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Album Review: Bombadil’s “Metrics of Affection”

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If The Beatles and Weezer got together and had a baby, and that baby joined the drama club, that baby would grow up to be Bombadil.

Consisting of multi-instrumentalists Daniel Michalak, Bryan Rahija, Stuart Robinson and James Phillips, Bombadil borrows its name from J.R.R. Tolkein’s character, Tom Bombadil, who is equally as enchanting as the Durham-based quartet. Having just released their self-produced, fourth LP, “Metrics of Affection,” Bombadil proves that authenticity mixed with a dash of merriment and a handful of emotion equals the perfect musical recipe.

Last month, the touring members of Bombadil graced the Tipsy Teapot stage in their idiosyncratic band regalia — collared shirts, ties, and accessorized sports coats — and treated a modest but attentive audience to many of the tracks off of their new album. While the live versions of these songs offered a quirky visual to match the lyrics, the intricacies are best revealed and reveled on the studio version. Sitting down with the liner notes, reading the lyrics and allowing the songs to tell their stories truly takes the listener on a journey through the land of Bombadil.

On “Metrics of Affection,” Bombadil stands proudly at the helm of their ship and assumes complete creative control. With production in-house, the band was able to push the boundaries and experiment more than on any previous albums, resulting in a rich but not overproduced collection of songs. While vocals and traditional instrumentation — piano especially — remain at the forefront of each track, thoughtful use of samples, synths and drum machines advances the overall sound without stripping its playfulness and originality.

Throughout the album, vocals and keys emerge in the spotlight, as hints of acoustic guitar round out the sound. Melodic and often flirty piano accompaniments, paired with witty, relatable lyrics about love, loss, whales and cats certainly draw listeners in for a deeper auditory experience.

The album opener, “Angeline,” offers a catchy beat and lyrics of friendly advice to move on from the past, all made sweeter by the charming harmonies of Christy Jean Smith. “Learning to Let Go” is the album’s clap-stomp sing-a-long track, accompanied by faint horns that lend an imperial air.

The ever-popular banjo makes its first appearance on “Born at 5:00,” though it is not what makes this song one of the album standouts. Here, Bombadil succeeds in packing all of the milestones of one man’s life into a 3:11 minute song — a bold and touching reminder of the fleeting nature of of our time on Earth.

“Isn’t It Funny” features a militant drum line underlying Michalak’s first attempt at rapping. With an Eminem-esque cadence, Michalak’s passion surfaces while recounting an illness that almost ended his music career. The men of Bombadil lay their emotions out for the world to hear on heartfelt ballads like “Boring Country Song” and “Have Me,” and heart-breakers like “What Does It Mean” and “One More Ring.” This sentimental roller coaster ride of love and loss is capped off by “Patience is Expensive,” a hauntingly beautiful piano instrumental that oscillates somewhere between hope and despair.

Quirkiness sets in with “When We Are Both Cats,” which speaks of unrequited love and feline reincarnation — not the typical love song, folks. The animal theme continues on the old-timey, maritime track, “Whaling Vessel,” where Bombadil sings from the point of view of a hunted whale. While these song themes may seem off-putting to some, their unique nature translates magically, further lifting the album’s spirit.

Propelled by a rolling piano melody, the album closer, “Thank you,” is the perfect note on which to end this baker’s dozen of goodness. With lyrics like, “Keep your family close/Because when you get in trouble/They’ll be the last to lose their hope/And say your prayers every night/They don’t have to be to God/It just helps to sort your thoughts/And you never know they might be right,” listeners are called on to be grateful and gracious for all of the small, but meaningful moments in life.

Bombadil’s most recent installation combines all that is currently overdone in folk-pop — stomp, claps, banjo, cellos, unidentifiable accents — and somehow makes it feel renewed. Perhaps it is the persistent piano or the eccentric storytelling. Regardless, “Metrics of Affection” is a triumphant composition that covers the emotional spectrum of life and love, beginning with a journey and ending with gratitude.

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Interview – Dolph Ramseur

dolphramseur

Thirteen years ago, Dolph Ramseur left the tennis court to start his own independent record label, Ramseur Records. He had no real experience in the music industry, but was armed with a deep-seated passion, blue-collar work ethic, and relentless determination–three key ingredients for success in any industry.

