By Zach Schepis
Image courtesy of Whiskey Folk Ramblers.
Tyler Rougeux has the kind of smoky drawl that you’d expect to issue from the chapped lips of the desperados inhabiting his songs. As he reflects back on the years of experience with his band Whiskey Folk Ramblers, you can’t help but hear the slow-burning reverie of bourbon, bluegrass and, well… badass-ery.
“Obviously nobody in the band has killed anyone,” he says with a course laugh. “The lyrics are honest, and raw, but telling a story has always been a big part of the songwriting process.”
The story began for Rougeux when he was 17. He picked up the guitar seven years before as a little boy, learning how to play alongside his longtime family friend and future band mate Richard Davenport. It wasn’t until he entered his years as a young adult that Rougeux decided to take up the mantle he’d so kindly adored from afar while listening to old folk and blues records.
He heard the train wail harp of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and knew that he wanted to recreate those sounds and truly feel them. Luckily for him, Rougeux’s uncle was an accomplished harmonica player, who had some profound wisdom to lay upon the musical ears of his nephew.
“I asked him how to play the harp and guitar at the same time,” says Rougeux, “and so he bends over and says to me, ‘just do it.’”
Most people would have scoffed, but Rougeux practiced. He practiced, and then he practiced some more; for nearly six months actually, as he listened to the Bob Dylan song “Just Like A Woman” on repeat until he could emulate exactly what the folk legend was doing.
A few years and a dozen original folk tunes later, the budding Texan songwriter was high and ready to start gigging around neighboring cities. He rekindled his old relationship with Davenport, a banjo and accordion player equally eager to set out on the road, and before long the two best friends formed a band.
The sound was very stripped down in the beginning, and drew most of its influence from roots recordings and acoustic instrumentation. This was before Rougeux fell in love with Spaghetti Westerns; classic films such as Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly enraptured him with their peculiar choice of soundtracks. The music was undeniably steeped in blues, folk, and country, but the sound was decidedly more ominous, and often accented by fierce brass sections.
Ennio Morricone, the composer of the film’s soundtrack, took a particular liking to the trumpet when composing. The lonesome brass bell called to Rougeux–who in turn decided to recruit a trumpet player to join Whiskey Folk.
The sound inevitably changed, taking a darker turn. To accommodate, the band created the genre “folk noir” and forged on full speed ahead into a somewhat different writing process.
For Rougeux, songwriting has always been one of the biggest highlights of working with the band.
“They don’t ever give me crap,” he says with a smoky laugh. “I write a song, come up with the structure, and when I show it to them immediately they’re down to run through it. It’s raw, but it’s to understand the feel. Then they’ll add their two cents. They’re just so adaptable, and they love the songs, which is an honor for me considering how talented they are.”
He boils down the entire process to “just jump in and roll with it.” It worked damn well for nearly three years while the band gained greater reception in Texas and along the Southwest.
While three times is the charm for many a lucky gambler, for the Whiskey Folk Ramblers it proved to be an undoing, and a true test of grit that almost cost the band its momentum.
They were entering the studio to record their third record, The Lonesome Underground, when two of the rocks in their rolling foundation tumbled away. Their drummer, along with multi-instrumentalist and longtime musical comrade Davenport, decided to leave the band. The Ramblers hit a rough patch.
It was particularly hard for Rougeux to lose Davenport. Not only was he around since the front man was five years old, but he was also a great songwriter. Davenport wrote some of the band’s greatest riffs, according to Rougeux–riffs that they still play.
On top of that absence, trumpet player Corey Graves entered into the throes of a long and tumultuous divorce with his wife.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘am I going to lose this whole band?’” says Rougeux.
Fortunately not. Graves held fast to the potential that he knew was kindling inside Whiskey Folk, and used the music as a means of expression. They say the blues can heal misery through song, and if not heal, certainly transform. The trumpet player held his horn high.
The four members went through several drummers before settling on Chris Carmichael. As fate would have it, Carmichael owned a professional recording studio in the basement of his home. After a seemingly impenetrable darkness, the band was once again back to writing and recording.
The Lonesome Underground is the Ramblers’ testament to perseverance, spitting whiskey and fire in the face of a crossroads that tried to dry them up like snakeskin. Now the band is firing on all six-shooting cylinders, and expects their next album to drop sometime this spring.
“Just like our lyrics, it’s about turning a tough situation into something good,” says Rougeux. “Even if you’re not in a band, just play. Let all that energy out, set it free and it will come back to you.”
To hear the rest of the interview, tune into this week’s Discovery Corner.
Or find your own way to interpret Whiskey Folk Ramblers by clicking here.