Recently it was my pleasure to talk to DB Brown and Randy Cornelius from one of longest running bands in Poughkeepsie, formerly known as the Raymond Avenue Ramblers in the late 70’s on up, they are now reborn as the Roundabout Ramblers.
As eclectic a band as I have ever heard, the variety of music they present is as surprising as the members themselves, comprised entirely of Vassar college professors and students. The following interview took place at Baby Cakes Café in Poughkeepsie, where they are appearing on Wednesday nights.
Q: Good evening gentlemen, so how about a little history lesson, what are the origins of this band?
DB: The original version of the band was called the Raymond Avenue Ramblers as far back as ’79 and in what is now called the Beech Tree Café, then called Squires East, we sort of cobbled this band together from a couple of faculty members and students. Over the years there have been a number of different configurations (Randy joined around 1985) and the kind of music we played has shifted a bit. From old folk and blues stuff we went into sort of a country stage for a while and also went through a kind of contra dance band stage for a time back in the late nineties.
Q: So you guys have no problem mixing it up?
DB: No, in fact it’s fun to do that and it’s nice in a way because some of the stuff we’re doing now we did back in ’79 and we’ll keep doing it ’till we get it right (laughs).
Q: A good song is a good song right?
DB: Yeah in fact most of the stuff we play was written in the 20’s and 30’s, occasionally things from the 50’s or earlier. One of the songs is from the medicine show days back in the first decade of the last century. I like to do research on the music we’re playing so I can give trivia on the songs, whether it’s factual trivia or not I just spew it out there.
Q: Randy, would you introduce the band in its present lineup?
Randy: Sure, the band is DB Brown on guitar and vocals, our founding member and a dean at Vassar, Paul Ruud on guitar and vocals is a professor in the economics department, Jenny Kennell on fiddle and vocals is a professor in the biology department and her husband, Erin Linder, plays bass and sings. Then we have Ellen Butler who sings, plays percussion and is student who just graduated this last year, Jeremy Davis on the baritone vocals and myself (Randy Cornelius) on guitar and vocals. Also next year joining us will be a woman named Becka Rose and also joining us is a mando player who is a student, Joseph Kim, from Salt Lake City who will be with us in the fall.
Q: When I first heard the band a couple of weeks ago I was struck by the wide variety of musical styles you touched upon, is that because you (Randy) and DB are both doing college radio shows?
Randy: No, but I actually take that as a real compliment because I do college radio and I love it, but each of us in the band brings something different. Erin and Jenny and Ellen are a lot younger than the other three of us and they bring a lot of different tunes like the Eddie from Ohio tune and things like that. The kind of music I listen to is not usually the kind of music I play but I’ve tried to integrate those two more.
DB: Yeah I’ve never really been in rock mode so when we were talking about doing “Sweet Child of Mine” it meant nothing to me. I mean, I couldn’t even pick Guns & Roses out of a lineup. Yet they all knew it and I’ve since heard lots of different versions of people doing it online.
Q: So you’re all bringing tunes to rehearsal. Do you vote on them or is it like if someone feels strongly about a particular song you just do it?
Randy: Yeah, we just do them. Everyone has a voice in picking the songs and the arrangements. There are some songs that we’ve tried that haven’t worked out for one reason or another, but with so many singers we’ve actually been passing some songs around. For instance, I started a song recently but didn’t like the way it was working so now Jeremy sings it.
DB: I think the more jazzy stuff Paul tends to bring in, things that are a little more intricate, which is fine. I tend to bring in old “Rambler” stuff that we haven’t done in a while. We try to make each of our songs have it’s own particular feeling – for instance, we do “Fever” with just vocal, snapping fingers and Bass guitar
Q: Is there any criteria for a song to make into your repertoire?
Randy: We have to be able to play it (laughs).
Q: I noticed you guys play one of my favorite old country songs; “Sing Me Back Home” by Merle Haggard. Who’s the country western fan in the band?
Randy: That was me. I heard Merle back in the early seventies when I was in college and I remember my friends and I were the only longhairs at the concert and you know, his music was just amazing. I think I first heard the song through Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito brothers though.
Q: I Thought that your set I heard last week flowed pretty nicely, do you use any kind of methodology in terms of mixing up keys or tempos in order to sustain interest?
