Folk and string-band musicians are often caught between the opposing gravitational poles of minimalism and maximalism. On the one hand, they want to preserve the intimacy and tradition of their old wooden instruments. On the other hand, they want to flesh out that sound with more instruments, more chords and more rhythm to reach more ears.
That’s why acoustic guitarists Jim McGuinn of the Limeliters, David Crosby of the Balladeers and Gene Clark of the New Christy Minstrels formed the Byrds in 1964. That’s why acoustic guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions formed the Grateful Dead in 1965. And that’s why folk singers Ruth Ungar and Mike Merenda of the string band the Mammals have released the large-ensemble folk-rock album, Nonet in 2020.
The title Nonet refers to the nine musicians who play on every track: two drummers, two bassists, two keyboardists, guitarist, steel guitarist and fiddler. It’s a line-up more suggestive of the Dead or the Allman Brothers than the troubadour trio that the Mammals began as. And yet the songwriting is firmly rooted in the hand-me-down folk music of politics, community and rural splendor. This is big-band string-band music, a folkestra, and it works only because the two leaders, Ruth Ungar Merenda and Mike Merenda, both born in 1976, believe in the project’s small concerns as much as its large scale.
Consider, for example, the album’s opening track, “Coming Down Off Summer.” Written and sung by Ruth, it evokes the experience of musicians who spend the summer months touring to festivals and clubs, constantly moving and interacting with strangers, only to return in the autumn to quiet, laundry, wood stoves and harvest vegetables. It evokes the experience of anyone in any traveling profession. And quite unintentionally, it evokes the experience of all of us whose busy lives have been stilled by the pandemic.
For the first three minutes of the song, Ruth’s softened soprano and clickety ukulele sketch out this change of seasons over the cinematic underscoring of the large ensemble. But then the ensemble takes over, swelling into a nearly three-minute crescendo of improvised piano, organ, steel guitar and doubled rhythm section. It’s as if the autumn solitude of the vocal is subsumed by the echo of the summer’s action in all its busy connections. The Mammals could never have captured both the simplicity of the first section and the complexity of the second without both the folk singer and the big band.
That sets the template for much of the album. The songs “What It All Is,” “East Side West Side” and You Gotta Believe” all employ extended instrumental codas, while the songs “Radio Signal” and “Someone’s Hurting” use extended vocal codas. In each case, the large crowd of instruments hang back while the story is being sung and then burst forth as if to suggest each story’s implications.
“We enjoyed playing ‘Coming Down off Summer,’” says Mike, “but it was so short. Rather than write more words, we said, ‘Let’s just play.’ We’ve become such word people, and we pay a lot of attention to lyrics, but it’s nice to let it all sink in for the listener. Plus it allows the band to just play and add their feelings to the song.”
“Those codas give you a minute to have your own thoughts without having them dictated by language,” agrees Ruth. “My dad [fiddler Jay Ungar] is famous for writing ‘Ashokan Farewell,’ which has no words, so expressive instrumental music is embedded in me. Those tones speak to you in a different way.”
Like a lot of mid-level acts, the Mammals can’t offer enough money to demand that their musicians turn down other gigs to stay available. As a result, they have a pool of players that they draw from for each tour or one-off show. When it comes time to make a record, however, they have to decide which ones to invite. Adam Armstrong, their producer for the past three albums (and road engineer for the National), suggested that they invite as many as possible and record in a real studio this time rather than at their home studio.
“Adam planted the seed,” Mike says. “To have everyone under one roof was different. It was stressful to pay for studio time and to pay for nine guys, after we were used to doing everything at home. But we decided to go for that Phil Spector sound. Rather than have a keyboardist who doubles on piano and organ, why not have one for each so we don’t have to overdub? Why not have both an electric bass and an acoustic bass, so they can reach for different notes? It seemed decadent, but it was worth it. I think this one stands out.”
“Using nine parts on a song is not that unusual,” adds Ruth. “Most songs on records have 16 or 24 tracks. What’s unusual is that all these tracks were played while each player was listening to the others. You have to listen and decide when to lay out, when to come in. I just edited a video for ‘Radio Signal,’ and I found some great footage of the drummers locking eyes and they’re grinning at each other because they don’t get many opportunities to play with other drummers.”
The married couple are talking over the speaker phone from their old stone house in West Hurley, New York, next to Woodstock. It’s the house that Ruth grew up in, and it’s house where she and Mike are now raising their own children: 12-year-old Will and eight-year-old Opal. As part of the Hudson Valley music community, the couple have inherited a lot of musical history—not only from Jay Ungar and Pete Seeger but also from Levon and Amy Helm. The double-drum parts on Nonet, for example, felt natural, because there were always two drum kits set up at Levon’s Barn in Woodstock for his legendary Midnight Rambles.