Today his roster includes bands like The Avett Brothers, Langhorne Slim and The Law, Bombadil, Paleface, Jim Avett, David Wax Museum, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Samantha Crain. After over a dozen years in the business, Ramseur still maintains a humble demeanor, a sweet southern charm, and a homegrown love for music. Simply put, he is a fan just like the rest of us.

Recently, Evolution of a Fan caught up with Ramseur via phone to learn a bit more about the man behind the music:

EOAF: Good morning Dolph, thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Briefly, what is a typical day like for you?
Dolph Ramseur: Well, I get about 250 emails a day, and then on top of that, mix that with phone calls and instant messages. But, it’s really just sort of making the foundation for the artist, building upon that, trying to see what is coming in the future, what’s down the pipeline and plan for that accordingly–whether it’s tour dates or recording.

EOAF: So are you pretty hands on with promotion and booking for some of your lesser known bands?
DR: To a certain extent we are. Some of our acts don’t have booking agents so we have to find shows for them. But then the ones that do [have booking agents] we help out with the promoters, and getting the word out about shows and when do tickets go on sale, and how do we promote these shows, and what kind of Facebook ads are we going to take out, and what should we post on the website. There’s a lot of moving parts.

EOAF: Do you have a fairly large staff to do this or is it still a pretty small operation?
DR: Well, we are still small. I have an employee in Nashville, one in Los Angeles, and then one in the Winston-Salem area, and I am in Concord, NC.

EOAF: So you are still working out of your house?
DR: Yes, we all do that.

EOAF: That’s convenient.
DR: Yeah, we’ll its got its advantages and pitfalls, as anyone who works out of their house will tell you.

EOAF: That type of flexibility sort of allows you to move where you need to go. Do you often get on the road to support your musicians?
DR: Yes, although I can’t do it as much as I used to, just because it’s so busy on all aspects of what we do. But, yes, I get out quite a bit.

EOAF: What would you say over the past year has been one of your highlights of being at a show?
DR: Well the two shows with The Avett Brothers at Red Rocks this past year were great. Seeing The [Avett] Brothers down in Atlanta in front of 12,500 people was pretty special as well, because I was at the first show when the guys played in Atlanta. You know you go from playing to 50 people to 12,500 and you see the growth of the band. It’s pretty amazing.

EOAF: Does that shift ever seem overwhelming? Do you ever ask yourself, “How did we get here?”?
DR: Well, I know kinda how we got there. It was a lot of hard work, and a lot of talent from the band. I feel like we’ve got one of the best fan bases in the world. So, you mix all three of those things together and some special things can happen. But in some ways I’ve lost scope of maybe how big it is, and maybe that’s a good thing. I mean, I saw the guys play to 8 or 9 people in Charlottesville, VA 10 years ago and they put on the same show to those 9 people that they did at their last show in Charlottesville to over 4,000. So, I think we all have blinders on when it comes to that. We are thankful that we have that kind of crowd, but it’s not something that we, I mean, it is what it is.

EOAF: Now some of the bands that I believe you have on your roster now were introduced through your relationship with The Avett Brothers. Do you kind of keep an eye on their opening bands as a way to find new talent?
DR: It just depends. I find them everywhere.

EOAF: Are you actively looking for new talent, or do you feel like you are pretty much at capacity at this point?
DR: Well, we are pretty full, but you never know what you might come across that strikes us. That’s sort of a hard one, you know, because you just kind of get bit by the love bug on it, so I just don’t know.

EOAF: You’ve probably served as a mentor for the musicians that you manage, but do you also serve as a mentor for your staff?
DR: There’s a lot of give and take with my staff. I always had the saying, ‘big team, little me’ so we always learn from one another. I’m learning something everyday at this job. So, we share the knowledge of this, and I think the main thing that we are trying to do is to have fun doing this, because there are so many people working jobs that hate their jobs. My staff and I are really lucky because we are doing something we really love and have fun doing. As far as being a mentor, I’m not sure. I think we are all in this together, so it’s not necessarily that kind of role I’m playing.

