It’s a mostly empty little bar, the band having plugged their sound into the PA before most of town had a chance to wander out of their houses and into the loving embrace of inebriation.
She was dripping in tangled hair and layers of lace garment, he in a tight vest and pants falling far short of making their way to covering his black boots. Her mandolin stared across the tiny stage at his guitar, the two trading good vibrations of steel, twang and gypsy waltz. Americana was in the room, for sure, but it was the sound of the wayward troubadour which clearly lead their dance.
This particular bar was not high on my list for a reliable space to hear some music, and as such, I’d grown used to allowing the band to fade into the background while friends and I made one another’s further acquaintance over great local beers and conversation which always began on a mediocre note but never failed to pick us precisely at the same grade as the room’s blood alcohol level. But as the Blue Ribbon Healers kept at it, their crystal ball cart and wagon sound ringing in every inch of the emptying pint glasses around the room, it was impossible not to pay them more attention than the flap of usual gums in my ear.
Returning from a bathroom break I discover Cindy, the fairer sexed of the duo, chatting with my girlfriend. Her conversation reveals them to not just look the part of gypsy ramblers, but to be the Real McCoy. Joined by her bandmate and boyfriend, Rob, the two agree to embellish a bit on their life…and share a few tracks as well.
“Traveling definitely turns us on,” Rob testifies his wanderlust openly.
“It’s a big world, a big universe out there,” the Montgomery, Alabama original professes, “and we find going out and exploring quite agreeable to our everexpanding tastes. Musically, we like a lot of styles that come from specific geographical locations like the Appalachians or New Orleans, and those places happen to be only a few hours away from our current home base in the Florida panhandle, so of course we’re going to go straight to the source.” Tonight they’re playing in Black Mountain, North Carolina, a sleepy-in-the-winter small town just east of the Smoky Mountains. While we’re having a blast in the most happening places around the country, we’re also furthering our understanding of the music. So for our lives, playing music and traveling couldn’t be any more of a perfect fit.”
Cindy was born in Pennsylvania but grew up on the beaches of Florida’s panhandle. It was at a condo in Panama City Beach where she first met Rob. Her dad, a longtime devotee to fiddle music, was staying there for a weekend. Rob saw her on stage the night before, with a previous band of hers.
“The band was made up of tattoo artists that played a sort of dark bluegrass; we’ll just say blackgrass. Immediately I noticed her and watched the show with a cool resolve that I was going to meet her somehow.”
They hooked up the following day, Rob playing for hours with Cindy and her dad.
“After that we started keeping regular hours so to speak.”
That was four years ago. Since then they’ve gone from playing tunes out of tramp songbooks, a habit Rob picked up in his days of traveling before the Blue Ribbon Healers came together officially, to putting together their own original material. Officially a duo, the couple switches up with additional bandmates here and there.
“We like to play with lots of different configurations of musicians and instruments, to help promote a sense of continual development and change in the music.” For example, in their first year, they were a string band trio with Rob’s acoustic guitar, Cindy’s mandolin and a fiddler and bassist as well. The next year Rob pulled a Dylan and moved to a hollowbody electric, the fiddle disappeared to make way for a drummer and the bass also found itself plugged in. “Our most
recent five piece line up featured vibraphone, drums, auxiliary percussion, guitar and mandolin.”
They’ve even played with David Goldflies, a former Allman Brothers bassist who also played with Dicky Betts.
“He is our neighbor. He lived right down the street from Cindy’s parents for years without us knowing!” It wasn’t until a friend and former band member introduced them that they realized. “David is a passionate devotee of music, he composes a lot these days and is always looking for new projects. He’s very encouraging and open-minded, and playing with someone with that kind of bonafide experience–and having it sound good–when the band was just starting really helped boost our confidence. Starting a band from the ground level can be daunting, and it is very inspiring and motivating to get to play with someone who has made such a successful life for himself in music.”
They played for another few months around Panama City before recording their first record, a live effort. They’d been playing pretty consistently for an entire tourist season, but as Rob tells it, “[The record] was a really nice way to cap off our inaugural on-season at the beach, but the season was over and we were a brand new band that was about to get fired from all its tourist-fueled entertainment jobs until next spring. So we made the decision to head to New Orleans, armed with our first batch of handcrafted songs, and try our luck playing on the street.”
Rob had already crossed the country a few times. As Cindy tells it, “Rob had been rambling and traveling for several years before coming to Panama City to reconnect with his old friend Adam,” the original fiddle player in the Blue Ribbon Healers. He spent several years in Asheville and Black Mountain, then road tripped across Texas and New Mexico to eventually wind up in San Francisco for three years.” Cindy had been around the world a bit during college, but while pursuing her Master’s Degree decided that level of higher education wasn’t for necessarily for her…which lead her back to Panama City to dream up ways to travel more. So while the Blue Ribbon Healers are an ever-changing lineup, the couple makes certain they can keep their dream-come-true sustainable on their own.
“The two of us are romantically involved, and we don’t have any kids or pets that require our attention, so we can travel as much as we want. Other people that we play with don’t always have as much free time as we do, so we make sure that we can hold it down as a duo. But it’s really fun to have a bigger band, even if it’s just one more member, so we’re always looking to recruit musicians who are down to travel.” Tonight they’re playing with a drummer who recently moved to nearby Asheville from Panama City.
