'House on Fire

The Rockhouse Ramblers heat up traditional country music

"I love playing this place. You don't wake up in the morning smelling like cigarette smoke." Dade Farrar sets down a pitcher of beer on the table he shares with his bandmates in the Rockhouse Ramblers. "A lot of times you don't notice it, but when you wake up in the morning, you smell yourself, and you just can't stand it."

"Yeah," says Gary Hunt. "And, it's an early gig, so you can get home usually before midnight."

"It pays all right, too," adds Kip Loui.

The Rockhouse Ramblers are veteran musicians for whom a night playing on the pier of Forest Park's Boathouse is a perfect way to disseminate their country-music material. The Boathouse looks the way it has for decades, with a long wooden porch right on the shore of the lake, a string of multicolored lamp lights giving off the faintest sense of a 1960s tiki-hut décor.

Children run around near the playground area, kicking empty plastic bottles at the wall, emulating imagined soccer stars. Their parents attempt to determine whether the kids want fries with their hamburgers. Groups of co-workers flirt, tell stories and drink around the outskirts of the bar. And, with nary a spotlight aimed their way, the Rockhouse Ramblers play their hearts out for three sets filled with obscure country classics and original material that fits comfortably between Johnny Cash and Everly Brothers songs.

Tonight the Ramblers are a four-piece; co-founder and co-lead guitarist John Horton is off on tour with Mike Ireland and Holler. But, you'd never know there was anything missing if you wandered in to hear them play. Farrar dances around his acoustic bass and belts song after song out with a clear, rich voice and impeccable phrasing that can bring to mind a young Elvis Presley, sometimes Buck Owens and occasionally Dade's younger brother Jay of Son Volt. His bass playing is rock-solid, slapping out rhythms as lively as anything heard in Sun Studios back in the '50s.

Loui sings lead on every third song or so, offering a smoother counterbalance to Farrar's in-your-face delivery. The two harmonize beautifully and often. Loui holds down the rhythm-guitar chair with an ease and nonchalance that fits the band's stage presence.

Hunt is ripping all over the place on his Telecaster guitar. With Horton away, Hunt gets to play, and he is a dynamo on the fretboard, busting out classic licks and slick turnarounds that never seem to let up. He just stands there, staring off above the crowd, playing guitar as well as anybody can play it. His vocals, though less dynamic than his partners', are a nice change of pace now and again, and he adds harmony here and there as well.

Backing them up, nearly hidden in the darkness, is Danny Kathriner on drums. He concentrates intently, as if he's watching his hands to make sure he hits every beat. His country rhythms are laced with a long background in rock & roll, and that extra punch gives the band a powerful kick in the ass. Sit up close, and this band will hit you over the head with their tight, compact performance.

Six nights after the Boathouse performance, the four local Ramblers gather in the Webster Groves basement of John Horton's parents house to rehearse. Bookshelves line one wall; a computer sits atop a desk at one end. The musicians form a circle in the small amount of space that's left.

Farrar tunes up his instrument, which clears the ceiling by a mere 3 inches. He snaps at the second string and says, "That's about to go. It's a good thing we can start keeping money from our gigs again." Replacement strings for an acoustic bass run about $60 apiece, and for months the band had been saving a portion of their pay to record their album.

"Let's play 'Between Home and the Honky-Tonk.' I haven't been able to get it out of my head for days," says Hunt. Farrar demonstrates the slightly tricky rhythmic intro to his new song a couple times. The Ramblers proceed to play a decidedly competent version of a song they barely know, with Hunt taking obvious delight in the rumbling guitar riff that weaves throughout.

Horton's mother ushers a young girl downstairs and introduces her to the band: "She liked what she heard and wanted to meet you."

Loui wants to play "I Don't Hurt Anymore," a Hank Snow song he's recently discovered. He pulls out the lyrics and begins slowly strumming guitar chords. "Why don't we boogie it up a bit?" asks Hunt.

"On the record, there are barely any drums, it's so slow," says Loui. "We can play it faster."

"Otherwise, we'll lose the audience," says Hunt. "They just can't take those slow country songs." With ease, the song is turned into an upbeat, bouncy crowd-pleaser. Farrar, Kathriner and Loui lock in step on the rhythm parts, freeing Hunt to play a terrific solo at the break. When the band runs through it a second time a few minutes later, Hunt plays a completely different solo with even better ideas, if not execution.

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