EOAF: As a manager, how would you define your job. What are the important qualities that you think have led to your success?
DR: I guess, well, you see in some ways I don’t even feel like we are in the music business. I’m in The Avett Brothers business. I’m in the Carolina Chocolate Drops business. I’m in the Bombadil business, the Langhorne Slim business. I feel like all of these acts we work with are all handmade kind of acts. They are all unique. They are all different from the norm. It’s tough for me to answer. I’ve been at this now for about 13 years and I had no experience of it before getting into it, so maybe I had no bad habits and I didn’t know the pitfalls necessarily. We kind of just went by the seat of our pants. But, you know, I’m from a very blue-collar family, so I’m just a hard worker first and foremost. I show up everyday, and I care. If you show up everyday and you care about what you are doing, it’s almost hard not to have success, because there are so many people not showing up with that passion. I can’t speak for those folks, but we just take a lot of passion and pride in this, and I want everybody on the planet to hear these acts.

EOAF: That passion and that gut feeling you get when you find a new artist, or hear someone like Langhorne or Paleface, does that feed into your decision to bring them on? Would it be difficult for you to represent someone who you didn’t have that feeling about?
DR: Yes, it would be tough. It just wouldn’t be fun.

EOAF: You’ve said in other interviews that you are really just a fan of music, and that is kind of what got you into this. Do you think your musical tastes have evolved since staring Ramseur Records 13 years ago?
DR: Well, I’ve always been left of center when it comes to music, so I like all forms. If anything I get jaded because I hear so much stuff, and it’s hard to digest so much music that’s coming at me sometimes. My father was a big Johnny Cash fan. He was a big Hank Williams Sr. fan. He was a big Roy Orbison fan. He loved The Platters. He was a big Pavarotti fan. My father is about as blue-collar as you are going to find. He didn’t go to college, real hard-working fella. So, he exposed myself and my sister to a lot of different kinds of music. So maybe I get that a little bit naturally. He also had a thing when it came down to gospel music, he would rather have someone who was not a great singer but put a lot of heart and soul into it as opposed to a great singer who was just going through the motions. I learned that early on from him. I don’t know how much my tastes have evolved, because I just like so much stuff.

EOAF: You grew up surrounded by all of that great music. Do you actually play an instrument or sing?
DR: No. I do not. I keep telling people that I am one of the world’s greatest musicians, I just haven’t found what instrument will get it out of me. I do not play, and I think I learned that from tennis. I taught tennis at country clubs and I went to college for tennis and I kind of lost the passion for that because I did it so much. I’m almost glad I don’t play an instrument, because it kind of keeps me from overloading too much.

EOAF: When you started Ramseur Records, did you start it with the intent of putting out albums and being a manager, or did that combination evolve over time?
DR: Yeah, it kind of evolved. Again, I really didn’t know what I was doing at all.

EOAF: And starting the label came out of a relationship with Martin Stephenson?
DR: Yes. Martin had gone through the whole gambit of the industry from being an independent artists who got signed to a major label. Martin, very much like The Avett Brothers, never had radio success, but he was selling thousands of tickets in the UK, and really doing well. He had a very similar story to what The Avett Brothers have going on, where they have kind of danced around mainstream success but sort of still stayed under it. That’s kind of what Martin did. So, I learned quite a bit from Martin and he is very similar to The [Avett] Brothers and he’s got the same gift they’ve got.

EOAF: How did you meet him?
DR: That kind of goes back to me being a music fan. He had left major labels and went through the indie route and was putting out records on his own, and I reached out to him. He noticed I’m from NC and he’s a bit of a fan of music from this state, like Doc Watson and Charlie Poole and the Piedmont blues players from the state. So we just struck up a friendship, and I told him that he should come over to NC and I will introduce you to some pickers. That’s kind of how it all happened. I really didn’t have any real idea of getting into the business. When I met Martin I could see where musicians need help, and they need some support and someone to help and put fuel on the flame.

EOAF: So, a manager is like a Jack-of-all-trades. You have to do everything, wouldn’t you say? You are the sounding board, you book, you promote, you do all of these things.
DR: Yes, definitely.

EOAF: In that light, I saw that The Avett Brothers recently released their first single off of their next album. Are you involved in those types of decisions, like which single will be released, album art, song sequence, etc?
DR: That’s a yes and no type of question. It differs for every act, because some acts will want our input on a certain aspect of the [process]. Like, some may want to know feedback on a single. Some may be dead set on a track listing and some may be dead set on artwork. Some will need help on artwork, and some will need help on the track list. It varies from case to case. We are and we aren’t, just depending on what the project is, where the artist is. Sometimes the artist may change where they need help, because they are so close to the project. They sometimes need help from someone that’s got a little separation from it.

