"Mention the word 'folk' -- or even worse, 'singer-songwriter' -- and you literally see kids' eyes glaze over," says Michael Merenda, for whose band, the Mammals, the sticker motto is "Trad Is Rad." "The way we see it, not only is this music as raw, exciting, explosive, and exploratory as rock and roll, it is rock and roll, dammit. It is punk."
At first impression, the Mammals won't seem '"punk" to someone who hasn't been stranded in, say, outer Mongolia since the early '70s. They're more like the "suede-denim secret police" Jello Biafra sings about in the Dead Kennedys' vision of hippie dystopia, "California Über Alles." They met at a Christmas party, not fighting over a bottle of glue in juvie. They live in upstate New York, rather than in a gritty metropolis. Perhaps most damning, Merenda's co-frontmen Ruth Ungar and Tao Rodriguez are, respectively, the daughter of well-known fiddler Jay Ungar and the grandson of Pete Seeger. Meanwhile, Merenda's new solo album, Election Day, resembles the work of Freedy Johnston, a (yes) singer-songwriter.
But even the Clash, lugging around at least one middle-class background, didn't fit the punk ideal. And pop in the Mammals' new album, Rock That Babe, and you'll see that Merenda has a point. The lead track, the traditional "Fall on My Knees," is full of energy, so giddy that it comes closer to the ripping attitude of early Pogues -- the band that personified "Trad Is Rad" -- than most of the Irish-stereotype peddlers who have claimed the Pogues' mantle in recent years. Ungar's vocals rise and quaver and crackle over a manic bluegrass-picking party, punctuated by her slashing fiddle and the occasional hard percussion. In other words, it's closer on the wimp-o-meter to the Florida folk-punks Against Me! than to the blank acoustic moodsters like Jack Johnson who represent "folk" to a generation of college students. And that's a very good thing.
"It's always been a great song to play at the end of a show, when the journey of the evening culminates into a final party song," says Ungar of "Fall on My Knees." "When we were in the studio, we decided to start with this song, and we used certain techniques to recreate that 'live' feeling. I didn't play fiddle, then overdub the vocal later -- I did the vocal and the fiddle parts simultaneously in the same room with Mike and Tao. Actually, when we listened back, we started to think it was almost too energetic."
Even by an ecumenical definition, the rest of Rock That Babe is a less punkish affair, though much of it, if not "radical," is at least "rad" -- as in '80s parlance, meaning "awesome." Take the breezy musical interpretation of Allen Ginsberg's poem "Lay Down YR Mountain." Ginsberg's words are such a compelling meditation on creation and creativity, it's surprising that they haven't been set to music sooner. "It sort of wrote itself," says Merenda. "My friend Dori chides me that all I did was put it in the key of G."
Merenda's sweet, thoughtful "Keep on Traveling" is another standout. He came up with the song in 2003, after daring to subject himself to the Zen-like songwriting methods he was teaching kids -- with little success -- at a music camp. "I locked myself in my stupid, broiling dorm room, opened up to the possibility of a new song happening, and the song just came out," he says. "Just to rub the point in to the class, we decided to put it on the new record."
The Mammals' rendition of the Cuban tune "Chan Chan" has such a sparse, nervous feel, it makes sense that Rodriguez -- who sings on the track -- discovered the song prior to hearing the popular Buena Vista Social Club version. "The Cuban Ministry of Culture had invited us to honor Grandpa with the Felix Valera medal, sort of the Cuban version of the Kennedy Center honors. I was in the hotel one day and heard 'Chan Chan' coming through the window. I'd never even heard of it, and it has such a compelling groove. I pretty much followed the sound out my room and down to the courtyard, where I found a small band playing. It blew me away. The musicians were really cool about it and let me play with them. It wasn't till I got back to the States that I realized lots of people had heard of it." Of the Mammals version, Rodriguez says, "It's sort of Cubalachian with the fiddle and banjo, and then you add bass and drums, and it grows these big balls."
So, about those family legacies. Not everyone gets to visit Cuba with a world-famous grandfather. But then again, not everyone can raise hell with a long-neck banjo either. Also, remember that this is folk. Just try saying that the Carter Family is a privileged "dynasty" -- sounds odd. Try telling klezmer trumpeter Susan Watts Hoffman -- whose clan has been renowned for Yiddish folk since the days of their forebears in the Jewish Ukraine of the 19th century -- that she's a beneficiary of nepotism. That's rich. The family element in folk music is obvious in the very name of the genre. For trad to exist, rad or otherwise, there has to be tradition.
"When the Mammals first started out in 2001, I think our musical backgrounds really helped us get those first few gigs and even helped us draw small crowds," Ungar says. "Of course, no matter how you get the gig and the audience, you still have to deliver something special to keep them interested. At this point, we feel we've proved ourselves to be more than mere 'folk-spawn.'"
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.