The Rumpke Mountain Boys exemplify what it is to be a Jamgrass band as they throw everything into their acoustic repertoire but the kitchen sink. The Cincinnati-based group can play a fired-up fiddle tune or they can put a new spin on Pink Floyd’s “Hey You.”
The group just released its latest studio album, called Trashgrass, full of mostly original songs written by all four members of the band. The Rumpke Mountain Boys feature Ben Gourley on mandolin, Jason Wolf on banjo, Adam Copeland on guitar and J.D. Westmoreland on bass.
“I’m way more excited about this record than the last one we did,” Gourley says. “The way it was recorded, it sounds more like us. The last one kind of got over-produced and it turned out sounding more like a Heavy Metal album with acoustic instruments. This one is more like how our live shows sound. We did it in a mock-live environment with close friends and family there for the recording in a studio that had a stage and an area for people to hang out.”
Hippies, musical malcontents and open-minded pickers began to put a different spin on Bluegrass music beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Musicians such as Sam Bush and the New Grass Revival played Roots music as they heard it, bucking the status quo by bringing Rock, Reggae and other influences into the mix. The members of the Rumpke Mountain Boys carry on that tradition as they pay homage to those Newgrass and Jamgrass artists from back in the day that have inspired them over the years.
“I think that Jerry Garcia is my big influence,” Gourley says. “I try and study every aspect of that guy. I’m a huge Grateful Dead fan from the beginning and the reason I got into Bluegrass is the (Bluegrass supergroup) Old and In The Way sets with (Garcia and) David Grisman. And then I found more Bluegrass from there.”
Another legendary musician who has influenced the band is the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Famer John Hartford, a unique artist who spent many a day in Cincinnati playing with local musicians like Katie Laur. Hartford was not only a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, he was also a riverboat captain. Because of those two combined interests, he became the musical heart of Cincinnati’s Tall Stacks Festival from the first one in 1988 until his death in 2001.
“I don’t know what it is, exactly,” Gourley says about the music of John Hartford.
“I can’t put my finger on it. There is something about the guy that speaks to all of us. I don’t know if it is the old-timey nostalgia that I feel with his music, but he is just interesting. I wish I was more informed about him like the other guys in the band, as Adam and Wolf are bigger Hartford fanatics. There are so many different styles and endeavors in his music and he is an influence on us. You can never really get to the bottom of everything that he’s done. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, you find The Love Album or a song that is weird and different. Iron Mountain Depot and all of those albums are all so different and inspiring.”
While the Rumpke Mountain Boys show up to play carrying Bluegrass instrumentation, they bring a non-traditional approach to their music-making, especially mandolinist Gourley.
“I never intended to play the mandolin in the beginning,” Gourley says. “I was playing every instrument, trying to find out what I wanted to do. Then I checked the newspaper and there was a Bluegrass band that was looking for a mandolin player and vocalist. I don’t play the mandolin like a mandolin. My approach is to play it like a guitar with mandolin influences. But when we do a ripping Bluegrass song, I definitely want to have a Sam Bush-type of chop in there.”
At last June’s Appalachian Uprising music festival, held every first week of June in the Appalachian foothills of southern Ohio, the Rumpke Mountain Boys showed their “outside-the-box” thinking isn’t limited to their musical approach. In between sets by the various artists at the festival, raffle tickets were sold for charity, with the winning ticket holder receiving a one-hour Rumpke Mountain Boys performance at their campsite.
After the main stage performances were over, a little bit after midnight, Jason, J.D., Adam and Ben, instruments in-hand, performed a lantern-lit jam.
“(Putting on a show) is kind of our go-to thing when we hear about any kind of charity work,” Gourley says. “That’s our go-to offer because it is about the only thing we have. We could give away a CD or something, but you’re not going to get much for it.
“(Appalachian Uprising) was a great time. At the All Good Festival, there was another situation where we did that,” he continues. “We put up a post on Facebook that said, ‘If you make signs that tell people to walk down to the Grassroots Stage at 10:45 to see the Rumpke Mountain Boys, whoever has the fanciest sign, we’ll play at your campsite Saturday night.’ We ended up seeing about 30 signs made by people walking around the festival. One group made six signs themselves and they ended up winning the prize. So we went and played at their campsite for about five or six hours on Saturday night. It turned out great because there was a ton of people at our show. It was great advertising.”
As the late-night campsite concert wore on at the Appalachian Uprising event, after the Rumpke Mountain Boys had played a set of their tunes, the charity-aiding jam began to open up a bit as other musicians from the campground stepped up to pick.
West Virginia clawhammer-style banjo player Scott Coffman was just one of the musicians who joined in. He praised the Cincinnati quartet’s willingness to connect directly with their fans (and potential fans) and bond with other musicians even as their popularity grows.“It’s nice to see guys like that who have that same ‘campground, come-on-over-and-pick’ vibe after they have made it to the main stage,” Coffman said.
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