In the past four years they’ve played everything from big shows with former Leftover Salmon frontman Vince Herman to street corners.
“We’re fans of busking,” Cindy hands us a postcard showing them, along with a host of other musicians, playing from a city stoop in New Orleans. “It’s a great way to work out new material in front of people in a casual, open setting.”
“Plus,” Rob interjects “you’re making money while you’re more or less just hanging out. Most of all, spontaneous creation in a public setting like a street corner is a very powerful reminder that you can–and should–have fun any time, anywhere.”
When pressed on what playing with Vince Herman, a pretty big name in Americana Jam Band circles these days, was like, they’re not short on exuberance.
“It was awesome. A last minute out of the blue kinda thing. My good buddy and banjoist extraordinaire Patrick Padgett calls us up at 11:00 Saturday night and goes ‘if you can make it into the valley by 10:00 Sunday morning you can open up for Taxi and 7 Walkers with Bill Kreutzmann.’“. Taxi refers to Herman’s current band, Great American Taxi, and for those not in the know, Bill Kreutzmann is Grateful Dead’s former drummer.”
“Ho shit!,” was their natural response. “We packed up, left a little after midnite and drove the 4 hours, went to sleep and woke up and played the gig. Party of the year for many.”
Farmer’s markets, craft breweries. Anywhere there’s a feeling of local really, the band is ready to play. “Roots level enterprise, and good products. Especially around Harvest.” They’ve picked their tunes from the Gulf to the Pacific, the Rockies to the Great Lakes. Rob begins waxing on where they’ve gone and why they go there.
“Our life is music so we gravitate to the music hubs. I love destinations of colossal geological beauty, and cities whose scenes bear long grizzly cultural reputations but also places with a quieter beauty. University of Indiana in Bloomington has one of the top science departments as well as music. Many people don’t know that. Science and music are together in many ways. Their communities are also nurture-based philosophies.”
They have an abiding affection for New Orleans for just this reason. “It’s like a cross between Haiti and SF,” he says, “24/7 drinking laws and 2000 years of hedonistic martyrdom.”
Growing up in Alabama, Rob was exposed primarily to blues and R&B, maybe a little jazz here and there. He played Zeppelin, Hendrix and the Dead, along with the prerequisite grunge of the early 90s, while playing in garage bands as a kid. In college he found himself involved more with the school’s jazz orchestra, expanding his interests and musical style even further. But he’s always felt a draw toward to bluegrass.
“It was bluegrass that helped me hammer in the discipline required for really acclimating the styles afore mentioned. The leap from bluegrass to Texas swing, to Django and other ethnic styles, and then to New Orleans style swing seems pretty logical on paper. But factor in the hours and full time focused attention to these disciplines and one can imagine just how much else falls into the cracks of the creative process.” He speaks like a true musician, someone who isn’t just in it out of some childhood fantasy to find himself brooding over his own lip-syncing in some future MTV video, but a man who eats purely to provide his mind with fuel for new songs.
“It’s why I love bluegrass. It carries, in its DNA, the same burden of proof that I find in many other rural musics from around the globe.” Rob emphasizes that though he loves bluegrass, “I’m an atheist and don’t subscribe to the moralizing of bluegrass.” He hesitates, then continues, “though I do like the Steve Martin song Atheists Ain’t Got No Songs.”
I ask them why they choose to hang around Panama City Beach when their chosen careers allow for calling just about anywhere home.
“We are lucky that where we grew up is a place that’s also crazy about music. And it works out great as a base for part of the year, when the season is on and there are thousands of vacationers and partiers to play for, but when the off season hits, the business slows way down.”
That leaves them oodles of hours gone days gone weeks and months to explore, to take the time and really get to know the places they go. ” When we go to California,” he examples, “we typically stay for three months, right in downtown San Francisco or in west Oakland, and play 3 nights a week in the city. That span of time also allows us to spend a couple weeks apiece in Santa Cruz, Mendocino and Humboldt, and the enchanted postmodern farm-town communities around Petaluma.” They also dig spending weeks at a time in Colorado, planning to spend most of the summer their this year.
“There’s no good word for our traveling style; it’s not really touring, per se, because we don’t break our necks rolling through different towns every night, but it’s not extended vacationing either–we do work a lot when we’re on the road,
and it’s the ultimate job perk to get to hang out in new places all the time.”
Still, they’re drawn home when the work on the road is done.
“Panama City Beach is a party town through and through. Spring break capital of the US, where you can get 30 packs of Keystone Light for 10 bucks and you don’t have to pay a dime to see ﬂocks of half nekkid people getting stupid all over the beach. Really though, the party atmosphere and don’t give a fuck vibe prevail all year round, even when we’re not invaded by college kids, and it’s a fun place to get loose.”
“Some of the other towns on the Panhandle and throughout Florida have really gone glitz and glam,” Cindy adds, “lots of fancy condos and expensive restaurants for people who have to spend a lot of money to have a good time, but Panama City Beach has remained a little more down to earth in its own deluded way, at least so far.”
Rob and Cindy, the heart of the Blue Ribbon Healers, are writing new music even as I type and dreaming up new places to turn from “I wonder whats” to notches on their guitar straps. “We write consistently, travel to places we’re curious about, investigate new styles of music and meet great people who broaden our worldview, so we really just want to keep on doing what we’re doing, and always get better.”