It probably isn't much of a surprise that the Ditty Bops are plying their trade during their current tour — which finds the duo visiting and playing farms around the country in addition to traditional music venues — without major label auspices these days. Their eponymous 2004 debut was a swinging, jitterbugging girl-power version of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, embraced by critics, beloved by a small but rabid fan base and utterly misunderstood by Warner Brothers.
When the duo (Amanda Barrett on mandolin, dulcimer and vocals; Abby Dewald on guitar and vocals) began work on their sophomore album, last year's Moon Over the Freeway, they crafted a set of fresh originals with all of the Swing/Jazz/Ragtime spunk of their debut. But Warner Bros. resolutely refused to release the album until the pair ponied up a cover version. Thinking along the lines of their ripping spin on "Sister Kate" from their debut, Barrett and Dewald proffered numerous suggestions from their vast live repertoire, but the label vetoed them all. The two sides finally came to a grumbling agreement on the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love."
"We never perform it live," Barrett says from the Bops' tour stop in Columbia, Mo. "We like the Everlys' version but we're not wild about our version of it."
The Moon Over the Freeway negotiation was a turning point for Barrett and Dewald, and when their contract came up for review, they opted out. After considering label offers, the Bops decided that sisters should be doing it for themselves and released their five-song EP, Pack Rat, on their own earlier this year.
"Some songs that we recorded during the sessions for Moon Over the Freeway — kind of the B-sides from that, songs that we didn't get to put on — Warners let us put them out on our own," says Barrett.
"Which was really cool of them to let us do."
Self-releasing Pack Rat was just the start of an extremely busy period for the Bops, as they also wrote a batch of new songs and returned to the studio with Mitchell Froom and David Boucher to record their third full-length, Summer Rain, a continuation of their love of early Jazz with a slightly mellower vibe.
"We've been busy," says Barrett. "Preparing for this tour took a lot of stuff — getting in touch with all the farmers and routing it out. We also started a comic, The Environmental Dilemma, which we've been posting online, and we also put out our new 2008 calendar."
Response to Pack Rat has been positive to the extent that the Bops are making plans to release Summer Rain on their own as well. The pair realizes that going label-less could be a pretty risky move in the current industry climate, but they're willing to give it a shot.
"We need to figure out how we're going to make it work, but more and more bands are doing it that way," says Barrett. "The problem is that a lot of people are not buying records anymore, so it is going to be interesting to figure out how we're going to continue to make a living doing this."
With their label considerations relegated to a non-issue, The Ditty Bops have returned to the open road, which is not without its downside: Dewald suffers from motion sickness, which may be the reason the pair did their extensive and highly original bicycle tour behind Moon Over the Freeway last year.
"These drives are harder than riding," says Barrett of Dewald's infirmity. "It's exhausting to sit in the van for hours if you tend to get nauseous and it's also hard to deal with heat exhaustion on a bike tour for 100 miles in 100-degree weather. Everything has its ups and downs."
Although their music might suggest the theme, the Ditty Bops' Farm Tour is no exercise in nostalgia about a simpler time. For them, it really is about becoming more aware of the food we put in our bodies daily.
"I was born in Los Angeles so I haven't been raised on a farm or anything," Barrett says with a laugh. "This has been a great learning experience for us. Abby and I both worked at farmers' markets before we started our music project, so it's been really cool to see the variety of farms and types of farming and different sizes of operations and some biodynamic, bigger scale farms. We haven't visited any factory farms yet and it would be really interesting to compare, but I kind of have the feeling they'd be a little more hesitant to let us come through."
The Bops' 2007 farm-themed tour is an effort to raise concern over our increasingly processed food chain and show the benefits of buying fresh and local. This year's tour was actually intended to be a part of last year's bicycle circuit.
"When we were on the bike tour last summer, we'd planned to visit some farms and ended up not getting to do it," says Barrett. "We were too busy and couldn't work (it) into the plan, so we decided to make a tour that was just about visiting the farms. We shot our vegetable calendar and we love to talk about food and eat food and explore food.
"It's really important that, since we all eat every day, our food comes from resources that are sustainable and local and grown with care and respect for the earth, and that's something that we care about so we wanted to learn about it firsthand and visit farms."
THE DITTY BOPS take a break from the farms to play the Southgate House Friday.