Q&A: Brett Ralph, leader of the Kentucky Chrome Revue

Dec 27, 2007 at 8:56 pm

LEO: Tell me a little bit about your formative years...your first exposure to music...what led you to create your own ...

Brett Ralph: Most of the records around the house when I was growing up were my mom's: Barbra Streisand, Perry Como, Englebert Humperdinck, that kind of stuff. My dad had a few Buck Owens and Hank Williams records, but they didn't grab me until I got a bit older.

The one record that totally mesmerized me from the start — and that I played over and over — was Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billie Joe LP. It was funny, it was dark, it was funky, it was sad, and it suggested complex stories with a minimum of words. That record, more than any other, shaped the songwriter I would become — minus the "minimum of words" part.

I probably never would've made music of my own, however, if not for punk rock, and I'll be forever indebted to Chris and Mark Abromavage for taking a chance on me, as well as Irvin Ross for hooking me up with Malignant Growth in the first place, not to mention driving me to practice three times a week until I got my driver's license.

I initially approached Mark as a songwriter, suggesting that the band might want to use some of my lyrics. "If you wrote 'em, you oughta sing 'em," he said. That was all I needed to hear.

LEO: Why is it that the difference between punk and country (when either is at its best) is smaller than most folks would imagine? BR: Maybe because most good music has certain classic elements, like energy, authenticity, adventurousness and attitude. And, of course, most all of the finest country musicians were rebels and mavericks: Hank, Merle, Cash, Loretta, Waylon. They definitely shook up the Nashville status quo as surely as the Ramones or the Pistols shook up the rock landscape of the mid-1970s.

Let me say this, though: The last thing on earth I want to do is to make "cow-punk" music, crap like Jason & the Scorchers, where you just take a country song and speed it up so that it becomes a parody of Southern expression, a cartoon cowboy on crank. I prefer the trail blazed by my bandmate Catherine (Irwin) in Freakwater — take fairly straightforward country songs and update them by introducing contemporary lyrical themes or more bombastic arrangement elements. Or just play them with such simmering ferocity that it feels like punk rock even though, on the surface, it's quiet and sad.

LEO: how is this project different from your previous work? BR: Well, ever since I saw footage of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, I'd dreamed of leading a big band. Wink O'Bannon thinks that this is an attempt to create a maelstrom of music into which I can disappear. There's probably some truth to that — I definitely see my primary role as the songwriter, providing the blueprint for the gleaming cathedrals (or raggedy shacks) to be built by the musicians at hand.

This band represents the first time I've had free rein to realize my vision as a songwriter without having to wrestle with my bandmates over the direction of the project. Now, of course, we don't do every song I write, and if someone in the band hates a song, or simply isn't into it, we won't do that one. I don't mean to suggest that the songs aren't shaped by the contributions of the players. When we're working up the songs, everyone contributes to the arrangement, the approach we take to the song. But the band is called Brett Eugene Ralph's Kentucky Chrome Revue for a reason, you know?

LEO: How were you abhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifle to piece together such an impressive cast of like-minded musicians? BR: I'd like to think that it's because I'm fun to work with, and that people like my songs and are excited about singing and playing them. But I am awed and humbled by the quantity and quality of musicians who have been willing to play on my record and/or in the live band.

Watching Will Oldham and Peter Searcy — who had never sung on a record together before — sing whoo-whoo-whoo's on "Grandpa Was a Hobo" was a magical moment. Being able to sweet-talk Jolie Holland into coming out to Shelbyville to lay down some fiddle mere hours after I'd met her amazed even me. Getting an approximation of the full breadth of Wink O'Bannon's lyrical gifts as a guitarist onto tape — not just the bad-ass gun-slinging he's famous for — is something I'm proud to have elicited. I guess I can be pretty persuasive when it comes to getting the music in my head out into the world.

LEO: Who will be in the ensemble for next week's show? BR: Mark Hamilton: lead guitar. Catherine Irwin: acoustic guitar, vocals. Kirk Kiefer: keyboards, vocals. Brett Eugene Ralph: lead vocals, guitar. Chris Reinstatler: drums. Daryl Sullivan: bass guitar, vocals.

Catherine, of course, also plays in Freakwater and releases solo records on Thrill Jockey. Mark Hamilton does session work and plays with virtually everyone in Louisville; I most recently saw him backing Tyrone Cotton. Kirk Kiefer plays in Bad Blood and the Uncommon Houseflies; his primary creative endeavor, Yardsale, just released its third CD. Chris Reinstatler played in VRKTM until its recent demise and also plays with the Pet Pervs, Bad Blood and The Hired Hand. Daryl Sullivan has played previously with Dead City Rejects, Cherub Scourge and Sean Garrison's Five Finger Discount.

LEO: What does the future hold for Ky. Chrome? BR: After replacing two members in our first six months, the new band really seems to be settling in. I think we all really enjoy playing together. I'm excited to keep exploring different rhythms; recent songs have had a Latin feel to them, mixed with a kind of circular Joy Division pattern. For the first time in my life, songs are coming to me as rhythms as much as melodies or lyrical ideas. I attribute this to working with Chris, whose drumming I've totally internalized by this point. I'm also hoping to do more with the vocals in the future — get everyone in the band to sing and turn Kirk loose to start coming up with arrangements for layered background vocals. He's got a really great melodic sense, and we haven't really taken advantage of Daryl's abilities as a singer yet. Hell, I've never even heard Mark sing! And I'm eager to get an electric sitar into Catherine's hands. We've been toying with the idea of "going electric" — that is, having both Catherine and I switch to electric instruments. Then we'll truly be in the grand three-guitar tradition of Love, Skynyrd and Moby Grape, though I imagine that we'll leave the soloing to Mark.

Also, I'm in negotiations with MayApple Records, an Americana label in Springfield, Mo., and it looks like they'll be releasing Brett Eugene Ralph's Kentucky Chrome Revue. Incidentally, MayApple was started by Mark Bilyeu, leader of Big Smith, who we're playing with at Air Devils Inn, along with my favorite Louisville band, Virgin Flame.

Catch Brett Eugene Ralph's Kentucky Chrome Revue, Big Smith and Virgin Flame on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2008 at Air Devil's Inn.