Ryan Shupe & the RubberBand flex sense of musicality
ASPEN When Ryan Shupe & the RubberBand first began announcing their presence in the capital of country music, there was one certain question they knew to anticipate.When we rolled into Nashville, people would always say, Whoa, whered you come from? said the 37-year-old Shupe.The quick answer was surprising and interesting enough: Shupe, along with all his bandmates in the quintet, hailed from Utah. Wed say, Well, weve just been out in the West, said Shupe from his home in Provo. That made us not be like other people.If those inquiring about the origins of the RubberBand had time for a longer response, Shupe could give a more detailed answer about where they came from. Not just from Utah, but out of a thick scene of families whose daily routine included getting together and picking on acoustic instruments.Shupe is a fifth-generation fiddler, and not the only one in the family who can make that claim. Just the other day, we had a New Years Eve party and gosh my uncle was playing fiddle, and my cousin and my other cousin and my other cousin were all playing fiddle. My sister was playing fiddle, said Shupe. Everything from old-time fiddle music to Orange Blossom Special to David Grisman-type stuff.The RubberBand, which was formed in the mid-90s and which makes its Aspen debut tonight at the Wheeler Opera House, with a special $5 ticket for local residents, with a drink included is practically an extension of the sessions that took place at the Shupe household. As kids, guitarist Roger Archibald, and Ryan Tilby the bands original banjoist who left, then returned to take the bass slot played with Shupes sister in a youth band, which Shupe himself would eventually join. Craig Miner, who plays a variety of string instruments, was also acquainted with Shupe long before they became bandmates. Drummer Bart Olson is the relative outsider: Raised in Washington state, he didnt enter the sphere until he moved to Utah for college.Everyone brought into the group the idea that music-making had its roots in the family. Miners father played with the 60s harmony group, the Lettermen. Archibalds mother is part of an accordion quartet. Olson came from a fiddling family; his brother teaches violin in New York. Shupe isnt sure about Tilbys musical background, but recalls that, when Tilbys father would drop him off for jam sessions decades ago, he got the clear impression that the elder Tilby was no stranger to the guitar.We were raised in that picker environment, said Shupe. Youd just see these other kids play music and get to know them. There was this big surge of youth and family picking bands.The most significant of the youth bands was String Fever. Among the players in the group was Matt Flinner, a mandolinist and banjoist who has made his mark in the string-music world.Complementing the youth bands and family groups was Brigham Young University, one of the few colleges to offer a folk music program. At any given time, theres going to be some banjo player learning the ropes at BYU, said Shupe. Every time I think I know every picker in town, some kid from North Carolina shows up and hangs around the scene for a while.To Shupe, the close-knit nature of his music scene has given the RubberBand a certain character. Im a fan of bands, said Shupe. In my mind, theres a difference between a band and a band thats been together a long time. Theres just something that happens. You breath together. You become one entity. Theres a cohesiveness. No ones saying, I want to play more because you have to know how good I am.The sense of familiarity and the long-chain traditions in the RubberBand have not resulted in a backward-looking approach. Instead, Shupe and his mates revel in a certain level of eclecticism, and a breaking with traditions country-music traditions, anyway.On Dream Big, the bands one major-label album, released in 2005, Shupe & the RubberBand play a sound that is identifiable as country. (The bands latest CD, Last Man Standing, was released last April.) But whether their brand is old-school or new-jack is an open question. They emphasize their acoustic instruments, in the vein of Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson; shredding electric guitar solos are not to be found. But there is also a modern production feel, akin to the Dixie Chicks more than anything. Shupes voice lands well outside the usual country parameters. There is no allegiance to the rough style of Cash or Merl Haggard; there is no affected Southern accent. And the songs are equally outside the country range. Instead of crying in his beer, Shupe offers words of encouragement on the hit Dream Big, and he looks inward on the ever so slightly hip-hoppy Simplify, reminding himself of the importance of small things.Just where Shupe fits in the musical spectrum is perhaps indicated on the country-rocker Banjo Boy: Im a post-Hee-Haw mover/ A funkadelic punk-rock groover/ A cross between Bla Fleck and Eddie Vedder but better. In the end, though, the singer believes his roots-music essence will win out over his dreams of stardom: All the babes will love me, sell out show/ Only problem is I play the banjo.Thats always our mode of operation, said Shupe of the bands diversity. Were always trying to entertain ourselves, expand ourselves. You hear something kind of reggae, kind of rocking, kind of bluegrass. And were mostly acoustic mandolin, banjo, fiddle. What we try to do is push the acoustic instruments into different places.The desire not to fall into any of the standard country categories has left the RubberBand an outsider in the country world. Some of the people in Nashville say, Youre not country, said Shupe. But old country was like that, tied to the acoustic instruments. I said, Well, were as country as anyone.Perhaps not as country as anyone. Not with songs about Superman, the ska-pop-influenced Hey Hey Hey, or the extremely reggae beat that drives Rain Falls Down. And not with outside interests like skiing and mountain biking. And not with a Utah address.Shupe believes that the background, and the decision to remain based in Utah, has been an advantage.When we first started touring around and trying to get our band on a more national level, wed go to Nashville and play for people, he said. That taught us to build a show that was based on nothing else no media hype, no radio hit. We had to build up our following based on just playing a show. That made us stronger, refined us a bit. I try to make things a little less clich than the normal country thing. You know, country music spans a lot of things.
Ryan Shupe & the RubberBand perform at 8 p.m. Friday at Aspens Wheeler Opera House. Tickets are $17.50, but Aspen residents can get in for $5 with local ID. firstname.lastname@example.org
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