It matters that the Westbound Rangers are a string band made up mostly of guys who only a few years ago had no particular desire to be in a string band. That's one reason they're becoming such a broadly appealing one.
Graham Sherrill — the group's soft-spoken de facto leader in all things old-timey — got to Belmont freshman year and checked out the musical competition. "I looked around," he says, "and I was like, 'This ain't gonna work. There are way too many guitar and piano players that are way better than me. ... Let me try banjo, because I don't see any banjos on campus so far.' "
And since he admired the lively energy that Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avett Brothers and the Duhks summon on their albums, he figured he'd rather play with others than be a clawhammer banjo-packing lone ranger. He jokes that he used an on-campus gig as bait to get a couple of fellow students to join him.
Read Davis — who'd arrived from Texas an electric guitar-playing Stevie Ray Vaughan devotee — was one who happened to be at the right place at the right time. Or, as Davis puts it, "I rode with [Graham] when he went and got his first banjo." After that, it seemed only fitting for Sherrill to enlist him on acoustic guitar.
Then there was Mike Walker. He'd led Southern-fried party bands, but as Sherrill learned, that wasn't the whole story — as a kid, he'd also been drug around to church-sponsored bluegrass jams. Says Walker, "He knew I'd played some mandolin growing up and he wanted me to dust it off."
A slightly later addition to the group, Wes Burkhart had played electric bass in his share of bands before college, and was one of the few on campus who owned an upright. "Somehow," Burkhart says with a smile, "Graham heard that I had one."
But rounding up the necessary instruments didn't make Sherrill, Davis, Walker and Burkhart stick as a band — their blended sensibilities became the glue. They had a blast working up material to fit the four of them. "As a songwriter," Walker says with a laugh, "as close as I could have gotten at that time to where Graham wanted to be was Neil Young, which is not very close at all."
The Rangers did their first recording a few years back, flying through nine songs around three microphones in Sherrill's living room. The result was a self-titled, self-released search for band identity that showed promising instincts, a good sense of humor and an aversion to stick-in-the-mud traditionalism.
With school behind them now, they've made what feels like their first true album — Southern Bread and Butter for It — upgrading to a proper studio, John Prine and David Ferguson's Butcher Shoppe. Easy as it would be for any band of the musical generation after the Avetts and Old Crow to try to copy their proven models, the Rangers resist the temptation.
You can tell from the rollicking album opener "Pushwater" that they get what's great about the hot young string bands who hit in the aughts — that they rock, literally. But they're also tuned in to John Hartford's storytelling jaunts (see their "In Tall Buildings" cover and Sherrill's own "Natchez Under the Wheel") and even SteelDrivers-style acoustic Southern rock. (For the record, Walker may sing a lot about steel driving in "John Henry," but he wrote the song back in high school before he'd ever heard the band.)
Sherrill and Walker — the group's primary songwriters — each have their specialties. Says the latter, "Basically if Graham writes it, we don't even have to ask. It's guaranteed. It's a Rangers' song. And with me, I throw whatever I have up against the wall and a little bit of it sticks."
He means Sherrill is the one who comes up with stuff tailor-made for a string band — like the silly historical romp "Stonewall" and the fiddle tune "Way Out West" — while he might stretch the group in other directions with a pop-country ballad like "Wanna Call You Mine."
"It's like nine out of every 10 songs that I start are ballads," he says, blaming it on all the Jim Croce he listened to growing up.
All this is to say, the Rangers do some sprightly spotlight-sharing between their songs and singing — in all its varieties — and their playing. They also put on a good show. As soon as they had a band name, they wrote a yell-along theme song. "Being the kind of novelty upstart, not-take-ourselves-serious band that we were for sure at that time," says Walker, "I was like, 'Well there's nothing better than to have our friends yell our new name right back at us.' "
Nowadays their friends — or college-age crowds in general — definitely aren't their only target audience. They're proud to report that they've also won over small children and nursing home residents with their live shows. And that sprawling age range is no doubt why "Pushwater" is a tongue-in-cheek song about craving coffee instead of the harder substances old-timey acts are always singing about — say, moonshine or cocaine. "We made a conscious decision on the record to leave out swear words," says Davis, "because we'd played a gig at the Frist for a kids' day at the museum. So we knew that we could entertain the heck out of them."
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