For the past five years, Jason Wolf and the Rumpke Mountain Boys have been entertaining audiences in the Cincinnati area and surrounding regions with a Bluegrass/Jam hybrid that he and the band have dubbed "Cincinnasty Trashgrass." It's an appropriate label to hang on the quartet, given that their latest live recording features original songs alongside grassy/jammy covers of everything from Primus and Bob Marley to Tom Waits and John Hartford.
As any fan of the Rumpkes will tell you, the mix of contemporary mindset and traditional execution is immediately and almost universally appealing.
"After five years I'm still seeing new faces (at shows)," says RMB founder/banjoist/vocalist Jason Wolf of the Rumpkes' growing fan base. "That's amazing and I never would have expected that. I didn't know how far this was going to go when I started, but I'm definitely proud and kind of amazed that it's lasted this long and not burned out. I've seen a lot of good local bands fade away. I can actually brag and say that it's not like a lot of bands, where 90 percent of the audience is friends and family. A lot of these people I've befriended because of meeting them at our shows."
Although the Rumpkes have been honing their Bluegrass skills since 2001, the past three or so years have been the most productive and evolutionary.
After Wolf put together the original Rumpke Mountain Boys, a revolving door of personnel began spinning members in and out of the group.
The band eventually coalesced with the additions of mandolinist/vocalist Ben Gourley, guitarist/vocalist Adam Copeland and sound engineer/manager Ryan Noga, widely acknowledged as the fifth Rumpke. The arrival of bassist/vocalist Travis "The Hippie" Gates — a Phish tour follower and widely experienced Jam connoisseur — a little less than a year ago cemented the current lineup and gave the Rumpkes the ingredient they'd been lacking.
"He'd been in the music scene for such a long time, he had a lot of good suggestions and feedback," says Wolf of Gates' broad experience. "He was showing us the ropes after we'd been a band for five and a half years. This is the strongest lineup we've had."
Before Gates came aboard, the Rumpkes had already secured a win for best Bluegrass band at the 2005 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards, but the bassist's sinewy Jam lines and effervescent attitude gave the band an added edge as they repeated in the Bluegrass category this year and nabbed their first win in the Jam Band category as well.
When asked if the band has simply gotten more exposure over the past two years or if they've actually gotten appreciably better, Wolf is diplomatically reflective.
"As cheesy and as expected as it seems, I'd say a little bit of both," he says. "Our skill has developed a lot more, out of necessity from playing with new players. My skill has greatly grown, just to play all the styles these guys are throwing at me. I've been playing with this band a long time and I'm usually playing traditionals or Bob Dylan tunes, and all of a sudden they show up with a lot of Tom Waits songs and it's a challenge."
On the exposure front, the Rumpkes' success over the past couple of years has as much to do with Noga's presence as the band's consistent gigging schedule. Noga and his ASI Productions have improved and maintained the band's Web sites (rumpkemountainboys.net and myspace.com/rumpkemountainboys), updated the mailing/e-mail lists, taken over booking duties and kept the public and the media informed about the Rumpkes' numerous activities. Combined with the band's freewheeling performance style and accessible nature, their rising profile within the scene was inevitable.
"You get that sense of community built and what we've gotten is a lot of people coming to a lot of shows," says Noga. "We're getting the money and the gear and the vehicle that we need to go nationwide. We play 95 percent in Cincinnati right now and we're not oversaturating the market. Our audience is growing. We have a good show on a Saturday night and we're not dead for the next two weeks. I think it has a lot to do with the atmosphere and the sense of community."
The most current concern for Noga and the Rumpkes has been the distribution and marketing of the band's latest eclectic and raucous CD, The Unholy Adventures of Bob Squirrel-Pants. Like all of the Rumpkes' previous recordings, Squirrel-Pants was recorded live at various area gigs; Noga records all of the Rumpkes' shows for just such a possibility. With covers of Primus' "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver," Bob Marley's "Soul Shakedown Party" and Jerry Reed's "Amos Moses," plus a handful of rousing originals, the Rumpkes show an amazing versatility within the Bluegrass genre.
The Rumpkes have attempted to translate their live presence in a studio, but so far the results have been less than spectacular. They all agree that their collective creative persona is best served in the live arena and, for the foreseeable future, they intend to continue to compile their CD releases from recordings made in the live setting.
"We're not really studio friendly," says Wolf. "I could see it maybe if we had like 20 instruments and did something crazy."
Next year looks to hold a great deal of promise for the Rumpkes even as they finish up this year with a number of gigs. Noga is hoping to expand operations at ASI Productions to include more label/production activities and to build the Rumpkes' success at home and raise their profile in surrounding markets.
As they look forward to the new year, the Rumpke Mountain Boys have a great deal of good fortune and accomplishments to reflect on. Wolf cites the CEA wins and their recent promotional jaunt out west as 2006 high points, and he and Noga both point to the Rumpkes' opening gigs for Ralph Stanley and Peter Rowan as evidence of the incredible progress the band has made in both skill and stature.
As Wolf ponders the question of the Rumpkes' proudest moment, he recalls a scenario that has repeated itself on a number of occasions.
"It's sort of an ongoing comment that people come up to us after a show and say, 'We don't like Bluegrass music but we love watching you guys,' " says Wolf with a laugh. "Is that good or bad? I don't know how that works. I guess it's a compliment. Yeah, I think that's good."
RUMPKE MOUNTAIN BOYS play Mac's Pizza Pub in Clifton Heights Wednesday, Latitudes in Beechmont Thursday and Stanley's Pub Saturday.