The Po' Ramblin' Boys Get Ready to 'Never Slow Down'
At age 34, C.J. Lewandowski is a restless, inquisitive old soul filled with grit and grace. Living in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, Lewandowski represents this modern bridge of bluegrass music. As the lead singer and mandolinist for The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, he and his bandmates are connecting the past to the present, breaking new ground in the unknown future of the “high, lonesome sound.” In doing so, the Grammy-nominated, IBMA Award-winning group has gone from scrappy up-and-comers to leaders of a new wave of groups making age-old traditions feel eternally renewed.
The quintet symbolizes the tradition, legend and lore that is bluegrass music, possessing a key trait of the ancient tones all too easily forgotten in the 21st century — rebellion. This spirit is at the center of their newest album, Never Slow Down, out March 25 on CD/digital/streaming, and later this year on LP, all of which you can pre-order now.
On the rip-roaring lead single “The Blues are Close at Hand,” the quintet showcases their rough and ready approach without sacrificing any of the technicality that makes their live sets such a spectacle. On several tunes, fiddler Laura Orshaw, now an official member of the band, takes the lead and offers a new perspectives on well-worn bluegrass tropes. They take on Jim Lauderdale’s “Old Time Angels,” flipping the script on a grim warning from victims of murder ballads past, and on “Ramblin’ Woman,” Orshaw puts a suitor focused on the domestic life in his place. Many songs retain the skeleton of more traditional interpretations, but the arrangements are all new.
By signing with Smithsonian Folkways, the group has become a part of a nearly century-long legacy of musical celebration and preservation, joining the ranks of Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, Del McCoury, Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, and many other bluegrass pioneers and innovators in the label’s fabled catalog.
“Teaming up with Smithsonian Folkways seemed like a natural fit from the start — this bond of wanting to preserve music and its culture, but not in a musty moldy way,” Lewandowski says. “We both love the music laid down before us, but we want to build upon that and present it to the audience in new manners to breathe fresh life into it. Preservation isn’t just about keeping everything exactly like it was, it’s more about telling the story and adding to that story every day.”
In the fallout of the music industry shutdown amid the ongoing pandemic, The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys took the sudden halt as an opportunity to reflect about the road to the here and now — where it all began, where it stands, and where its going.
Amongst a slew of new material, hardscrabble odes, and selections from Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, The Stanley Brothers and George Jones, Never Slow Down also represents the latest chapter of The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys with the addition of fiddler Orshaw as an official band member. Though Orshaw had made appearances on previous offerings from The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, her new full-time member status is front and center on Never Slow Down, taking lead vocals on certain melodies and letting her intricate fiddle work shine through with its razor-sharp tone.
The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys were originally formed in 2014 as the daily entertainment at the Ole Smoky Distillery in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Offered a shot at performing seemingly every single night at the distillery, Lewandowski called up fellow local pickers Josh Rinkel (guitar) and Jereme Brown (banjo), and soon Jasper Lorentzen (bass), who worked in the distillery’s bottle shop at the time, joined right in. Taking the stage in front of raucous, high-octane audiences, the group forged its signature sound by slipping its musical collar to create and perform whatever it damn well pleased during each set.
On the heels of the Grammy nomination, The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys started breaking into mainstream festivals in 2019, including DelFest in Maryland, where Rolling Stone was struck by the captivating nature of the act, “This quartet isn’t playing ‘bluegrass house.’ It’s the real deal, and it’s damn good — the kind of bluegrass that throws a little rocket fuel onto the next generation of this fiery mountain music.”
With Never Slow Down, The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys are transitioning into the third chapter of this rapidly-rising string act. With an album release tour and spring festival engagements right around the corner, The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys are gearing up for this impending, unwritten phase, driven by their eternal bond of passion, potential and purpose.
“The beauty of bluegrass music is not just the tradition of it, but also its constant evolution,” Lewandowski says. “No matter what we do, we’re always going to be honoring something in some kind of way. And that because it’s just what we like to do — it’s part of every one of us in this band.”