Ragged Road

My daughter Mei Lin and I started playing bluegrass/old-timey fiddle tunes together around the time that she first played fiddle at 7 years of age. Although she started off learning the Suzuki method, her teacher thankfully also taught her old-time fiddle tunes from the very start. Over time, her passion for bluegrass music overtook her interest in classical music. Once she started learning “Oh Susanna”, “Cripple Creek” etc… I naturally pulled out the old guitar and started playing these tunes with her. This collaboration just naturally evolved through the years. Our living room jams eventually expanded into recording sessions and a few duo performances around town. 

Boston Ravine was officially launched in January of 2019 when we put out our first EP. The band really coalesced when bassist Karl Chelette joined in August of ’19. Just prior to COVID hitting, we were planning on recording an album. Even though COVID shut down gigs, we were still able to record during the time of shelter in place and for that I am so grateful!

The recording sessions for “Ragged Road” were quite interesting! We tracked the basic rhythm tracks live with guitar, bass and mandolin chops – all social distancing style! Mei Lin was set up in her bedroom, Karl was in my bedroom and I was in the living room, with doors closed between us all. We were quite the sight – each of us with face masks in separate rooms connected to each other, not visually, but through the grace of condenser mics, XLR cables and headphones.  

Throughout the process, our friend and mentor Adam Haynes (fiddler from The Grascals) gave us invaluable feedback and ideas regarding arrangements. We had several Skype sessions with him in which he helped us greatly – from Nashville to Grass Valley in real time! When it comes to recording projects, there are so many benefits to living in the modern age!  In addition to this, Adam recorded a twin fiddle part with Mei Lin on “Sweet Karolina”, added some extra guitar to “Keep Your Feet on the Ground,” and mixed a couple of the tunes. We are SO appreciative of all his help on this project and he was so great to collaborate with!

We overdubbed vocals, fiddles, and breaks in our respective home studios. Karl added some hard groovin’ drums to a couple of tracks. Mei Lin did the lion’s share of breaks on this record and was kept quite busy through the early months of COVID shelter in place working on these tracks! 

Mei Lin and I have absolutely LOVED playing in this band with our bassist Karl Chelette! He is a brilliant musician, great guy to hang with,  and has a rock solid groove which has come to help really define the sound of the band! It was Karl who brought Frank Wakefield’s “New Camptown Races” to the band and it has become a staple of our live shows. On this tune, Karl not only takes breaks on the bass, but also has contributed an extended solo bass intro to the tune. On this part of the  record, you can really hear some of Karl’s deep jazz influences. I have always deeply valued streams in music where various traditions and styles come together. Karl achieved this very well in his soulful break, bringing an extra level of depth to the record. Karl added some cool drum parts to “Ridin’ on that Midnight Train” and “Ragged Road”. 

While working on several of the songs (“Midnight Train”, “When My Time Comes to Go”, & “My Mama’s Heaven”) , we knew that we wanted some banjo. We decided to bring in multi instrumentalist Max Schwartz. He was able to track his parts from his home studio in Florida. As soon as we heard them, we knew that we had chosen wisely. His tracks really rocked and fit the songs so well! 

This family collaboration also included contributions from my wife, and Mei Lin’s mother, Juli Marks. During the summer of ’19, we took a camping trip to Mill Creek, which is very near Lassen National Park. Juli grew up camping with her family every summer at a place called “Hole In the Ground” near where we were camping. This got her mind reeling through childhood memories and family history. She was inspired to write song lyrics which would become “My Mama’s Heaven” and “Sweet Karolina”. Mei Lin wrote the music to “My Mama’s Heaven” and I wrote the music to “Sweet Karolina”. These songs were the first songwriting collaborations between Juli, Mei Lin and I. They add such a personal element to the record!

For “Sweet Karolina”, Mei Lin envisioned and composed a triple fiddle part. She invited her good friend Tessa Schwartz (North Country Blue) and her fiddle teacher Adam Haynes (The Grascals) to play the twin and triple fiddle parts with her. In addition, each fiddler takes backup on one of the song’s three verses.  I really love the way the distinct stylings of each musician complement the song and each other throughout the arrangement!

I wrote the album’s title song “Ragged Road” several years ago. This slightly “Johnny Cash-ish” metaphysical country tune just came to me, years before I started to dive deep into playing bluegrass and traditional country music with Mei Lin. Towards the completion of our recording sessions, I played the song for Mei Lin for the first time. It was her inspiration to include this song on the record. I have been in love with the haunting sound of the pedal steel guitar for many years. As soon as we started working on our band arrangement for “Ragged Road”, I knew I wanted to include some pedal steel for this song. We were so thrilled to be able to collaborate with legendary pedal steel player Pete Grant on this track! Pete has recorded with the Grateful Dead (check out his parts on their record “Axomoxoa”) as well as bluegrass legends The Dillards. It was such an honor to work with him and we absolutely love what he did on this track!

For me, the absolute highlight of the record is the one track I virtually had nothing to do with! About a year and 1/2 ago, Mei Lin discovered the country ballad “Senses” which was co-written by Glen Campbell & Jeanie Seeley. Although the song was composed by two huge country stars, Senses was first recorded by Connie Smith in 1965 on her classic album “Cute ’n’ Country”. I absolutely LOVE the way that Mei Lin sings sad country ballads! We wanted to have an expressive and “weepy” musical counterpoint to Mei Lin’s soulful vocal, so we enlisted our friend Kathy Barwick to record some Dobro. The interplay between Mei Lin’s voice and Kathy’s Dobro turned out so incredibly nice! On this track, Mei Lin played the guitar as well. 

In all, this album is a real culmination of Boston Ravine’s work as a band – touches of traditional bluegrass, modern bluegrass, gospel, and old school country. I have always had it in the back of my mind to someday make an Americana/roots music album. I am so pleased with how Ragged Road turned out, and it has been a musical highlight of my life to collaborate on this record with my daughter!