Farm to Table to Stage
Farm to Table to Stage
A Q&A with Kevin Ruch
Of Free Range Folk
By Geoff Gehman
Three members of Free Range Folk were jamming on a tune most bluegrass-fed roots bands would never dream of fiddling with: “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” forever known as the cosmic alarm-clock theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Banjo player Josh Finsel, percussionist Brad Konstas and guitarist Kevin Ruch were creating their own odyssey, playing instruments they don’t normally play, instruments “totally wrong for us,” recalls Ruch. Pleased by the improbable groove, they eventually shifted from Richard Strauss’ 19th-century orchestral tone poem into a song about Carbon County’s 19th-century coal industry. For good measure, they named the tune after a mountain behind their rehearsal space. As an extra added bonus, they made it danceable.
“Sharp Mountain Shakedown” typifies Free Range Folk’s free-range folk. The sextet definitely runs on organic fuel. Kevin Ruch is the brother of trumpeter Dan Ruch and is married to Sara Ruch, who plays washboard and saw. Josh Finsel, who writes songs with Kevin Ruch, is the husband of Amber Breiner Finsel, the group’s upright bassist and publicist. Everyone is connected to Kevin and Sara Ruch’s 14 Acre Farm in Summit Hill, which produces chemical-free vegetables, breads and wild wines flavored with lavender and yellow-rose petals. Rehearsals at the farm tend to be kid-friendly parties.
This family vibe will vibrate during Harvest Jam II on Nov. 27 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. All the musical acts–Coal County Express, The Day Rubies, Shane and Livi–have jammed at 14 Acre Farm. Free Range Folk, which has gigged with Coal County Express members, will perform unrecorded tunes like “Sharp Mountain Shakedown” as well as tracks from their second and latest record, “444,” a spry, sly collection of new and old numbers about nature and human nature. Produced by Bret Haas, a guitarist in Robert Randolph and the Family Band, the CD is named for a fairly uncommon tuning the musicians use on every song except one, the Waterboys’ wave-crashing “Fisherman’s Blues.”
The show will be preceded by a pre-Thanksgiving feast of food prepared by 14 Acre folks, including pulled-pork barbeque, halushki and Thai-style rice. The latter dish is a specialty of Shawn McCarty, Free Range’s mandolinist, and a favorite of Brad Konstas, who met the Free Range folks at 14 Acre’s farm stand.
In a recent phone interview Kevin Ruch talked about the harmonic convergence of running a farm, a family and a familial band.
Q: On “444” you beefed up your string-band sound with more dynamic instruments, including electric bass, Hammond organ and horns. Was this your choice, producer Bret Haas’ choice, or a mutual evolution?
A: I think it was a mutual evolution. We wanted to experiment with more electric sounds. We also wanted to get Bret and his instruments more involved in the recording. He has a basement full of incredible instruments; you can’t sit around in a studio with a Hammond organ and not use it.
Now that we have a trumpeter and a saxophone player, we want to get them more involved in the recording and the ideas, too. We met [saxophonist] Kyle O’Brien, a transplant from Portland, at a Democratic fundraiser. He showed up [at 14 Acre Farm] the day before Memorial Day and he pulled out his soprano sax while we were all playing around the campfire. And we all stopped and stared at him. It was easy to ask him: “Hey, do you want to be in our band?”
The next day we did this Memorial Day parade in Summit Hill, playing Dixieland songs, representing our Summit Hill hootenanny. We were playing these unconventional instruments, with no practice whatsoever. I was playing the trombone and my brother Dan was playing the tuba. You might hear a little bit of that [experimentation] at the end of [Harvest Jam II]; I might bust out the trombone. We’ll see how practice goes.
Q: Is there a song on “444” with a very colorful back story, one that started in one place and ended up in a very different place?
A: A lot of the songs were written many years ago. Josh brought “Seraphim Moonbeam” back from the dead. He wrote it about a relationship that wasn’t going all that well and I guess he was dreaming about a perfect girl. He used to play it really slowly and we bought the tempo way up, brought the drums to the forefront, and added more vocal harmonies.
I wrote “Squirrel Song 2” about 12 years ago when I was starting to raise a family. I played it for maybe a year, didn’t touch it for eight years, and brought it back last year when Brad started playing drums with us. It’s about being poor and not having enough money to buy fuel to heat the house. That was the sort of place I was in back then, so that song speaks to me.
