'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.

"We haven't had John play with us since December," Hunt explains. "I can't wait to have him back so I don't have to carry the whole load."

"Yeah," agrees Farrar. "Besides, country is all about the conversation between instruments. There's never just one soloist in a good country band."

Two-and-a-half years ago, Kip Loui was listening to the CD reissue of Sweetheart of the Rodeo by the Byrds, and he thought it would be fun to play old country songs in a band. He called up John Horton, who was then playing in the New Patrons, and before they knew it, they had themselves some gigs. After a couple of lineup changes, the current group began working up original material, too, and now find themselves capable of playing anywhere up to four hours a night in clubs like the Tap Room, the Broadway Oyster Bar, the Stagger Inn and Off Broadway.

Bar Time (Hayden's Ferry) is the first full-length recorded evidence of just how good a band the Rockhouse Ramblers are. Loui, Farrar and Hunt each contribute songs, many of which could easily have been jukebox favorites across the South had they been dropped in a time machine and put out on 45s 35 years ago. The Ramblers are classicists of the first order, creating contemporary, inventive music while obeying the formal rules of the past.

Farrar's songs are the most outgoing on the record. "Bloody Williamson" tells a violent tale of labor unrest, but it sounds like a good-time NRBQ dynamo. "Bar Time" has an unforgettable hook where the harmonies slide around each other on the title. And "Gas and Food" sets a lyric about homelessness to an engaging melody.

Loui, who is also the primary writer for the band Belle Starr, serves up some nice left turns. "Here and Gone" sounds like a late-'50s countrypolitan classic, a perfect fit for its theme of friends and family on the move. "Least That I Can Do" has a Gram Parsons feel to it and puts a hitchhiker's spin on the theme of circles' being unbroken. And "Say What You Mean" is a delightful Cajun tune, made even better by Farrar's nasal harmony.

Hunt fits the jukebox mold best, with Western-Swing songs like "Hillbilly Bound," or "She Never Looked Back" giving the band a chance to show off its chops without forgetting the need for hooks. And "Doing Alright" could have been a monster smash for Buck Owens if he'd ever gotten to record it.

Off Broadway fills up nicely on the night of the Ramblers CD-release party. The crowd, made up largely of veteran musicians and scenesters who have befriended members of the band over the years, is augmented by a significant number of young people drawn apparently by the good times experienced at previous gigs or by the band's fairly heavy exposure on KDHX-FM during the preceding week.

This marks the return of Horton to the onstage lineup, and the difference is palpable. One Telecaster was rich enough. Two Telecasters doubling up on the licks that fuel the songs make for a feistier sound. Plus, it's obvious that Hunt and Horton push and prod each other to top themselves. The guitar solos are playful, exuberant, creative little masterpieces that draw from jazz, Western swing and classic-country influences. Hunt's solos can swing a little harder or get nastier than Horton's. But Horton dazzles with moments of invention that synthesize all his influences and take them to something new.

As always, the sound at Off Broadway is impeccable, so the vocals come in clear and the harmonies jump out. Kathriner is on fire at this show, revving up the engine with spectacular snare shots and judicious cymbal splashes. Loui stands in the middle of the stage, frequently breaking into a smile that reveals pride and awe at being surrounded by such talented musicians operating at the peak of their form.

"There aren't any overly lofty goals for this band," Farrar claims more than once. "That helps a lot. Lofty goals kind of eat at you." Like a baseball player who hits more home runs just making contact than by aiming at the fences, the Rockhouse Ramblers may just achieve more by not trying so hard.

The Rockhouse Ramblers play Saturday, July 8, at the Tap Room.

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