Year of the Squirrel
Ralph White's old, weird Americana
On a dreary Wednesday night in October, there are four people inside the Parlor on North Loop, including Ralph White. Patrons walk in for pizza, a Lone Star or two, and then continue on their way. A dazed man with a backpack wanders in, then out, then in again, clutching a copy of the local Fugitive Post.
Next to the entrance, White sits oblivious, eyes closed, his hat tossed down in front of him as a tip jar. There's a song about murder. The next one's about death. This one's about conspiracies. There are Syd Barrett covers, "Terrapin" and "Long Gone," taken down from hallucinatory heights on the banjo to be baptized in the Delta. Later, he sings of "sycamore leaves and mustang vine," and it rolls off his tongue so languidly it's almost obscene.
This is the fight or flight experience of a performance by Ralph White, a fugitive from old, weird America. He certainly channels the past, but his path of least resistance has been well-traveled by the ghosts of his craft: Bill Monroe, Dock Boggs, Charlie Bowman. He fiddles with traditional Cajun band the Gulf Coast Playboys. He did time with Austin's premier bluegrass punks the Bad Livers. He played fiddle and accordion in traditional French/Cajun group Bourée Texane. He cites religion upon witnessing a Lightnin' Hopkins show as a child but just as hungrily devours African ostinatos and traditional mountain songs. Years ago, an ethnomusicologist friend turned him on to tapes of African music featuring mbira and kalimba, two instruments White now plays live.
"I wanted to play something original like that stuff but didn't want to become what I called an '-oid' someone who plays one type of music and gets it down really good," White explains in a pleasant Texas twang. "For some reason the music I play is kind of crooked, as far as playing guitar chords. I'm not very taught as a musician, and at first I was kind of embarrassed of it being like that, but now I don't try to stop it from happening. I like the idea of learning something wrong and letting it evolve into something different. A lot of my music is just me playing a melody I couldn't figure out."
The 54-year-old often has a difficult time putting his music into words, and perhaps it's always been that way. The Bad Livers' Monday night Saxon Pub residency became legendary, whether for their covers (notably Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life") or manic energy, but their sound was still as hard to pin down as a buttered-up hog. His time as a Liver turned White on to a lot of punk stuff, as did members of the Butthole Surfers, who took notice of the band banjo player Danny Barnes and stand-up bassist Mark Rubin being the other two-thirds of the trio and took them on tour in 1991. Their Paul Leary-produced Delusions of Banjer CD was released in 1992 on Touch and Go, and their first cassette, a collection of gospel songs called Dust on the Bible, was re-released in 1994. Lots of touring ensued, and Hogs on the Highway would be the fiddler's last Livers album. Life on the road, at least in this form, was not his bag.
When White left the Livers in '96, he began toying with a solo career. Since 1999, he's amassed an impressive collection of traditional instruments and has been "obsessively" playing banjo and kalimba, a small, thumb-plucked instrument. Live, he lays down a mixture of traditional bluegrass, Irish, African, Scottish, and original tunes. And there's always the occasional Syd Barrett cover. In the process of gigging, White has gathered local fans from Honky and Rubble to Weird Weeds, Peter & the Wolf, and Shawn David McMillen, bridging the gap between traditional and experimental, infusing old with new. Of course, he's probably destined to be overlooked in his day and rediscovered by some bearded, eccentric musician or record junkie 20 years from now. White, however, is less analytical about it: "I'm kind of between an old guy and a young guy."
He's the human embodiment of that "I'd Rather Be Fishing" bumper sticker. He's got dirt under his nails and a gracious smile. The lines and creases of his face belong to a man over 50, but the dart of his eye betrays youth. The tattoos on his forearm a blue heron on his shoulder and a gar (the fish on the cover of his 2002 triumph, Trash Fish) signal something more at work here.
Growing up on the outskirts of Austin in West Lake Hills, he witnessed the creation of MoPac and the overdevelopment of his neighborhood. To hear him tell it, Barton Springs once ran wild with catfish. His father, Ralph White Jr., was an esteemed UT art professor who passed away in 2004. Like many musically inclined youths growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, White didn't care much for high school, really liked Pink Floyd, and dropped lots of acid.
