By Jenna Lazenby
Southwest Virginia’s rich musical heritage is steeped thick in traditional bluegrass and Americana Roots Rock music. Roanoke band Blue Mule embodies the traditional Appalachian genre, but incorporates its own unique flavor. A quintet of masterful stringmen, Blue Mule has fostered a progressive newgrass sound that has become a staple of the local music scene for well over a decade.
Tom Ohmsen (mandolin/vocals), John McBroom (bass/guitar/vocals), Tim Rhodes (banjo/vocals), Eli Williams (guitar/bass/vocals), plus recent addition Jerry Wood (fiddle/vocals), play a hybrid of intricately woven jazz, rock, blues, and country jams, all from a bluegrass platform.
“We’re a little bit of an oddity in traditional bluegrass circles,” said Ohmsen. “Back when I started in the 70s, if you weren’t playing straight bluegrass, you’d get run out of town, tarred and feathered. And usually it wasn’t the audience that objected. It was the old guard musicians who would listen to us and say, ‘That ain’t no grass.’
While what it is, or what it ain’t, can be left for others to argue, the true harmony behind this group is how well the musical styles and their personalities blend. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with members of Blue Mule (minus Williams, who was unavailable that evening). The band holds practice each Wednesday at Flat 5 Press and Recording Studio in Salem, which Ohmsen owns and operates. It was a spirited conversation, filled with the members taking turns to share their stories and thoughts, complete with jokes, laughs, and a little banjo picking from time to time by Rhodes.
The chemistry of the members was a topic that arose several times throughout the conversation. McBroom, who toured with the popular Roanoke rock ‘n’ roll jamband Red Weather throughout the early and mid-nineties, commented, “Musicians are mostly a bunch of misfits, but this group has gotten along better than any I’ve ever seen. I don’t quite understand it, but I don’t question it anymore.” Wood chimed in that joining Blue Mule has been a dream, “There’s just no egos in this room. It is always a team effort.”
Through their years and their friendships, Blue Mule has cultivated an extensive repertoire of well-crafted originals and a wide-range of fan-favorites. They have also produced five full-length albums and have played with a range of revered bluegrass acts that include Tony Rice, Larry Keel and John Cowan.
“Currently, we have about 200 songs that we can play,” commented McBroom. “We forget a lot of them, but thankfully the hands kind of remember the songs. At the best of times, the music plays the band. We’re on stage or practicing together and the music bubbles up and everyone (in the band) gets in that place, where everything is perfect. It is something I’ve chased since it first happened to me back in college.”
While the originals are a group effort, Ohmsen, who also teaches music theory and composition at Roanoke’s Community High School, writes the most. During practices, if one of the members has a new song they’ve written they share it with the group for feedback. Some songs develop, others die.
“There’s an old adage that a band is four guys holding a fifth guy back, and everyone thinks they are the fifth guy,” said Ohmsen. “This band just doesn’t care about who the fifth guy is. If somebody brings a song, and the rest don’t like it, it slowly sinks into oblivion. Whatever percolates to the top is what makes it onto our albums or to the stage.”
Blue Mule’s latest album, “In a Hurry” is a sixteen-song collection that showcases their range in style. Songs like “Walls of Time” have a decidedly traditional feel, featuring Omhsen’s lonesome vocals paired with the steady drive of the banjo and fiddle. The tune “Cherokee,” which employs a heavy dose of Django Rienhardt style jazz, exhibits the band’s ability to combine genres to create truly unique pieces. More diversity is on display with a beautiful cover of the Fastball 1998 hit “The Way”, which sounds brighter and more upbeat than the original. The instrumental, “Belleville South,” with its playful amble created by the interplay of banjo, guitar, and fiddle, rolls easily from the speakers and will have even the grumpiest person tapping toes and swaying to the music. Then there’s the whimsical Parkway Brewery Spot, a 45 second track the band recorded for its namesake that has the nostalgic feel of a 1950’s radio spot.
Whether you’re listening to this, one of their other albums, or hearing the group play live, it’s immediately evident that they’re not the average bluegrass brothers they might appear to be. It also comes as no surprise that the group sometimes hears that they’ve broken ground for younger bands who want to do their own thing.
“Play to please yourself,” is McBroom’s advice for other musicians. “If you are not pleasing yourself, you won’t please anybody else. Plus, it will be apparent you are faking it. Just play for the love of music.”
Locally, there are a few places you can always find Blue Mule. They have played every single FloydFest, and they’ll be back again this year on the Pink Floyd Garden Stage. They are also the host band for Floyd Fandango, a one-day “old-skool” festival being held next weekend on the FloydFest grounds. Then, on the second Friday of every month, you can find them picking away at Parkway Brewing Company. Check out Blue Mule’s official website for more event information and to sample and purchase their music. I promise you, this “ain’t” your daddy’s bluegrass.