The Mammals began in 2001 as a trio featuring Mike, Ruthy and Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, who had been touring as the sidekick to his grandfather, Pete Seeger. Before long, the trio added a drummer and bassist for added oomph and became a crucial cog in the movement of new-wave string bands. After four albums and two EP, the group went on hiatus in 2008. The Ungars toured and recorded as the duo Mike & Ruthy, while Rodriguez-Seeger led his own band. When the Mammals were reactivated in late 2017, Rodriguez-Seeger decided to not climb back on board.
“Tao moved away from being a performing musician; he referred to it as ‘a job as a professional grandson,’” Ruth explains. “I have that too with my dad, though my dad’s not nearly as famous as Pete Seeger. It’s really challenging, to always be in that shadow and have those shoes to fill. Everyone handles it in their own way. My dad’s talent as a performer, writer and organizer of events are things I hope I’ve inherited. I’m lucky, because a lot of people come to music without knowing a professional musician to ask questions of.”
Ruth is now the Director of Arts & Communication for the Ashokan Center Music & Dance Camps, which Jay Ungar co-founded. This year she helped transform the usual in-person workshops into on-line workshops, and her salary helped the Mammals survive the evaporation of live gigs during the pandemic.
“I’m friends with Sarah Lee Guthrie and Amy Helm,” Ruth says, “and we’ve really bonded, because we have each had a dad from that generation who had a place in the woods where people gathered to honor that music: Alice’s Restaurant, the Barn and Ashokan. We’ve talked about putting together a thing called Alice’s Ashokan Ramble, where we would visit those places and play those songs and bring all those fans together. The next generation needs our next generation to not only say, ‘We’re still here, doing something authentic,’ but to also update it, to bring in race and gender issues.”
The deluxe edition of Nonet contains two discs: the 10-song standard album on one disc plus five bonus tracks on another. The bonus tracks are delightful, including Mike’s soulful rendition of the rare Bob Dylan song, “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” as well as Ruth’s hilarious original “All the Things,” and her composition “Four Blue Walls,” originally recorded by the Duhks in 2005. On Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” Ruth reveals the rarely glimpsed blues-shouter side of her vocal capacity.
The newer originals on the main album are a response to the last few years in America. After the 2017 neo-Nazi riots in Charlottesville, Mike got a text from a friend that said, “Please for the song that kills fascists.” This was a reference to the famous words on Woody Guthrie’s acoustic guitar: “This machine kills fascists.” Mike responded with “Radio Signal” and its reference to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” “There’s a wind and it blows on by,” Mike sings over the pulsing hook, “and there’s surely answers in it to those who hoist up their kites.”
“Like a lot of people,” Mike explains, “my friend turned to music as a balm. My response was to write something, not about the riot, but out of that need for emotional comfort. I don’t like songwriting assignments, but they often bear fruit. What an assignment does is it puts you in your room with your instrument. And that’s the only way to get a song done.”
Ruth wrote “Someone’s Hurting” in response to a police shooting of an unarmed black man in front of a woman and child. She had a partially written song with that title, and suddenly the third verse came to her: “Now we talk about the privilege of the people who look like me—how our worries are the size of a nickel in the big wishing well. If someone was to shoot me, I bet they wouldn’t run free, and we wouldn’t be talking about how I brought it on myself.”
“In the old days the Mammals wrote about what we were against, and now we write about what we’re for,” Ruth says. “You can catch more flies with honey, and if you can present a picture of what we’re moving towards, maybe we’ll get there. The new assignment is finding a way of balancing a blatant message with something comforting as well. You want your song to be something that people want to put on. I want you to feel that you have just taken a bath or dived in a creek, not like you just put on a suit of armor.”
Mike’s positive outlook was informed by the books of environmental novelist Daniel Quinn—so much so that four of Mike’s six songs (“Radio Signal,” “Beyond Civilization,” “What It All Is” and “If You Could Hear Me Now”) were directly inspired by Quinn, according to the on-line album notes. Those four songs have now been posted on Quinn’s website by the author’s widow.
She used to believe that if she couldn’t remember a song, it wasn’t any good, so she wouldn’t write anything down. After she lost several good songs that way, she changed her mind. She started recording voice memos of every idea she had.
“If I have time on an airplane or something,” she says, “I’ll listen to all those voice memos and log them into a notebook, so I can find them again. On a song like ‘East Side West Side,’ I didn’t know which of the verses were first and second until the final take. Now it’s that way forever.”
“We’re always generating songs year round,” Mike adds, “and when you have enough songs, you schedule a recording date. Once you have a date, you have a deadline, so you have to finish the songs—add a bridge or a verse, whatever it takes to get them across the finish line. As Leonard Cohen said, ‘There’s no right way; there’s not even a good way. I’ve tried drink; I’ve tried drugs, I’ve tried solitude, nothing is reliable.’ If I have a routine, it sabotages the muse. If I keep it impromptu, the muse is more likely to come. I try to fool the muse, so she doesn’t know what I’m up to.”
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