BLUES IN BRITAIN – October 2020 – Review by Pete Clack
Rag Mama Rag – Ragtime & Good Time Blues – “The more laid back lifestyle has worked perfectly”
One of the delights during this lockdown period was the number of online gigs that we could enjoy. One of these, thanks to The Cotswold Distillery, was a chance to enjoy the music of Rag Mama Rag, or to use their real names, Ashley & Deborah Dow, born in the UK but residents In France for so many years now.
They do regularly tour here and would have already been here but for travel restrictions. It was a good time to catch up with them at home and hear all about their new album release Train`s A Comin`.
They`ve been performing their arragements of acoustic based blues for nearly thirty years and recorded a string of well recieved and hugely enjoyable albums, now there is a new one available.
Their previous albums give you a great idea of what their music offers with titles like Shake It One More Time, Struttin` and Strollin` and That`ll Never Happen No More, Train`s A Comin` was produced and recorded in their own Deep Valley Studio in the department of the Lot and released in France on their own lable, another in-house business.
The best time to get to chat to them and make us all more aware of their music, was after the online lokcdown gig. We also heard about upcoming hopeful tours in the UK and the new album Train`s A Comin` featuring both classic blues and new original songs.
Ashley opened things by saying he got into playing country style blues and that in turn inspired him to play guitar seriously. In fact, previous to discovering this style of blues, as a beginner, he remembers his first guitar being a nylon strung classical guitar, and being left-handed, a right-handed model with the the strings changed around, “as a child I grew up listening to 60`s and 70`s music so my first experience with playing was with a nylon strung guitar and The beatles Complete Songbook which was for piano anyway so all the songs were in unfriendly keys, Eb, Bb, Ab, and it didn`t take long to figure out that these songs could be transposed and made easier to play on the guitar”. Then by the age of twelve and on hearing a vinyl album of Mississippi John Hurt, who`s playing totally fascinated this young teenager, “especially as he was playing a bass line and a synocopated melody at the same time. In fact, John Hurt has inspired so many Delta players over the years”.
Ashley was hooked on that sound and had to figure out for himjself how it was done, what was this fingerpicking blues guitar? As he says himself, it took time and a lot of practice to figure it out and to be able to have the tumb and fingers working independently “but once this was achieved, it opened up a whole lot of new possibilities.
I eventually took some lessons with an American finger-style legend Duck Baker, who corrected my bad technique and opened my eyes to a whole lot of other styles of music, including blues, jazz and Irish music”.
We love a whole range “I took lessons with an of styles of music”
American finger-stylelegend Duck Baker
Today, Ashley excellently plays a whole range of stringed instruments to create his music from finger-picked guitar, to slide playing on both resonator and dobro instruments. He also plays ukuleles and mandolin and for electric lap playing, a Weissenborn, add to that bass and occasional piano. He`s also main vocalist of the du, though Deborah does her bit on vocals as well, even a solo at times.
Talking of Deborah, lets turn to the band`s rhythm section, up front she is a really top harmonica player and add to that washboard, spoons and percussion. It was while in junior school she gained an interest in harmonica as the headmaster was a harmonica player, “so instead of the usual after school recorder lessons there was an alternative with chromatic harmonica lessons, and that`s what got me interested in playing”. Later after leaving school she left the harmonical and had saxophone lessons and joined a small group “in fact, when we left the UK Ashley was going to play solo but we decided to form Rag Mama Rag, so I bought a washboard and diatonic harmonica and as we travelled down to Portugal in our camper van, I started to learn the instruments and practiced by busking on the terraces”. They`re still playing touring and recording nearly thirty years later and it is the music that continue to inspire them “I guess we just love the music and over these years living in France and playing our music together we have slowly built up a following both in Europe and the UK.
They find that it is still the music of the old blues greats that continue to inspire people and they are always looking for new ways of interpreting their songs, which in turn leads them to ways of doing the same with their own songs. Thus, the new is, in so many ways, inspired by the old. One of the key areas of Rag Mama Rag`s music is the mix of Delta blues and ragtime, so how do they define their music styles, to which Ashley replied that at one time they used to play a lot more of the ragtime “now through adding the Piedmont blues style as we currently do, we keep moving forward. Things change with every album, things move on. So current albums are split 50/50 with covers and original songs.” Concerning the new album he said that the majority of the tracks are in the country blues genre, but there is a cover of Ry Cooder`s `Across the Borderline` which gives him a further chance to add some tasty slide guitar and play it as it always has been with the Mexican guitar style, “to be honest” adds Ashley “we love a whole range of styles of music and become influenced by lots of genres along the way. However, we think and hope that it always comes out sounding like Rag Mama Rag”.
In 2000 they released a live album and it is one of those live sets that never seems less than as fresh as when it was first recorded, which was at a Blues Festival in a small town called Salaise-sur-Sanne, just south of Lyon. Ashley said ” it certainly was a fun gig! The town puts on two large festivals each year, one of blues and the other of country music. They had a excellent sound team and camera crew so they filmed and recorded everyone who played there.” In fact, a couple of months later the DVD arrived, so it seemed a great opportunity to put out a CD of the set. An album that`s always proved hugely popular with audiences ever since, “maybe because the people who come to our shows want a souvenir of us bashing it out on stage”. It`s still a great recording of them doing their thing. Sadly, due to the current situation this year`s festivals were called off, but if you`re in France, certainly in the future, the blues festival is worth seeking out.
Another festival they have played many times is the Cognac Blues Festival. In fact, their first time was twenty-five years ago and the line-up included Buddy Guy, Dr John, Paul Richell and Annie Raines plus the excellent kelly Joe Phelps, “an astounding line-up. Then there`s the Cahors Blues, where they met Eddie Martin who was there for the first time, “after that one we played with him at another festival in Italy and one we`ll enver forget” says Ashley “because of the abundance of mosquitoes, we were nearly bitten to death”.
They have always produced their own studio releases, so it was worth asking if they had their own studio and what made the move to France ideal for them? Ashley explained they moved to Brittany back in 1991, “to be honest we were looking for a different lifestyle and we only had limited funds with which to buy a reasonable size house in which we could build our own studio, it was small but ideal for us”. The house, the studio and the more laid-back lifestyle has worked perfectly for them over the years, “we`ve made numerous recordings over the years, which include our albums, but many more for a music library in Paris.
They play several instruments to create their blues, you could say `several strings to their bow`, and Deborah mentioned that the humble washboard is a great and effective rhythm instrument, as is the Doumbek, a North African drum, “they both work well in the context of what we do as of course does the harmonica”. She certainly is a very fine harp player and in such a small unit as they are, you hear it at its best effect. Ashley states that his favourite style of playing is slide guitar and he enjoys playing his Resonators, both National and Dobro. Both are used to good effect on the new album. One thing that was very noticeable during the video lockdown gig was the huge number of ukuleles on the wall behind them. Apparently, they went through a period of collecting uke`s most of them via eBay. “it started going a bit bonkers really, hence we now have more than twenty of them from the old Hawaiian ones from the 20s,30s and 40s. “Great instruments when played well and they sound fantastic when they appear from time to time on their recordings. Ashley, then went on to talk agout his guitars, yes he`s a guitar collector as well.
Rag Mama Rag are well known to many fans here and were due to be touring the UK in late October /November. They may not always play big venues, but look to your local venues, check them out because they are well worth hearing and seeing live and hear them play tracks from the new album.
Thanks to folk like Ashley and Deborah the wonderful Delta blues is kept alive and well, along with their own songs and tow tapping ragtime.