Steeped in old-time traditional tunes, this duo also air their concerns about big social issues
All it took was one song and they knew. Michael Beauchamp and Laurel Premo, who make up the Michigan-based duo Red Tail Ring, felt a strong musical chemistry after jamming on the old-time tune called Going To Cairo on fiddle and mandolin. On the phone from Kalamazoo, Beauchamp recalls how in 2009 they met through mutual friends who knew they both had an interest in traditional music. At the time they were pursuing separate careers as singer/songwriters. Beauchamp was in Ann Arbor, where Premo lived, for a show, and she only had 10 minutes to spend with him.
“We had an opportunity to play one old-time tune, and on the basis of that old-time tune we knew we wanted to play music together,” he says. Premo says they didn’t exactly form a band that evening but, “we were struck with how good it felt. We both wanted to participate in traditional music and change our folk ways.” They soon changed their schedules and booked a bunch of shows together, performing separately and as a duo as they started working out traditional Appalachian tunes and writing together.
Seven years later, they have just released their fourth album, Fall Away Blues, which is starting to gather critical acclaim across the United States. The album is a fine melding of contemporary issues, that is, the message that has always been the essence of folk music, with traditional sounding melodies. The overall sound of guitar and claw-hammer banjo or fiddle is spare, with every note counting, and the harmonies of their voices, which fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, are haunting. Critics have compared them to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, but to these Canadian ears a comparison to Pharis and Jason Romero seems more in order.
No need for overdubs or guest performers here—they make a full sound with just two. They still perform traditional tunes but they also write about issues like last year’s mass murder in Kalamazoo or the fracking that is shaking up much of the United States by injecting millions of gallons of water and chemicals deep into the ground to extract oil. They don’ t preach or just give an account of the news of the day but bring it down to a human level.
Shale Town recounts the story of fracking from the perspective of a young, poor family promised a lot of money to rent out part of their land to an oil company: “I was hungry and young / and pantry was bare. Land man held / said the money was there. In the end the land is shaking / and the water that used to be clear has turned brown. Just leave it be, you don’t know what you’ve done.”
“We’re talking in a way where it’s from a human standpoint,” Beauchamp says. “Sometimes the problem with topical songs and politicized songs is the message is so important that it’s put forward at the cost of a good song. For the message to be successful the song has to be good… If it’s not a song that moves you, you’re not going to listen to it.” They’re not confined to the old-time silo despite the predominance of clawhammer banjo.
For instance, Gibson Town (Kalamazoo was the home of the Gibson guitar factory until it was moved in the ’80s) has a definite blues feeling, which is totally appropriate for a song about mass murder. They eschew the fake southern drawls that plague some old-time singers, but sing in their local Michigan accent, which is pretty close to the way Canadians talk. “I love a southern accent, and the inflections of that speech, and I love mimicking singers and songwriters.
I have a great Bob Dylan imitation in my back pocket. But I think it’s important we respect where we’re coming from, and we’re from Michigan.” They were both deeply influenced by Michiganians. Beauchamp mentions his father, who exposed him to Doc Watson, and they were both taught by Joel Mabus, a local musician who has a bit of a national profile. Premo is grateful for his mentoring, and for the fact that they still get together to play with him now that they’ve forged their own musical identities. Premo took a rather circuitous route via Scandinavia to develop her own appreciation of traditional music and to hone her skills on the violin.
She took a college semester at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, studying Finnish music, which had always been around her as she grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. “It really helped me focus,” she says. “I wasn’t nearly as passionate about the violin then. While I was over there I realized how to go about learning fiddle, learning from the masters and learning tunes by myself.” Her ears opened up to American traditional music when fiddle legend Bruce Molsky visited her program to teach American fiddle styles.
“That turned me around and made me excited about American music; and before, I was searching for something far from home. It gave me an appreciation for something I was overlooking.” One of Beauchamp’s college majors was musicology, which he calls, “a shallow dive into a really deep pool”. His studies gave him a deep appreciation of the effort it takes to become an accomplished musician, and between that and his travels, helped him find the commonality of musicians around the world.
Their tour schedule has brought them all over the United States and a couple of brief forays to Canada, as well as Europe. They have a solid following in Sweden, where Premo has joined forces in a side project with Anna Gustavsson, who plays a Scandinavian bowed instrument called the nyckelharpa, which uses buttons to change the pitch of the strings. The three will do some touring together in the spring, and the cross-pollination of musical genres will continue in the deft hands of this new generation of traditional musicians.