December 2000

Tarbox Ramblers - Tarbox Ramblers
Rounder 82161-9051-2
Released: 2000

by Marc Rigrodsky

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Imagine it's 1950. No, maybe 1940. Perhaps even 1930. Picture yourself as a young white man somewhere deep in the Mississippi Delta on a Saturday night, no date, no ladies a calling, nothing to do but switch on the Emerson on a hot summer’s evening. What do you listen to? Jack Benny? Some hipster New York City swing band? Kate Smith? Probably not. You’re tuning in the Tarbox Ramblers, even though their parents may not have been born yet.

The Tarbox Ramblers hearken back to an age before we got our kicks on Route 66, when rock ‘n roll was vulgar slang for what later became known as doing the nasty, way before someone named Colonel Parker met a truck driver named Elvis. Despite what you may have been told, boys have been boys for eons, looking for release and validation in music their parents despised. The type of music made by the Tarbox Ramblers, a swampy, humid collision of black Delta blues and white hillbilly folk and country, surely did the trick back then. Still does, I suspect.

The songs are traditional or in the traditional vein, dealing with love (not relationships -- way too modern) lost, drinking, gambling, jail, death, and the kingdom to come -- those kind of things. The arrangements are straightforward: guitar (usually electric, sometimes slide), fiddle, acoustic bass, and drums. That’s it. And gruff vocals, sometimes solo, sometimes sweetened with harmony. At times the songs rock in a pre-rock sort of way, and other times they swing. Most have an edge, a sense of menace springing from the blues, that belies their outward innocence. The history books may teach of the chastity and wholesomeness of the age, but these songs put that lesson to the lie.

Even the recording quality screams of authenticity. The mixes have an intentionally murky, dense feel, which is not easy to call forth on modern recording equipment given the basic instrumentation and lack of multi-tracking (most songs sound like they were, or could have been, recorded live). Since "digital" probably referred to various body parts in the ‘40s, what else could this record have sounded like?

So what should we make of these guys? They’re from Boston, for crying out loud. Poseurs? Shamans? Genuine imitations? No, no, and no. No one makes this kind of music for the hell of it anymore or, for that matter, to make money. Judging from the sounds coming from my CD player (how '80s, no?), they make mid-20th century music in the 21st century for the sheer joy of it, for the sweat and soul and grit that one cannot find anywhere else, except maybe for some dusty 78s sitting in a thrift shop somewhere (and good luck finding a turntable to play them on).

Young men and young women -- give Tarbox Ramblers a spin. It’ll unlock feelings you never knew you had in you with music you’ve only heard in a previous life.