While he has an obvious affinity for the blues, folk, and bluegrass, he doesn't use traditional banjo tunings. His tunings are lower, and as a result, sound haunted. "African slaves living in Arkansas, mixing with Indians whatever kind of music that was, I would want to explore it," he explains.
In southeastern Hill County, Texas, just northeast of Mount Calm, is the Navasota River. His new LP, Navasota River Devil Squirrel, is another exploration in cross-cultural pollination. Recorded "in a frenzy during a heat wave," Squirrel traverses death (a cover of "Oh, Death" by Dock Boggs), nature, summer, and three separate songs about that titular rodent, which may actually exist.
"Up until I was a teenager, I used to hunt squirrels," White relates. "When I was in the Bad Livers, Danny Barnes and I decided to revive our childhood. So we went down to the Navasota River with my freshly acquired gun. I saw this squirrel and took a shot at him, and he, like, attacked me. Well, he was really trying to get from one tree to another."
That sort of describes White's outlook. His level of success might not be measurable in sales or show attendance, but the distilled tradition of his music has a generational life span. His 2002 album, Trash Fish, was a local gem, achingly bittersweet and dusty, burdened with not being able to "feel at home in this world anymore." Perhaps like his nemesis the squirrel, White feels most comfortable among the mustang vine and sycamore leaves. He seems to have a song about every kind of blues: Natives coming back from the dead and lamenting oil refineries on their land? Yes. A song about rain falling on his easy chair? Check. Of course, there's some dirty dealing, too. On "Wild Hog in These Woods," White's yelp reveals that hog, well, he don't "run or jump so good." He chases that damn hog into his den, and what does he find? "The bones of 13 men." "Crooked blues," sure, but there's also something pure and absolute.
"Ralph embodies everything I love about music and none of the characteristics valued by the commercial music industry," says Weird Weeds drummer Nick Hennies. "He's someone who realizes the music in his head with expertise, sincerity, and dignity, with a complete disregard for current trends."
"There are a lot of narrow-minded, capitalistic ideas controlling [music] in a way," White says. "I can't get too wrapped up in that, though. I heard Jonathan Richman in a radio interview say any sort of success you get in life is like icing on the cake. I love to play out. If I don't have any gigs, I wonder sometimes why I'm doing it."
"Ralph's music is pure Ralph," adds Honky bassist Jeff Pinkus. "We all play with ourselves; he just sounds better doin' it. There's something so humble and honest about the way he sounds. He used to 'wish he was a mole in the ground,' but I'm glad there's no hole big enough."
Like his bluegrass forefathers, the country wild and nature are recurring themes in his songs, as his cover of Bascom Lamar Lunsford's "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" can attest. White thought he was growing up to be a herpetologist, spurred by his fascination with reptiles, but his day job as a self-employed tree trimmer keeps him in touch with his muse. White built the studio behind his modest South Austin home partially from trees that people paid him to cut down. Inside, wooden banjos, myriad kalimbas, a gourd banjo, cello, accordion, bongos, a turtle shell, various percussion instruments, and his dog, Stella, are splayed around the small room, while a bookshelf hovers over a small bed. The walls are dotted with photos, several of which White took during his African bike ride of 1999.
"It was absolutely wonderful," he says. "I was just gonna go to Zimbabwe and throw my bike on a train from Cape Town. Well, you couldn't take your bicycle on the train. On the map, there looked to be all these dirt roads I could take to Namibia. So I started riding, and I didn't want to stop. I spent a lot of time in wilderness areas where there was nobody. By the time I got to Zimbabwe, I almost wanted to go home. I brought this backpacker's banjo with me so I could learn. Mbiras and kalimbas are everywhere, in the markets, so I would just pick one up and play it, and people would be like, 'Holy shit.'"
Back at the Parlor, this time on a not-so-dreary Thursday night, there are a few more warm bodies, including members of local band Rubble. Again, White's eyes are closed, and his foot taps the floor, matching his dexterous dry bone picking. He plays a frightening version of "All Along the Watchtower," then a song about native Indians. A song about murder follows. To hear the banjo and fiddle, those mythical instruments that invited the devil and God in equal amounts, with White's voice low and dense like Appalachian fog, is a "holy shit" moment. Then his eyes snap open, suddenly aware again, and he asks the young man behind the counter a very pointed question.
"As usual I don't have a watch. What time is it?"