Po' Ramblin' Boys
Photo: Shannon Kelly
Po' Ramblin' Boys' C.J. Lewandowski Talks Digging Into Bluegrass' Rich History
Bluegrass musician C.J. Lewandowski grew up in Missouri yet found himself working at the Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery in East Tennessee as a young man. While there, Lewandowski was asked to form a bluegrass band to perform for the distillery’s visitors, and that was the impetus for the creation of the Po' Ramblin’ Boys.
Featuring Lewandowski on mandolin and vocals, banjo player Jereme Brown, guitarist Josh Rinkel and bassist Jasper Lorentzen, the Po' Ramblin’ Boys’ hard-driving approach to bluegrass music soon caught the ear of music lovers around the U.S. and overseas as well. The group feeds off of the energy of the sounds of the first generation bluegrass musicians who were recorded 70 years ago, and they cling to that exciting core of the genre by design.
Once the powers-that-be in the bluegrass community saw and heard what the Po' Ramblin’ Boys were doing, due to key showcases by the group at the International Bluegrass Music Association World of Bluegrass convention, more good things began to happen.
Now, the Po Ramblin’ Boys are signed to the renowned Rounder Records label and are represented by Rainmaker Management company, who has also guided the careers of IBMA Hall of Famer Del McCoury and his band, Sierra Hull, the first-ever female IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year Award winner, the legendary band Hot Rize and more.
We sat down with Lewandowski a few minutes before the Po Ramblin’ Boys perform a late-night showcase at the Lincoln Theater in Raleigh, N.C., during the this week’s IBMA World of Bluegrass convention.
How'd you get from Missouri to Sevierville [in East Tennessee}?
I moved to Kentucky first then I moved over to Sevierville. The reason I moved to Sevierville was there was a program there in Gatlinburg, Tennessee called the Tunes and Tales. It was a summer concert series. Not even a concert series, but they'd hire performers to walk up and down the streets of Gatlinburg and perform for the tourists. That's how I got down there but I moved out there for, I don't know what year I moved, 2008 I believe, from Missouri.
Was there a lot of music going on in Missouri?
Yeah, there was all kinds. That's where I learned how to play, with all my friends in Missouri, the guys 50 years older than me. There was a guy named Jim Orchard who taught me how to play and I also traveled with a bunch of first generation bluegrass people from Missouri. About 2008, so I'd have been 21, I decided that I wanted to move to Kentucky and I got closer to some of the guys that are actually in the band now lived... And we've all been friends for a long time, but I guess I moved down there to be a little bit closer to them and just try and get more in the middle of the music instead of being in the Midwest part where there wasn't as much. I wanted to get closer to the scene so every time I've moved a little bit closer and closer and closer to the scene.
You've had such a successful year, signing with Rounder and Rainmaker Management. What made that happen? Was there a showcase or a concert or something?
Yeah, at IBMA 2017, that's what pretty much made everything happen and made me a believer, for sure, of the power of IBMA. We were an official showcase act, for one, so we had quite a few showcases within the Raleigh Convention Center. I believe we also had one at Kings, one of the bars that sponsors showcases. We were also nominated for a Momentum Band of the Year Award that year and we played the last slot of the Momentum Awards show. That was kind of a tough one because we actually didn't win the Momentum Award, yet immediately following the announcement of the Momentum Band of the Year winner, our slot happened. So, we actually didn't win, yet we still had to play. We closed out the night. But, at that Momentum Awards show where we did that half hour segment; that was the showcase that turned a lot of lights on.
There was 500 people in that room and it was a very concentrated 500 people of some bigger names in the music industry, and [we] had a booth down there, of course, and everybody immediately, as soon as the awards show ended, went down to the exhibit hall and immediately people were, "Where have you been? What are you doing?" We had three record deal offers. Multiple agents came to us just immediately during the whole week of IBMA so if people don't believe that IBMA or World Of Bluegrass will do you good, then I can dang sure tell 'em wrong.
You guys play a hard-driving style, but how would you describe it? Is it first generation or you do your own thing - or both?
If you play bluegrass, you're gonna do something first generation sometime in there. I guess we're closer to the roots than most people are by the way we dress, probably the way we talk, the way we sing and the way we play our instruments. We're traditionally based, but we also have a new fresh outlook on it, too. We're not gonna do all your standard bluegrass jam session songs. There's a lot of songs. Millions of songs. We kind of go back farther. We dip into some people that you might not have heard before or some songs that got overlooked because, let's face it, there's 12 songs on an old album. "Little Maggie" would have been on a Stanley Brother's album, but there was 11 other cuts on that album that were also probably good. We go in and we dig through and we look for the obscure people. We're cuttin' a song here soon by the Pine Hill Ramblers and that was a bluegrass band out of Alaska in the 1960s. So that's pretty cool stuff. It's great music and they were people that were just overlooked and that's okay because there was a lot of regional music being recorded back then. So, we have a lot of regional influences, we have a lot of obscure influences, and we have our new songs, too.
So that's pretty cool stuff. It's great music and just people, they were overlooked and that's okay because there was a lot of regional music being recorded back then so we have a lot of regional influence, we have a lot of obscure influence, and we have our new songs too.
How'd you find the Pine Hill Ramblers?
Well, I found a song called "Ice Covered Birches." I found it on a Cliff Waldron album, that's a Rebel album from about 1969 or '70, I guess. When Ken Irwin and I were trying to think of material, I was actually sending this song to him and he was actually sending that song to me, and it happened in the same day.
Ken Irwin, one of the founders of Rounder Records?
Yeah. So Ken sends it to me on the same day that I send it to him at almost the same time. I said "Man, I love Cliff Waldron's version" and he said "Now check out the Pine Hill Ramblers, they're the ones that wrote it." So we went back even further and actually, the songwriter's still alive, he lives in Alaska, and there's two verses to that song, and as of last week Mr. Carl Hoffman, he decided that we needed a third verse so we're getting a third verse written 50 some odd years later, that has never been written before until now so it's pretty cool.
Last question, are you happy with how things are workin' out for you?
Somebody asked me today what our dreams and goals are for this next year and I said, "All of our dreams have already been met," so to even put a cap on it by saying we want this and this to happen, I think we're just going to look forward to anything that happens, and it's going uphill so good for us, and we couldn't be happier with the outcome of Rounder and Crossover Touring and Rainmaker Management and all that stuff. It's amazing how things have unfolded for us in less than a year. We're super blessed and super lucky, and we're gonna keep just going on and playing what we play and hopefully everybody enjoys it.