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The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys - The House Band That Hit The Road

C.J. Lewandowski (with mandolin) and Laura Orshaw (fiddle) are guests on Episode 209 of The String

You’ve probably heard the theory, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, that there’s a magic threshold of 10,000 hours of cumulative practice that fosters excellence and success among artists, athletes and other purveyors of a craft. So maybe it’s not as true as social scientists once thought, but it is certainly intuitive that if a band was able to play live for people nearly every day for up to ten hours at a time, over years, that they’d grow tighter, sharper and more attuned to one another. It sure feels true with the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys.

“We were getting paid to rehearse. It made us tight, and we didn't even know it,” says C.J. Lewandowski in Episode 208 of The String. The founding mandolinist of the five-piece band is talking about the second half of the 2010s when the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys were a house band at Ole Smoky Moonshine in Gatlinburg, TN, a bustling tourist destination with a track record of booking authentic mountain music for its 2.6 million visitors a year. “Man, there were so many hours spent on that stage. I think everything in music that we've had to fight or figure out has happened on that stage, to become what we are now. We've had to figure it all out. And it happened right there,” Lewandowski says.

C.J. is emerging as one of bluegrass music’s silver-tongued mover/shakers, enterprising entertainers and cool characters. He purchased Jimmy Martin’s absolutely gorgeous red and white 1973 Ford F100 pickup truck. He also recently traveled to Athens, Greece to purchase what was purported to be (but not certain to be) a 1923 Gibson Lloyd Loar mandolin two serial numbers away from the one owned by Bill Monroe. (It was, and it’s now his.) Lewandowski grew up in Jefferson County, Missouri surrounded by traditional music. He first met his core band mates in 2008 at a festival on the site where Bill Monroe himself had grown up in Rosine, KY. They were Jereme Brown, a banjo player and guitarist Josh Rinkel, and when Lewandowski was offered a job as a resident musician in Gatlinburg, he made the calls that gathered the band in 2014, adding bass player Jasper Lorentzen (who worked in the distillery’s tasting room) in the process.

Leaving aside the irony that these Ramblin’ Boys took their name when they were among the most stationary bands in the business, they did eventually begin touring. On the road, their power, refinement and passion for traditional bluegrass reached a fan base that was hungry for the classic sound of the 50s and 60s. Two self-released albums and general buzz led to the 2019 album Toil, Tears & Trouble on Rounder Records, which was nominated for a Grammy Award. They were courted by Smithsonian Folkways, the first label to chronicle bluegrass music, and by the time the 2022 album Never Slow Down was released, they’d been nominated as IBMA Entertainers of the Year.

This is the first album to feature a fifth, full-time member, fiddling Laura Orshaw, my other guest from the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys in Episode 208. She’s from Pennsylvania, up near the New York border, but she too found hard core music close to home. “My dad always had a traditional bluegrass band, playing around one microphone,” she says, “And a lot of Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs around the house all the time. But you know, there were no fiddle players where I grew up in Pennsylvania. Hard to find one. So my parents said, well, we'll grow one. That happened, I guess.”

Laura’s got a huge role in the album and the band’s overall stage vibe, none as central as her killer vocals on “Ramblin' Woman,” a Hazel Dickens song that could have been written to be Laura’s anthem in this hard-traveling band. She tells how she balanced a full-time day job in Boston with her fiddling ways and how she made the decision to finally become a full-time member of the PRB. Unfortunately, that was consummated around January of 2020, so the full rollout of the five-piece band only got going in 2021, but at this point, no young band in bluegrass has more momentum.

The Po' Ramblin' Boys - "Take My Ashes To The River" [Official Audio]

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>