West of Ustick - Pickin' Some of the Best Tunes in Any Direction
It always amazes me how such great sound can come from just two guys playing strings. That was especially the case when I dropped in on one of West of Ustick's jam sessions recently. The acoustic duo, composed of guitarist and singer Ronnie Marler and mandolin/dobro player Tim Bossart, plays a folksy-rootsy style of music that can appeal to a variety of people, and every once in a while they'll even throw in a Nirvana cover just to mix things up a bit.
If you hadn't heard of West of Ustick yet, you're not alone. Neither had I until a few weeks ago. As it turns out, there was a good reason for this, and it has everything to do with the Internet.
After playing for a solid ten years in local party favorite Jack Crowne and the Coronas, guitarist and songwriter Ronnie Marler found that he finally had some time to devote to a long-held desire to do his own acoustic thing. Due to the bad economy, Jack Crowne had lost a bandmate to the state of Virginia, and although the band never officially dissolved, that was the start of an extended hiatus that continues to this day. You might remember Jack Crowne and the Coronas from their rocking New Year's Eve parties at the Red Lion Downtown, where legend has it many a stripper from the nearby Torch Lounge was known to wander over just to see the band's magic fingers at work.
As Ronnie's involvement with Jack Crowne slowed, his acoustic-based solo stuff started heating up. He soon recorded his first solo album, Tangled in Strings, at the Tonic Room in Boise. At that point he decided he loved doing the acoustic thing so much, he teamed up with his cello-playing sister as well as Jack Crowne bassist Tim Bossart to form an acoustic trio named The Acousticats. The trio portion of The Acousticats was short lived, however, as Ronnie's sister soon moved away from Boise. The remaining duo continued to play for over three years as The Acousticats, recording a demo CD of cover songs and an all-original CD named 9 Lives. They also played numerous local gigs at places like Pengilly's, Alive After Five, Wood River Cellars, and the Hyde Park Street Fair.
In fact, the duo would still be known as The Acousticats if it weren't for a Google search by Ronnie that revealed the nifty little play-on-words they were using as their band name was also being used by quite a few other bands around the country. So the duo decided to switch the name to West of Ustick.
"We started out as The Acousticats, as in we're a bunch of acoustic cats," says the soft-spoken Ronnie. "We were just kind of doing it to please ourselves, but we started doing more stuff like CDs and when you start getting out on the Internet with product, you really start bumping into people. So we thought we should change our name now while we're relatively unknown."
"But we're near the top of the search list now," adds Tim.
"Right," says Ronnie. "That was the idea. We wanted to find a name that when you searched for it, you would find us."
It was a good change. Considering the type of music they play and the general vibe you get from it, the name West of Ustick just seems to fit better. Besides being unique, the name has more of a folksy feel that Ronnie says is truer to the type of music they love to play.
"A lot of what we do has a bluegrassy western feel to it," says Ronnie. "So that's where the 'West' came from. And 'Ustick', for me, I think of the town of Ustick, and it's rooted in 1912 to 1917 with the trolley car and they're kind of out on the edge of the city. You kind of think of prairielands and apple groves. It evokes an old timey, black-and-white era."
This bluegrassy western feel comes in large part from the supporting instruments that Tim plays. When he's not playing the mandolin, he's most often playing a very attractive hand-built slide dobro that Ronnie says is about half of their signature sound. Tim's collection of string instruments contains around thirty guitars, including several old Martins and even a hundred-year-old parlor guitar. He says he was first exposed to the guitar as a kid in South America, when his family was living in Santiago, Chile and his sister was studying classical guitar. Strangely enough, although he played bass for Jack Crowne, when he joined the band it wasn't really his thing.
"I came along late and started playing bass for them," says Tim. "I didn't know how to play bass, but I learned."
But Tim's not the only one who gets to play around with some pretty cool instruments. Ronnie sometimes adds a little something unique to their sound by playing a neat little instrument called a stick dulcimer.
"It's a Blue Ridge Mountains kind of thing," says Ronnie, giving it a strum. "It's a nice campfire instrument. It has that nice banjo twang to it."
What's more impressive than the novelty of the instrument, however, is the fact that Ronnie built it himself.
"I built it from sticks. My son used to work in a cabinet-building shop, and they had a lot of nice woods," he says. "It's got a basswood top, a Brazilian cherry back, and a walnut fret board. This is prototype #5. I'm actually not very accomplished at this instrument yet, but I love the way it sounds."
"A lot of people call it a strumstick," adds Tim. "If you notice, the frets are not chromatically spaced. They're spaced like in a major scale."
"But legally you can't call it a strum stick," says Ronnie. "Some guy patented that name. So we call it a stick dulcimer because dulcimers are also set up with the same fretting."
Whether he's writing songs, building instruments, or just playing around with a new melody, Ronnie says that for him music is a therapeutic exercise. This doesn't seem all that surprising when you consider that Ronnie's first informal guitar lessons were taught by an ex-con who only knew three chords and played a whole lot of Johnny Cash.
"It's therapy," he says. "Seriously, it's what keeps me sane. When I was younger I went through a lot of depression and moving around a lot and not having many friends, but my guitar was always there. My songwriting was always there. You know, if I was feeling something, I could work it out through writing a song. I can come in here and sit down and strum my guitar for five minutes, and it just calms me right down."
But there's also a lot of fun involved. If they happen to be jamming by themselves in Ronnie's home recording studio or playing in front of 800 people at Alive After Five like they did recently, it's pretty obvious that they're having a great time doing what they love to do, and that any kind of recognition is secondary.
"The week after we played Alive After Five we did the Thursday Market downtown," says Ronnie. "It was the last Thursday Market of the year with live music, and it kind of showed. There were a lot of people on the patios at The Matador and Red Feather, so we just decided to kick back and do the background music kind of thing. Everyone enjoyed it. We got a lot of positive comments for it, but we didn't get a crowd in front of us. But it's not always about the crowd. It's about playing your soul and playing for yourself, really."
The recognition is coming, however, especially for a band that knows how to use the Internet to promote itself.
"We've been doing a lot of stuff with ReverbNation," Ronnie says. "It's basically a promotion site. It's been interesting to watch our little two-piece grow in the local stream. Since we changed our name, we've come up 60,000 points. We're like number 4 on the Reverb Nation charts for Boise folk music, behind Blaze and Kelly, Rebecca Scott, and Dan Costello."
That's not too shabby for a band that's only been around a month or so. Well, sort of.
To check out more of West of Ustick's music, visit any of the following websites:
The CDs 9 Lives and Tangled in Strings are both available on iTunes, Napster, and CD Baby. The fastest way to find them is searching by album title. You can also buy them directly from ronnierecords.com.