Randy: It’s actually the singers. We’re trying to feature a different performer every couple of tunes to keep things interesting and DB and Jenny do most of the set lists. I don’t think we follow the happy-sad-fast-slow formula very much.
DB: Yeah, with everyone singing each person gets five or six songs to perform and we try to mix them up each week so you’re not singing too many songs in a row. Everyone does different kinds of things. Ellen sings these kind of sweet things like “All of Me” and “Sweet Pea,” so we try to spread them out. Also, we tend to “Ramblerize” the tunes. We’ve got a lot of different type songs but our vocal harmonies are pretty strong so we kind of lean on those to lock the tunes into our own style.
Q: Are you working on any bluegrass tunes?
Randy: Were going to be bringing some more in. We’re working on “Blackberry Blossom.” You know we have Jenny on fiddle and Paul plays banjo, so in the future we’re going to probably have some more instrumentals in the bluegrass style and also DB’s background is in jug band music which he started playing in Hawaii.
Q: When you learn a new tune and play it out does the audience reaction carry any weight as to as whether the song stays in the set or not?
Randy: A little bit, but mostly if it doesn’t work for us then it’s not fun. You know it’s like I suffered for my music now it’s your turn (laughs), that kind of thing.
DB: I would say sometimes as well, because the people that do come to see us on a regular basis each have their favorite singer and their favorite song and there were a few tunes where the early reaction was so strong that we’d make sure we kept them in. “Ring of Fire,” for instance, Jenny sings it, sort of the female version of the Johnny Cash tune, and it’s really good but I had no idea people would go nuts for it so, fine, it’s in.
Q: How often do you rehearse?
Randy: Well in the old version of the Ramblers we had this rule that we never rehearsed and so we’d rehearse in front of people. Someone would bring a new song to the gig and we’d just play it. Now we rehearse every week, kind of a brand new thing for us and we take it pretty seriously. Plus we’ve been adding one or two new songs every week and it’s building the repertoire to point where we really have to pay attention and write things down.
DB: Yeah, I think the old style rehearsal consisted of maybe the occasional BBQ/practice but, now with so many new songs being added, it takes a while to get comfortable playing them and we often feed them into the set before we’re comfortable with them just to give them some air. So what I’ll do is earlier in the week make up a set list with some of the new songs mixed in and that way we don’t have to worry about things like what do we do now, what key is it in, whatever, it just makes it easier to focus on the song having a set list to follow rather than just winging it.
Q: Any other musical activities besides your current steady gig here at Baby Cakes? Any Recordings?
DB: Yes we’re keeping pretty busy. We have a CD coming out. We did a live recording back in April, I think, and we’re now just messing with it.
Q: Was it multi-track?
DB: It was live to 2-track and was recorded by a guy named Rick Jones. He did our first album up in Red Hook back in the 80’s and he now works at Vassar and is starting his own label. We did it in a big wooden room and initially started with a single mic. Then Rick listened for a while and placed additional spot mics to sharpen things up a bit. After we were set we just played as many songs as we could think of and it worked just fine. I’ve been at the studio with him and there’s very little we really have to do or can do to it but I think it reflects us as we are.
Q: Are you working more on song arrangements than you used to in the old band, tight beginnings and endings?
DB: As much as we can. Tight may be overstating it a bit (laughs). But as I said, it’s wonderful having so many good singers in the band, it kind of takes the pressure off me from having to front a lot of the material like I did in the old days and it relaxes me to the point where I can talk more with the audience. Yeah, so it’s a different sound now but I would say it’s as much fun, if not more, than we ever had.
Q: So what does the future hold for the Ramblers?
DB: We’re certainly going to keep playing, gonna play as much as we can. What’s nice about the group is that not only are they really nice people but musically, it’s feeling good. It’s just fun because there’s very little attitude and territorial stuff and dramatic crap, even on stage it just sort of rolls. And there’s a time commitment, we all have lives and everybody’s there, they show up. Were getting asked to do more and more things and people seem to really like it. Recently someone came up to me and said, “Hey you guys are really good, almost like a real band” (laughs), which is absolutely fair. I would say the same thing. So, we’re having a good time and we hope that people will stop by and hear us and experience what we have to offer.