Appalachian culture remains vibrant and alive because it is continuously remade in the present. A central focus of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is to advance Appalachian culture as a dynamic and constantly changing feature of modern life. However much the old-time traditions may persist, artists, writers, and musicians remake these old-time traditions in the context of our present moment. A group like the Red Idle Rejects stay close to the bluegrass and country music roots of Appalachian music while paying close attention to what is happening right now. This is evident in the musical styles and in the things they sing about.
Listening to the Red Idle Rejects, I clearly heard a few influences. Country and bluegrass twang come through right away. The lyrics are quite serious, even though the age-old themes of love and loss remain constant. I am a rock and roll guitar player, so I homed in on the fact that bursting through some of these songs are some blistering leads that have much more in common with the way rock bands dipped into country back in the 1970s and continued into the punk years.
I talked to Steve Bowling of the Red Idle Rejects, the singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist, to get a sense of what this band is all about. The band has a new recording about to be released, and many of those songs focus on some of the issues that vex contemporary Appalachian life. Steve told me, “We have a trilogy that deals with the opioid crisis …[and] address the ways the departure of the coal industry left a void in some Appalachian communities that was filled with things like opioids and meth.” Most of us are well-aware of these issues as they bear down on urban Appalachians just as heavily as their rural counterparts.
You don’t need to dig deep to find old bluegrass songs about the nightmares of the coal mines, complete with the devastation to the communities that came with them. This tradition remains constant in the music of the Red Idle Rejects. What changes is the subject matter. The opioid epidemic in the United States has hit every corner of American life, but Appalachian communities, both rural and urban have been hard hit. The despair and hopelessness that comes with the economic devastation left by the coal companies rendered rural Appalachia vulnerable to these types of problems. The urban areas are just as hard hit as younger people lack the same opportunities in industry that their parents and grandparents may have had. The Red Idle Rejects, far from glossing over these issues, take them straight on. The song “Clean Kentucky Tradition” is part of the trilogy on the opioid problem, but it deals specifically with the void left by the coal companies after decades of exploiting the Appalachian communities.
The music of the Red Idle Rejects is characterized by an ironic use of tradition with the contemporary components of rock and roll and current issues as source material for lyrics. “Moon Ain’t Right” begins in distinctly traditional ways with acoustic guitar and fiddle but is then blasted through with hard rockin’ guitars. The vocals pick up steam into an anthemic refrain. The moon ain’t right because the world is out of joint. As a result, the song explains, we are left with “loneliness and cigarettes.”
Musically, the Red Idle Rejects are all over the place. The song “Way Down Deep in the Jar” has the feel of an old Irish pub song, but the chorus references Jason and the Scorchers repeatedly. This struck a nerve with me since Jason and the Scorchers were the pre-eminent example of what was once called Cow Punk. These guys took old-timey country and bluegrass and turned it up well past 11. The Red Idle Rejects do their own pushing of boundaries with an unpredictable mix of tradition, rock, good old-fashioned songs about life and love, and serious artistic interventions into contemporary issues. Steve Bowling told me the band came out the remnants of another band. Red Idle played around for a number of years. The transition to alt-country was not without its growing pains. As Steve tells it, “I played a new song for the band, an acoustic country tune, and they all stared at me waiting for what might come next.” While the turn to country and bluegrass may have fallen flat for some, Steve Bowling and the band pressed on with a new line up to form the current project.
Steve Bowling grew up in Cincinnati. His parents are from Kentucky. “We spent a lot of time going ‘home,’ as it was simply called,” says Steve. No matter his Cincinnati upbringing, Kentucky remains home. In addition to Steve Bowling, the Red Idle Rejects include Jeff Boling on lead guitar, Daniel Parker Ferguson on bass, and Derek Johnson on drums. They have been busy in the studio hammering out this new project. The influence of Appalachian culture in the urban areas has always been a dynamic process, expressing the traditions of the mountains in the cities and taking in what the cities offer. This process of give and take is at the heart of what the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition means by advancing Appalachian culture. We keep the old traditions alive by infusing them with features of our lives today. The Red Idle Rejects offer plenty for those who favor fiddle and acoustic guitar. They also provide some rock-solid riffs and take on the realities of contemporary life. I suppose in this sense, they are as traditional as it comes.
You can listen to the Red Idle Rejects and check out their schedule of live performances at https://www.redidlerejects.com/.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.