EOAF: In terms of an artist like Langhorne Slim, his last album, to me, was Grammy-worthy. Does it ever surprise you when things don’t get as much attention or the attention you think they deserve?
DR: No, no. We are just thankful for the attention we get and we can’t sit around hoping and wishing and ‘what ifs.’ We have to play the deck of cards we are dealt. You know that album to date has sold 22,000 copies. That is a lot of records for an independent act like Langhorne. I look at all of then albums like babies. You want them to grow up and do well. Sometimes they do and sometimes it doesn’t stick. It’s hard to say what America or the world wants, and the way certain things go. You know, who knows? I have no clue.

EOAF: How do you find a balance between managing all of your acts?
DR: It’s hard for me to know what time is spent on what. With some of my acts, certain employees will spend most of their time with those certain acts. Of course I spend most of my time with The [Avett] Brothers, with The [Carolina Chocolate] Drops. So it’s just kind of hard to say how that time is divided up. I’m so close to it, it’s hard for me to kind of step back and see it.

EOAF: Can you speak about your handshake contracts? Why does this work for you and has it ever backfired?
DR: No, it hasn’t backfired and I don’t know, I just got into this business to have fun. I feel like if so much energy is spent on that kind of stuff it just sort of takes the spirit out of things. That’s not to say that you can’t have great spirit and great goodwill between two people in a contact, but I just kind of like the old thing that you get further with shaking hands than balling up a hand in a fist. Again, I don’t recommend it to other people. I just do my own thing.

EOAF: What kind of advice would you give to a rising musician who is looking to get signed or looking for someone to represent him/her?
DR: I would say more than anything would be to try to master your craft, and also try to realize that no matter how great you are, there’s always ways to improve. I don’t really deal with anyone like this, but I kind of sense that some artists think they are the greatest thing since sliced bread. A lot of times that’s sort of when they plateau and never kind of get any further down the road than they already are. I feel like if you are an artist who is always trying to push the boundaries of what you are doing and always trying to improve as a singer, as a songwriter, as a performer, I would say definitely master your craft and a lot of things will fall in place with that. Also, there’s this sort of sense that you’ve got to get this success right now, and I don’t feel that’s the case. A lot of times people who did have success quickly, it would be a rocket ship–as soon as it goes up, it’s coming right back down. You have to think of it more as a balloon ride. Also I always say to steer clear of the American Idol, The Voice, those kind of things. I just kind of feel like that’s all smoke and mirrors in my opinion.

EOAF: Charity appears to be a big part of your business model. Why is that so important to you? Was that something that you thought of from the beginning, or has that just evolved over time?
DR: That might be my family background. I feel like all of my family has sort of had that mindset. We’ve all been pretty fortunate and hardworking. My grandparents where cotton mill workers, and they were real thankful to just have a job, and they were really active in their church and in the community. I remember my grandfather, who was born in 1902–my other grandfather was born in 1900–but my Grandpa Ramseur I remember, as a kid, every Thursday he would dress up in his Sunday best and go to the hospital and just pray for people in the hospital. He’d just go room to room and ask them if it was okay if he could pray for them. He did that for years. So, I guess I get it kind of honestly.

EOAF: Is there anything coming up in the near future, like the My Favorite Gifts Christmas Album, that you have in the works?
DR: There might be some things in regards to St. Jude with Bob’s daughter. Hopefully there will be some things that will come from that. We’ve got a new Cheerwine campaign with The [Avett] Brothers, the second installment of The Legendary Giveback and that’s going to be pretty exciting. We are always looking at things and seeing what might work. There are a lot of things being done that no one even knows about. We are fortunate to be in a position to help.

EOAF: That is awesome, and the fan base definitely takes it to another level as well. They organize their own fundraisers. I’ve seen it in action. It’s pretty amazing and inspiring, and it’s nice to know that you all have a piece in that, and that you’ve inspired other people as well.
DR: I can’t speak any more highly for the fan bases that [our] bands have. We are so fortunate. I feel like all of the acts realize that they wouldn’t have the careers they’ve had without the fans for sure. That’s another thing that I think has benefited me is growing up in the hub of NASCAR. When I was a kid, Richard Petty would sign autographs until nobody wanted one, but he would always thank the fans and let the fans know that without the fans he wouldn’t have the opportunity or then platform to do what he does.

