The Kennedy Center

The Red Stick Ramblers


"We live pretty fast and hard," confesses Red Stick Ramblers fiddler and vocalist Linzay Young. "We live life to its fullest. Then we pour that into our songwriting and our music, and take it with us wherever we go."

Hard driving, witty, eclectic, and honest, the music of the Red Stick Ramblers is inseparable from their way of life and the rich Louisiana culture that first inspired them. Their fifth album, My Suitcase Is Always Packed, is as much a travelogue as a sound recording, complete with audio snapshots of relentless all-night dances, laid back campfire sessions, dusty honky-tonks, and raucous family reunions. So far, it is the fullest flowering of the Ramblers' unique hybrid of Cajun, country, stringband, and swing influences - a sound marked by a daring willingness to experiment with mixing different elements, rather than simply progress through a laundry list of genres from song to song. Available May 19 on Sugar Hill Records, My Suitcase Is Always Packed is visceral and vital, an album that puts the Red Stick Ramblers at the very forefront of a new generation of Louisiana roots musicians who are reinventing their tradition while remaining deeply aware of their heritage.

"We were up for it," says guitarist Chas Justus of recording My Suitcase Is Always Packed. "We were ready. It had been three years since we had been in the studio, and we did over two hundred dates each year since. We had been writing a lot, and we'd just been together a lot. There's been a lot of evolution." In addition to their own performances - which could take place anywhere from a dancehall to a wedding to festivals, clubs, and theatres - the quintet of Young, Justus, Kevin Wimmer (fiddle, vocals), Eric Frey (bass, vocals), and Glenn Fields (drums) had further honed their chops by backing such artists as Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy on their acclaimed 2006 collaboration Adieu False Heart.

When they finally entered producer Gary Paczosa's studio, those three years of constant creativity manifested themselves in a series of dynamic, explosive performances that were quickly captured - mostly live on the studio floor. The surging Cajun opener "Je T'aime Pas Mieux" serves immediate notification that the Ramblers are firing on all cylinders. Justus is quick to point out, however, that the band didn't merely intend on capturing the relentless drive of their live shows. "We really tried to make a listenable record," he explains. "I remember listening back to the last album and thinking 'Do we really need to play all these solos?' This time, we spent more time working things out. This album still has the roughness of the band, but it's so much more focused."

That atmosphere cultivated by co-producers Paczosa and Brandon Bell quickly brought the band to a comfortable state of mind. "Gary's studio is attached to his house," says Young, "and he brews his own beer. It wound up being a lot like how we play music in our everyday life: in between drinking beer, cooking food."

The social aspect of the Cajun culture - the way that food, family, friendship, music, and dance are uniquely intertwined - is key to understanding what propels the Red Stick Ramblers. "Linzay grew up in a Cajun family," Justus explains, "where the men cook, and when they do, people come together, and things just happen from there." The band first emerged from Baton Rouge around 1999, where Justus, Young, and Fields were enrolled at Louisiana State University. Even early on, their live shows were inspired and infectious, equal parts unbridled, ramshackle energy and thrilling musical precision. Up and down the Gulf Coast, the Red Stick Ramblers quickly earned a reputation as a thrilling band as appealing to elderly Cajuns as they were to college kids out for a good time.

Over four albums, beginning with their self-titled debut in 2002, and several line-up changes, the Red Stick Ramblers developed their now trademark style. Their last two albums, Right Key, Wrong Keyhole (2005) and Made In The Shade (2007) were produced by maverick roots musician Dirk Powell (Balfa Toujours, Tim O'Brien). In 2006, they started the South Louisiana Black Pot Festival and Cookoff, held outside of Lafayette. The festival is a tangible extension of the band's philosophy, encapsulating the social, culinary, and musical aspects of Louisiana culture. "It's the only festival we've heard of," Justus says, "where folks sit around and play Cajun music by the fire the same way that people pick bluegrass at bluegrass festivals. It features mostly Cajun and Zydeco dance bands, but we also have a listening tent for old-time music and other styles."

Their commitment to Cajun culture is readily apparent on My Suitcase Is Always Packed, as the only two songs not written by the band are classic Cajun dance numbers - "Old Fashioned Two-Step" and "La Valse De Meche" - featuring Blake Miller on accordion. "Those two tunes," Justus adds, "are the two that stand out and kick ass when we play for four hours at Cajun dances."

"The sessions for this album," Young recalls, "had a good combination of songs that we had been playing for a long time that we could just knock out quickly, and some more open-ended things that we could really develop in the studio."

One of the songs that came together during the sessions was "Nonc' Yorick," which began as a Dennis McGee-style fiddle tune Young wrote a few years ago. "I knew that if I put words to it," Young explains, "they would be about these great-uncles of mine, who were really rough and rowdy types. They were bootleggers and pranksters. They'd take your buggy apart and reassemble it on the roof of your house." The lyric tells of a gory knife and gun fight that eventually landed Yorick in the penitentiary. The music blends Cajun and old-time elements in an almost orchestral fashion, carefully alternating different combinations of instruments. "We knew we wanted to use the banjo," Young says. "We tried out different things, and they all sounded cool in their different ways. Sometimes it's fiddle and banjo, sometimes fiddle and triangle…we gave everything its own little section."

"Lafayette is really the upper tip of the Caribbean," Justus adds. "If you listen to 'Nonc' Yorick,' you'll hear that connection between French and Caribbean. That's one of the really interesting elements in Louisiana music."

Another track developed in the studio was "Morning Blues," a vocal feature for fiddler Kevin Wimmer. "He's a great singer," Justus says, "and we wanted to get the different personalities of the band on the record. It was written for him to sing - he's not really a morning person!" Worked out in the studio after Paczosa and Bell had turned in for the night, the track is driven by Justus's clattering rhythm guitar and Wimmer's ragged, soulful vocal. "This was the song that made it for me," Justus reflects. "We came in with nothing and came out with a song that everyone contributed to. That's what being in a band is supposed to be like."

By drawing on a vast array of influences, the Red Stick Ramblers are also able to continually rediscover new facets of Louisiana music. It is this delicate balance, now honed over a decade of playing together, which allows My Suitcase Is Always Packed to sound both classically timeless and startlingly fresh. "Louisiana music is an incredible mix," Justus concludes. "There are Irish immigrants, the creoles, that voodoo gris-gris. There's a reason it doesn't just sound like French-Canadian music. Even the language represents holding out - holding out from the homogenization of America. It's not all Wal-Mart and McDonalds. There's a cultural identity here, which is something that is getting harder and harder to find. We try to represent that identity, that authenticity."

Watch Past Performances

Video 11/22/2011: The Red Stick Ramblers

Inspired by the rich culture of Louisiana, the group plays a mixture of different sounds, creating a hybrid of Cajun, country, stringband, and swing. A dance floor will be installed. Part of Swing, Swing, Swing.

The Red Stick Ramblers