Acclaimed bluegrass band Po’ Ramblin’ Boys have refused to let the COVID pandemic slow their momentum, so it’s something of a declaration that their third album, which will be released on March 25 via Smithsonian Folkways, is named Never Slow Down. The band is supporting the release with a high-energy first single, “Blues Are Close at Hand,” premiering today via American Songwriter, as well as extensive tour dates across the U.S. and Canada from this month through the rest of the year.
As with their first two albums (Back to the Mountain (2016) and Toil, Tears & Trouble (2019)), Never Slow Down includes covers of older bluegrass songs along with the band’s original material. “We like digging up old songs, [and] specific songwriters from days gone by,” C.J. Lewandowski (mandolin, vocals) tells American Songwriter during a recent call. “We’re always looking for material that may have been a B-side or definitely an overlooked song. You can honor people by doing some of their material.”
The band’s new single, “Blues Are Close at Hand,” is a perfect example of this. Jereme Brown (banjo, vocals) and Josh Rinkel (guitar, vocals) got their start playing with the celebrated bluegrass band Tommy Brown & the County Line Grass. (Tommy Brown is Jereme Brown’s father.) “Glen Alford was the mandolin player for Tommy in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and he actually wrote the song,” Lewandowski says. “People might think it’s a brand-new song, but we’re actually paying homage to the County Line Grass and some influences that we had growing up, especially Tommy. I think it’s cool that Jereme is singing a song that his dad sang on an album twenty years ago.”
As for the band’s original songs, Lewandowski says with a laugh, “There’s got to be a touch of reality to it—we’re all pretty bad at lying. So there’s got to be some form or fashion of reality—we take from there and expand upon it.”
Lewandowski reckons that Josh Rinkel is the most prolific songwriter in the band: “He can pull stuff out just driving down the road. He’ll talk right into his phone and take notes and come up with stuff fairly quick. He can write a song in fifteen minutes that is usually pretty good; you don’t have to go back and change a lot of things.
“Me, I’ll write a chorus for something, and then I’ve got to build some verses around it,” Lewandowski continues. “That’s where I get stuck and I usually ask for other people’s help. I can usually write a catchy chorus, and then I’ve got to throw it out to my friends and see if they’ll help me go from there.”
Lewandowski met Rinkel and Brown in 2008 when he began playing with various bands that were on concert bills with Tommy Brown & the County Line Grass. They became instant best friends, which eventually led them to form Po’ Ramblin’ Boys in 2014. They started off as the house band at the Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery in Gatlinburg, Tenn., playing five to seven nights a week. Though they had to play well-known songs to please the clientele, they always sprinkled their own original material into the sets. (Ole Smokey Moonshine Distilleries turned out to be so supportive of the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, they’ve now officially partnered with the band, with more details about this to be announced throughout the coming months.)
The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys grew to include Jasper Lorentzen (bass, vocals) and Laura Orshaw (fiddle vocals). Over the years, their reputation has also grown, bringing them far beyond their house band roots. Their skilled and respectful approach to bluegrass traditions earned them critical praise for their albums, as well as prestigious honors including a Grammy nomination (for “Best Bluegrass Album” for Toil, Tears & Trouble) and several IMBA Bluegrass Music Awards nominations.
It is, Lewandowski says, a career that he started training to do at a very young age. “Since I was a tiny little kid, I was trying to sing,” he says. Growing up in Jefferson County, Missouri, he recalls being especially influenced by his grandmother, who bought him a toy microphone and amp when he was four years old. “It actually worked, so I could sing and be heard.” It wasn’t long before his grandmother coaxed him into performing in front of their church congregation.
“Then I found bluegrass when I was about twelve [years old],” Lewandowski says. “My best friend’s family was into bluegrass music. His grandpa collected banjos, so we found a banjo one day and my buddy started trying to play it. His grandpa come in and said, ‘Either learn how to play it or put it away.’ So we both got mad and decided that we were going to show him something. So that’s how we started playing.”
Lewandowski decided to play the mandolin because “I thought Bill Monroe was the coolest thing in the world, and I still do. I saw a picture of Bill Monroe holding that mandolin, and I thought, ‘That’s the coolest guy in the world right there. I’ve got to have one of those.’”
With Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, Lewandowski and his bandmates have been able to celebrate these bluegrass masters who inspired them, as well as display their own songwriting and performing talents. With all of it, Lewandowski says, they’ve tried to be authentic and unaffected. “We’ve never tried to be anything that we’re not—I think people see that and they like that,” he says. “Another thing is, we never tried to push anything. What we’ve done has never been planned. It just happened. We were just going to be a distillery house band, and then all this stuff happened, and that’s cool. I think the success lies in just not pushing so hard and being grateful for what we’ve had so far.”
Photo by Amy Richmond / IVPR