We’d like to thank Dolph Ramseur for his time and contribution to Evolution of a Fan. To learn more about Ramseur Records and the artists, please visit the official website and Facebook page.

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Music that Matters – Raleigh’s Racing The Cure Benefit

Brotherly Love

There are certain lengths that a friend will go to help another friend in need.  For Grayson Currin, this meant organizing and seamlessly executing the Racing the Cure Benefit for Oliver Gant, a one-night four-venue music event that raised over $45,000 to help a brave young boy fight the battle of his life (Read: Oliver Gant’s story).

Last Friday night in downtown Raleigh, over 1,700 music fans were treated to the sounds of North Carolina’s finest musicians–including The Avett Brothers, The Love Language, Bombadil, Holy Ghost Tent Revival, Jack the Radio, Annuals, and The Old Ceremony–all in the name of charity.

The venues, ranging in capacity from ~250 to 800, provided music lovers with a more intimate environment in which to experience their favorite bands.  This was especially true for fans of The Avett Brothers, who currently sellout venues that hold several thousand.  The chance to see The Avett Brothers in a venue that holds 250 people drove some of their more diehard fans to start lining up at King’s Baracade as early as 9 o’clock Friday morning.  By the afternoon, the line of fans camped out in chairs neared the block’s corner.  Curious pedestrians inquired about the line and quickly learned about Oliver’s event.  I can imagine that soon thereafter, a feverish round of desperate texts and tweets were fired off by said curious pedestrians to track down the last few tickets floating around Raleigh.  This was an event not to be missed!

I was lucky, or crazy according to some, to have scored the first spot in line at King’s that morning.  Some people questioned my judgement, my employment status, and my priorities, but I didn’t care.  We should be using vacation days to support events that are rooted in everything good in our world–friendship, music, philanthropy, and community.  These are the things that matter in life.  The experience of connecting with other fans in line, meeting those closely connected to the cause, and standing center stage in front of Scott and Seth Avett while listening to their beautiful music, was well worth the time and energy I spent.  I’d surely do it again in a heartbeat.

Seth Avett

The brothers Avett, stripped down with only a guitar, banjo and microphones, took the stage around midnight.  The crowd erupted with applause and excitement as those homegrown, humble boys from Concord opened with their heart-wrenching family ballad, Murder in the City.   Family is an omnipresent theme at all Avett shows, and it was evermore present that night as Scott and Seth played and sang from their hearts to honor their friend Jed Gant (Oliver’s dad) and his family.  For these Avett boys, family extends far beyond one’s genetic code.  It is a pervasive term that leeches its way into the all of the lives they affect with their music, art, and generosity.

Scott Avett

What was supposed to be a 25-minute set, thankfully stretched into a 50-minute set with gems like When I Drink, January Wedding, Denouncing November Blue, In the Curve, Go to Sleep, I Killed Sally’s Lover, and At the Beach.  Scott and Seth gave every bit of energy they had and looked like they were having a blast doing it as well.  Half-way through the set, after thanking Jed for inviting them to be a part of such an important event, Seth said, “We’re gonna play one of the songs we always used to play back when we first met Jed many years ago.  This one’s called Cigarettes and Whiskey.”  The crowd went crazy as the brothers added their own Cabarrus County charm to this old country classic.  They quickly downshifted into a beautiful version of Doc Watson’s Look up Look Down that Lonesome Road.  Minus a few token cat calls, the audience had hushed to hear that Avett harmony, all while near or distant memories of love lost stirred deep within.  This is why The Avett Brothers have fans lined up at 9am for a midnight show.  Their music digs up raw human emotions that make us feel reborn and alive.  They make us remember what we’ve been through and look ahead to better days.

They ended their set with a song that has become a staple in their shows as of late–gospel hymn A Closer Walk with Thee.  What a fitting way to end a show of this magnitude–with grace, hope and faith.  To Grayson Currin and everyone else involved in making the Racing the Cure Benefit for Oliver Gant a success, thank you for promoting music that really matters and for supporting a cause bigger than all of us.  To the Gant family, our prayers are with you always.  Keep fighting Oliver!

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