"We walked into Parrilla tonight to get something to eat and it was a flashback for me of the goals we used to have," says Moon Mountain Ramblers guitarist and singer Matthew Hyman.
He's referring to the band's early target of securing a gig at Parrilla Grill, which they did - playing in the corner of the Westside eatery in front of a garbage can with no P.A. system. That was in 2000 and now, more than eight years later, the band is unveiling its new album, Let it All Be Good, at a much-talked-about Tower Theatre show.
Four-fifths of the group is gathered in percussionist Dale Largent's home studio space near downtown Bend before a Friday night rehearsal with a collection of five or so friends sitting outside the semi circle we've formed in the center of the room. Beers are sipped freely and frequently by all and the mood is laid back to the point that it's tough to tell whether or not the actual interview will actually begin. But soon we're discussing the band's popularity in Bend, the year-plus recording of its new record and why they don't mind being called a bluegrass band.
"I can't believe it's been nine years, that's kind of crazy," says fiddler Jenny Harada, who has just entered the room and grabbed a folding chair, thus filling out the quintet. The others seem to agree and say there have been some simple rewards along the way.
"There's the occasional smile from one to the other on stage. Every time we progress to a certain point I'll look over to [mandolin player] Joe [Shulte] and he'll look back with a smile because he and I were the very first two," says bassist Dan McClung.
But it seems the show at the Tower might be the most tangible reward for the Ramblers. The band's manager and sound technician, Drew Kelliher, leans in and adds some details about the Tower show, saying not only will it be recorded for a possible DVD project, but the performance will include two sets from the band. And they're even moving some seats out to allow for some rare dancing on the Tower floor. All in all, the show seems intended to be a celebration for not only the band, but also the throngs of fans it's earned over the past decade, a group that is almost always ready to get down at a Ramblers show.
"I'm always amazed that people are there to rage," Hyman says with the Tennessee twang - holding out the long "a" sound on "rage." "It's great that we know a lot of these people."
But in the last couple of years the Moon Mountain Rambler brand has become more familiar outside of Bend with the band gaining steam in Eugene and Ashland and other Northwest cities thanks in some part to McMenamins, which has twice booked them on tours of their pubs. Now, with a deftly produced 11-track album that spans the band's genre-hopping acoustic abilities, the group that readers of this paper have twice voted "Best Band" is looking to build on its accomplishments without sacrificing their supremely laid back approach. They're grateful for their massive local fanbase, but also concerned with supporting other Bend-area acts. The five musicians are also tough to predict. For example, this is what Shulte says when the band is going around the room listing musical influences:
"I hardly listen to bluegrass anymore. I usually listen to '90s grunge and bad gangsta rap and stuff. I like hard music a lot. I can't do soft music, even when it comes to bluegrass," says Shulte.
There aren't too many mandolin players rolling around listening to gangsta rap. But then again, there aren't many bands comprised of bass, guitar, mandolin, violin and hand drums that sound like Moon Mountain Ramblers. This is probably why the Rambers are often referred to as a "bluegrass band" when they rarely play bluegrass tunes.
"I never get upset when people call it a bluegrass band, but that's the closest you can get. I mean, we still don't know what to call it," says Hyman.
Before they break for their rehearsal, there's one last try to get anyone in this frustratingly humble band to comment on what it's like to be the city's most respected and, hey let's face it, popular band. Largent offers an answer:
"We're just doing what we do because it seems like the right thing to do as musical artists and it's so fantastic that so many people agree," he says and there seems to be a pleasant consensus around the room.
Moon Mountain Ramblers CD Release Party
7pm doors, 8pm show. Saturday, January 24. Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St., 317-0700. $10/advance, $12/day of. Tickets at Ranch Records, Music Makers, BIGS, Cosmic Depot, String Theory Music. All ages.
Photo by Ben Moon