Ramble On

Midday Ramblers cherish offbeat nature of bluegrass scene


Kathryn Conrad/Special to the Journal-World

Kory Willis, left, Paul Schmidt, Mike Horan and Leo Posch formed The Midday Ramblers in the late 1990s. On Sunday, the Lawrence quartet, shown performing at The Replay Lounge, 946 Mass., will celebrate the release of its third album, "Bluegrass Music is Fun!"

According to Lawrence's Midday Ramblers, "Bluegrass Music is Fun!"

It is both the title of the band's new album and a homey philosophy that the four members share.

"One of my favorite things about bluegrass music is the wide variety of things you get to play that you would never get to if all you did was play rock and roll," says Kory Willis, whose credits on the record are listed as "low asides and mandolin."

"It's just the craziest gigs we get. And you get fed so well -- a lot of barbecue and such."

As a four-piece bluegrass act that delivers a mixture of acerbic originals and traditional covers, the smartly dressed unit has found itself performing at a number of locales that could be dubbed "off the beaten path."

Reminiscing about an unheated church in the middle of a snowy field where the temperature was in the mid-20s elicits a few chuckles, as does a Menninger's Christmas party at the top of a swanky hotel in downtown Topeka.

"On the poster we had been advertised as 'light dance music,'" describes Mike Horan, responsible for "high-pitched yelps and guitar." "When people got there, everybody was ready to drink and party. We were just not what they had in mind. And it was like a three-hour gig."

But the band's "favorite" was at a duck hunters lodge in rural Missouri.

"We were playing in basically their garage," Horan recalls. "They were inside drinking and smoking cigars and we were out there playing on a cement slab with all their duck hunter uniforms and guns lined up on the edge."

Willis adds, "But we got fed well."

Low-watt beginning
Apparently fortified by their savory diet, The Midday Ramblers have persisted for seven years as one of the reigning bluegrass outfits in Lawrence. The group -- which also includes Leo Posch ("shouts and banjo") and Paul Schmidt ("droll delivery and bass") -- formed under unorthodox circumstances.

Back in the late '90s, the low-watt radio station KAW was operating in the basement of Liberty Hall. Since the station had wide-open programming, Schmidt used this as an excuse to corral these particular players for a half-hour slot. The result was an old-style bluegrass radio show where the members read PSAs between songs.

"That went on for a few months before the FCC shut it down," Horan says. "Then we kept the same time slot, except we did it on Mass. Street for the rest of the summer. But then it got cold so we had to find other gigs."

By 2000, the band was in the studio working on its debut disc, "Free Country Music."

Past Event

The Midday Ramblers / Drakkar Sauna

  • Sunday, October 17, 2004, 5 p.m.
  • Replay Lounge, 946 Mass., Lawrence
  • 21+ / $2


"On that first CD we were showing up to the recording sessions in the evening dressed in regular clothes, and we were sucking," Horan says. "Finally we showed up on Sunday all dressed up and (recorded) it all that day."

The shirt-and-ties look has stuck. So has the ensemble's penchant for tracking the tunes live. (Both "The Midday Ramblers Play Songs They Know" and their third album "Bluegrass Music is Fun," benefit from this approach.)

The quartet perfected its vocal and instrumental balance during its concerts, where all four players stand around one central microphone. When a member sings lead or takes a solo, he just moves closer to the mic.

This close-knit harmony extends to the relationships between the four men as well.

The lineup has remained the same since its inception -- a rarity for ANY Lawrence group. Horan mentions that they've collectively had five children come along during that span.

"We may not have actually had a 'band meeting' yet. Maybe that's why we're still together," Horan speculates. "At the end of rehearsal we quickly do whatever business needs to be done, but we've never had a meeting where we talk about our future."

Rock to 'grass
Many veterans of the area rock scene are becoming increasingly drawn to roots/bluegrass/folk styles. Established musicians in acts such as Split Lip Rayfield, OK Jones, The Black Ale Sinners and The Only Children are just a few ex-rockers fiddling with more rustic-sounding styles.

The guys in The Midday Ramblers are no exception.

Both Horan and Willis grew up playing in punk groups, while Schmidt was formerly best known for a funk/soul cover band. Only Posch has been involved in acoustic styles since the beginning -- there is rarely a calling for "rock banjo."

Yet in Lawrence terms, the Ramblers' seven-year fellowship makes them old-school.

"I think there's a difference, and you can usually hear it," Horan says of the artists that have embraced countrified styles for a longer period. "There's a depth to the playing. That doesn't mean you can't pick it up until later. I think I've got somewhat of a control over the vocabulary, but you have to work on it. I remember tinkering around on a mandolin before I ever really heard Bill Monroe."

The group admits that despite its buttoned-down demeanor, some of that rock heritage does filter through.

"When we're compared to more traditional, modern bluegrass bands we sound a little more on the rough side, Horan says. "We exchange energy for smoothness at times."

Fans of the style
The Ramblers state that because bluegrass music appeals to such a wide range of people, the type of crowd that shows up to their performances is completely dependent on the place in which they play. It can be young kids at an outdoor festival, old folks at a wedding or college hipsters at The Replay Lounge, 946 Mass., which is where the CD release party will be held for "Bluegrass Music is Fun!"

Wherever the venue, though, the quartet always seems to draw fans in Lawrence.

"I don't know if it's because of the proximity to Winfield (site of the Walnut Valley Festival), but boy, there are a lot of people here who play bluegrass," Horan says.

"Where I live there are four banjo players in a one-block area," Willis adds.

That fan base -- and the food -- give these Midday Ramblers plenty of incentive to ramble on.


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