There’s a certain irony in seeing a massive 45’ Prevost touring bus laminated with the images of a band named the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, and it’s leveled up in that one of the prominently featured “Boys” is actually a female. Once upon a time, that band name may have been a more accurate description, but it appears now that the moniker is more about nostalgia. Speaking of which, the product that claims the most real estate on the rolling billboard is Ole Smoky Distillery, the band’s primary sponsor and the reason the band exists in the first place. What started as a house band to entertain the tourists at their flagship facility in Gatlinburg has segued into four albums, an international touring schedule, multiple award nominations, and, not surprisingly, a few wins.
Their bus driver, Tommy Brown, also the father of the band’s banjo player, Jereme Brown, expertly navigated a 180 degree turnaround on a narrow side road and eased into an acceptable parking spot (the side of the road). He then picked up a guitar and filled in for then-ailing guitar player, Josh Rinkel, and took the lead vocals on several tunes that night, as well. Hands down, he earned band’s MVP award for the evening (week? month?).
For the few bluegrass fans who might not be familiar with the Grammy-nominated, IBMA New Artist of the Year-winning band, they consist of band leader C.J. Lewandowski on mandolin and vocals, Jereme Brown on banjo and vocals, Jasper Lorentson on bass, Josh Rinkel on guitar and vocals, and newest member Laura Orshaw on fiddle and vocals. First signed to Rounder records, who released the aforementioned Grammy-nominated album, Toil, Tears, & Trouble, the band now calls Smithsonian Folkways their label home, on which they have released their latest album, Never Slow Down.
The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys’ popularity has put them in the headlining spotlight on many occasions in the past several years, drawing in new bluegrass fans with their traditional yet edgy style and down-home cool stage presence. That night, the spotlight was shining in what might be the smallest venue they’ve played in quite some time: Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge. A trendy dive-bar just outside the Nashville city limits, the gold fringe backdrop of the small stage looked more than appropriate, setting the scene for the rhinestone string ties and colorful suits donned by the tattooed boys - seemingly a world away from their once daily “costumes” of bib overalls.
Standing across a high-top table from the band’s founder, mandolinist/singer C.J. Lewandowski and fiddler/vocalist Laura Orshaw, I couldn’t help but first address the aforementioned stand-out with the newest “Boy”.
“Coming from a female perspective, how is it joining a band that’s all about the boys?”
Laughing, she says, “We talked about it… whether it made sense to keep the band name, and I kind of wanted to keep it the way it was because it gets people thinking. Like, it’s a little bit of ‘… oh my gosh, women can play traditional bluegrass, too, and wow, she’s able to do everything that they can do and fits in well!’ It never has bothered me to be one of the boys, but I think in this aspect, it made more of an impact to keep the same name and make people think a little bit about what stereotypes are out there about traditional bluegrass music and how anybody that loves it can do it.”
As far as their luxe transportation, CJ was quick to respond, “The bus keeps us true to the name.” Though that may have been said tongue-in-cheek, in keeping with another long-standing bluegrass band tradition, the front man can also be found underneath the bus when maintenance is required. It’s also worth noting here that his other ride is none other than Jimmy Martin’s 1973 Ford F-100 pick-up.
One might think that an acquisition such as the truck once owned by bluegrass royalty would be impossible to top, but Lewandowski found a way. During the Covid lockdown era, while browsing on Facebook, he came across an ad for a Lloyd Loar mandolin for sale in Athens, Greece. If you have to re-read that jaw-dropping sentence, I get it. Months later, after a heavy amount of corresponding and authentication, he boarded a plane, headed to the ancient city, and brought home an instrument two serial numbers away from the legendary F-model played by the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Best of all, it can now be admired by any and all who attend the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys shows as he bought it to play, not hide under lock and key.
It’s no secret that the economy was/is taking a heavy toll on the music industry, and the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys have not been immune. 2022 included several Covid make-up dates from 2020, with pre-inflation pricing. Their growing fanbase kept them above water, however, and 2023 and beyond appears to have nothing but an upward trajectory. Dates are steadily rolling in, and a collaborative album and supporting tour with the iconic Jim Lauderdale is currently in the works.
As Jim was on his way out of Nashville to play a couple of shows in North Carolina, I gave him a call to learn more. His enthusiasm for CJ and crew was evident as he talked about hearing them for the first time at the IBMA World of Bluegrass in Raleigh.
“It’s real exciting to hear because so many of our forefathers have gone and to hear this new life put into a traditional sound is real exciting. It’s hard to do, to work within that framework of tradition and make it fresh.”
Heavily influenced by the Stanley Brothers and George Jones, partnering with Lauderdale is a natural evolution. All four Po’ Ramblin’ Boys albums contain a George Jones cover and their style is more than a little reminiscent of the traditional Stanley sound. Jim Lauderdale’s love for both is found in his Grammy-winning bluegrass album with Ralph Stanley, Lost in the Lonesome Pines and, in addition to having written a song recorded by the King of Country Music, the pair can be heard on Jones’ last album, Burn Your Playhouse Down: The Unreleased Duets. Tying it all together, the last track of Never Slow Down is none other than their own creative take on the Jim Lauderdale song “Old Time Angels”.
Initially surprised to hear their new version, Lauderdale was ultimately impressed. “It takes a special creative talent to reimagine a song like that and they did a fantastic job,” he acknowledges.
As schedules permit, they all converge at Mark Howard’s Signal Path Sound studio in Goodlettsville, TN, to work on the co-produced project. When complete, it will be released on Jim Lauderdale’s label, Sky Crunch Records, though no date has been announced. So far, two songs are in the can, as they say, and the current plan is to release them as singles in the near future.
From the tiny corner stage at Dee’s to the Opry Circle, the band’s week in Nashville spanned the gamut of popular venues, a testament to their wide-ranging reach. Keep up-to-date with the latest on the band’s website, theporamblinboys.com, as well as their pages on Facebook and Instagram.