The Po' Ramblin' Boys
By Kara Martinez Bachman
C.J. Lewandowski, of Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, fell in love with the mandolin when he saw an old picture of Bill Monroe holding one.
It had made an impression. To a teenage boy, that photo was perhaps like a single stone, skipped perfectly into a still river. It didn’t just plop down dull, but it danced and made shimmery ripples that traveled far and wide and reached clean through to the opposite riverbank.
He said it was Monroe holding “that famous July 9, 1923 Loar signed mandolin.” It had been a mere image on paper, with an impact that still ripples today through Lewandowski’s life.
He was 15 years old when he saw it. He’d been learning the fiddle, but as he readily admits, “it wasn’t working how I wanted.” He started plucking the thing instead. Eventually, he sold the fiddle and picked up a mandolin.
In that photo of Monroe, he said he’d seen respect. Strength. Power.
“I felt like that came with the mandolin,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s what I felt at the time.”
Since then, he’s honed his art and shares it through the Missouri-based Po’ Ramblin’ Boys. He plays with fellow “boys” Jereme Brown (vocals, banjo); Josh “Jug” Rinkel (vocals, guitar); and Jasper Lorentzen (bass).
Lewandowski met Brown and Rinkel at the Jerusalem Ridge Festival in Rosine, Ky., when both were members of Tommy Brown & County Line Grass.
Lewandowski had previously gone to school for a bit with Lorentzen, but he was only brought onboard as one of the “boys” after pourin’ some whiskey.
“He was actually pouring shots of moonshine at the distillery that offered me the opportunity to start a house band,” Lewandowski explained. “It was only meant to be a house band situation. We never intended for it to become a band like it is today.”
By all measures, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys have left the “house band” concept in the dust. They’re touring widely, including in the U.S. and abroad, and have a number of international dates scheduled for next year. They’ve brought back from extinction an old-time classic radio program -- the “Farm and Fun Time Show,” a weekly show on WBCM-Radio in the twin-cities of Bristol, Tn. and Bristol, Va. -- which hearkens back to the 1940s and 1950s. They were an “Official Showcase Band” at the 2017 IBMA convention and were also nominated for IBMA “Momentum Band of the Year.”
What’s more, a new record is in the works, a full gospel project titled “God’s Love is so Divine,” due for release in early spring.
The first Po’ Ramblin’ Boys CD -- the 12-track “Back to the Mountains” -- was released in 2016 on Randm Records. These grown-up and talented “boys” weren’t sure how it would be received or how the band’s sound would find its spot in the bluegrass marketplace, but so far, it’s done well.
Lewandowski describes the band’s sound as “original material that sounds vintage. Vintage material that is fresh again.”
He describes his own playing technique as “an aggressive traditional style” that’s “slightly different than most.”
“I learned from several first-generation Missouri players,” he explained. “Jim Orchard, Don Brown, Frank Ray, and of course, Monroe.”
The players who inspire him have a style based on Monroe. Lewandowski likes to call it “Ozark-style mandolin.”
He likes the style so much, he’s soon releasing an instrumental album featuring his own compositions, plus songs by Jim Orchard titled “Ozark Mandolin.”
“There’s a passion I have for mandolin now that I’ve never had before,” he added. “I love the beauty of the look and sound of a finely handcrafted ‘F’ style mandolin.”
He also has a passion for what the music represents. For how it completes him.
“I’ve lost a lot of things in childhood, like many others,” he explained. “My mother, grandmother, and grandpa, in particular. There was a void inside me that I couldn’t fill until I found bluegrass.”
He said bluegrass will always be with him.
“I eat, sleep, and breathe it,” he said. “I’ll never leave it, for it hasn’t left me.”
The ripples left behind by one little photo are clearly still fanning out after all these years, and ramblin' on wherever they will.