The JackTown Ramblers: Blue Notes and Bluegrass

To most listeners, the musical connection between jazz manouche (also known as “gypsy jazz”) and Appalachian bluegrass isn’t immediately obvious. But Western North Carolina sextet The JackTown Ramblers explore the region on the Venn Diagram where those styles intersect.

The members of the group are well positioned to understand and explain the relationship between those American and European musical traditions. The JackTown Ramblers have earned recognition for their prowess in Appalachian musical idioms, with four first-place spots and three second-place awards at the 2018 Ellenboro Fiddlers Convention. And the traditional and jazz training of the musicians provided a background that helps them build on that connection.

Bassist-vocalist Michael Ramsey focuses on the fact that music in both styles often eschews percussion. “Without drums,” he observes, “the players must focus on each other for the many feels and fills of the overall group rhythm.” Guitarist-vocalist Shannon Leasure points to both styles’ placing a high value on improvisation and interplay. “When you listen to a good bluegrass band and/or gypsy jazz group, you observe musical sensibility that’s supportive of the overall music endeavor,” he says.

Gabriel Wiseman (mandolin and vocals) modestly downplays the novelty of combining jazz manouche and bluegrass. “The lines separating them have become more and more blurred, as many artists nowadays have such easy access to listen to so much music,” he says. “Tunes from both genres have crossed over and are frequently played or known by artists in both categories.”

JackTown Ramblers banjoist-vocalist Brett Setzer agrees: “Both styles of music can draw references from one another and be played from back yards to the White House,” he says. But h goes on to expresses a thoughtful view on the subject. “Both [genres] are drawing from the soul of the player,” he says. “No matter if it is a professional or a beginner, they feel what they play in their being.”

Ramsey says that the work of David Grisman serves as a partial model for what his band does. “Grisman began in the bluegrass realm, as defined by Bill Monroe’s mid-’40s band,” he says. “Then he branched out into a more jazz oriented style, though he still visits the bluegrass world.” The JackTown Ramblers aim to meld those styles as well.

The group brings its rural, mountain and decidedly American sensibility to jazz material. Wiseman admits that the group collectively “wants to stand out a little by plugging in some gypsy jazz and more swing style tunes to our bluegrass-based sets.” Setzer elaborates upon that approach: “We take a song that the listener may have never heard in a swingy, gypsy jazz way and we throw it on them,” he says with a laugh. “It’s like fishing. We throw the bait out, and we bring in a lot of different kinds of fish.”

Leasure reflects upon the musical values common to both styles. “The most common characteristic is a musical respect that encourages skill development, enabling one to play the traditional melody of a song,” he says. And tradition combines with the new in a JackTown Ramblers performance. “We rely on the foundation of songs and tunes written by the earlier generations of players within these styles,” says Michael Ramsey. “And we also try to bring some original songs and instrumentals to our performances.”

“Respect for the traditions of any style of music is critical,” notes Gabriel Wiseman. “But without someone pushing the envelope a little, things can stagnate somewhat.”

“We are influenced by so many traditions,” says Brett Setzer. “But the main tradition is this: we play the music how we feel it, and how we hear it.”