways, the label behind landmark releases by Bill Monroe, the Country Gentlemen, Doc Watson, Hazel and Alice, and other pioneers in bluegrass and country music history. Folkways, in fact, released the first-ever bluegrass LP, American Banjo Tunes & Songs in Scruggs Style in 1957, and maintains the legacy today with the release of Industrial Strength Bluegrass (2021), named the IBMA’s album of the year—to cite just one example.
With that, the band was rolling again, stronger than ever with original members Lewandowski, Jereme Brown, Josh Rinkel, and Jasper Lorentzen, and the addition of fiddle player and singer Laura Orshaw, which made an old friendship and frequent musical collaboration official.
Never Slow Down shows a band celebrating being out of the garage and back on the road, joyfully driving an old tradition forward. Orshaw’s fiery fiddle and powerful voice bring fresh energy to the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys’ sound, her talents on full display on the aptly titled Hazel Dickens tune “Ramblin’ Woman.” Rinkel’s two original songs and the band’s instrumental and vocal arrangements of those written by others blend perfectly, and that’s because they have something in common: a commitment to tradition but an understanding that time marches on. A truck stashed in a garage, a song stuck in the past, will rot, sooner or later. But when the wheels are back on the road, look out.
“It’s somebody else’s truck that was important,” Lewandowski says of his Jimmy Martin treasure, keeping music always in mind, too. “It’s somebody else’s song that was important. But in order for it to survive and for that story to continue, someone has to continue it. You can't just let it rest there. I’m not gonna put different wheels on it; I want to leave that truck the way it is. It’s just like the songs: You take the songs, and you don’t change them enough to make them different, but you just add your touch to it. And it makes it new and fresh again.”
As they roll, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys are committed to making sure everyone can come along for the ride. Tradition isn’t about shutting people out, though some have used it that way. But music has a long history of bringing people together, and that’s something the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys are tapping into just as much as the sounds they so admire from the past.
“I think there’s this rebirth of when the folk scene came out, when the hippies and the old folks were getting together and they didn’t care, they were there for the music,” Lewandowski says. “So the music is stronger, I think, than it’s ever been. And it’s bridging those gaps, and I hope that we can continue to do that.”
Then and now and at all points along the road, Lewandowski says, “bluegrass is for everyone.”
Photo Credits: (1)-(3) The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys (unknown/website).