Q: Do you and Josh have any special songwriting rituals, any relatively unusual divisions of labor?
A: We try to get together as quickly as we can when we have the basics of a song. Then Josh, Brad [Konstas] and I will play it a bunch of different ways. We may play it in 3/4 or 6/8 time or speed it up to double time. We may play it with different key changes. Maybe we’ll go back to the very beginning, the way that Josh or I wrote it. We’ll do it all over again until we have a product that works. When a new idea comes, you ought to be able to explore it. It’s really about having fun.
During [Harvest Jam II] we’ll be playing unrecorded tunes like “Stoney Lonesome.” Stoney Lonesome is a road just above the farm, at the end of the Switchback rail coming from Jim Thorpe to Summit Hill. There’s a company called Stoney Lonesome Excavating and Paving, which does all the grave excavations around here. So Josh wrote a song about a day in the life of a local gravedigger. We’re trying to get more instruments on the song, some electric guitar and accordion. My wife Sara is an intermediate accordion player. I got my brother Dan an accordion so he could work on it, too.
Q: So how do you and Sara maintain harmonious relations while running a farm, a band and a family? Who babysits your three kids when you’re playing?
A: Everybody in the band has kids. Our youngest is seven now. Shawn [McCarty]’s kids are 14 and 13. Josh and Amber have three kids; Amber just gave birth to Quinn. The older kids can take care of the younger ones when we get together once or twice a week. Our families show up with food they’ve made and then we go down and practice for a few hours. We make practice a party.
It helps that we all share interests. Shawn works with us on catering and he works with Josh and Amber on their photography. Sara and I started the farm nine years ago and Josh began working with us the year after. He helped in the fields, went to market on Sundays, raised chicks from babies, built chicken coops. We met Shawn through Josh and Amber. Shawn, Josh and I started playing together five years ago with this idea that we wanted to perform old-timey music. We met Brad two years ago when he came by the farm stand. He bought torpedo onions and Thai fried rice made by Shawn. Shawn takes troubled kids into the wilderness; he’s an adventure coordinator.
Q: Do you have any farming musicians as role models?
A: I wouldn’t say I do. I think Josh identifies a lot with Neil Young. I’m not sure I feel too strongly about that. Farming is something I picked up from my mother [Pam Ruch, a garden writer, garden coach and horticulturalist based in Emmaus]. She always had a garden when I was growing up and she started getting into horticulture when I was 16, 17 years old, when I was already a vegetarian. Everyone in the band has a love of being outside and working the ground. We all at least keep our gardens and have a connection to where our food comes from. So there’s no danger of fracturing.
We spend a lot of time talking about harvesting from the wild, and our guru in that respect is my friend Kupy [also known as Uncle Kupy]. One night we were in his basement, listening to eight carboys [fermenting containers] full of wine, releasing air into a water sock. We kept hearing “Goop goop goop” and Kupy said: “Man, wouldn’t it be cool to record that as the start of a song?” I went home and wrote “Bubbling” that night.
“Polypore Joe” was inspired by Kupy, too. He lives maybe three quarters of a mile behind the farm. He’s lived here all his life, so he knows the people, the culture, the plants and where they grow. If anyone finds a mushroom, you bring it over to Kupy to inspect it. He’ll tell you for sure whether you can eat it or not.
Free Range Folk: The Scoop
The first songs Kevin Ruch couldn’t forget were “Quite Rightly So” from Procol Harum’s “Shine On Brightly,” “Morning Dew” from the Grateful Dead’s “Europe ’72” and “Chest Fever” from the Band’s “Music from Big Pink.” All are on CDs he heard on his parents’ first CD player.
Free Range Folk’s covers include Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” and Jane’s Addiction’s “Summertime Rolls.”
Band members help Kevin and Sara Ruch, owners of 14 Acre Farm, make maple syrup and herbal medicines.
Ruch served as chef and general manager of Flow, the late Jim Thorpe restaurant in a 19th-century wire-factory building with a dining-room view of a stream.
Ruch wants Free Range Folk to play the South by Southfest festival in Austin, where he lived for four years.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Free Range Folk’s fondness for the Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.