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THE MIKE + RUTHY BAND
How to Manage The Work/Family Balancing Act While Touring & Recording
Welcome to the family. When I spoke with Mike and Ruthy, it felt like I was taking a trip down memory lane, chatting with good friends and family about musical memories and new endeavors. Speaking with people who are so passionate about their craft gives me hope that true musicianship is alive and well. The folk genre has a certain allure to it and The Mike and Ruthy Band brings a certain something special. The husband/wife duo are unique yet wildly familiar and comforting; they write about what they know, yet are inclusive with their listeners all while lending a bed of music.
Mike and Ruthy have built a troubadour life inclusive of family. Ruthy grew up in a family where both parents were musicians, so it was a natural progression for her to pursue a career as a musician and natural to keep playing and bringing her family along for the ride. “To me, it’s not a big deal! It’s a challenge, but a challenge we enjoy. When we travel, if we have a day off, we do fun special family things; our flextime on tour is spent with family.” They are off and running pretty much 24/7, often “booking a show with one hand and tying a shoe with another.” Having kids is a challenge regardless of who you are and what lifestyle you have chosen. “It’s true no matter who or where you are-we’ve found that it is no harder touring than being at home.” Their children like the adventure that is touring and feeling the rhythm of the road, a unique experience that only a handful of us get to experience. “We are always together and we relish that.”
Senses of togetherness and community, themes prominent in their personal and professional lives, have influenced their efforts to share folk music with their community at home. In 2013, Mike and Ruthy embarked on an endeavor, blissfully unaware that it would become one of Mike’s fondest musical memories. Their brainchild was to create an inclusive festival, Summer Hoot, which caters provides entertainment for all ages and a chance to meet new people and make new friends. “We are very interested in sharing our experiences with festivals and traveling,” says Ruthy. The first Summer Hoot in 2013 was also one of Pete Seeger’s last performances before he passed away; Mike and Ruthy played with Seeger for roughly 15 years. Ruthy says that “getting to share that space [Summer Hoot] with Pete and the audience, whether we were singing kids songs or an iconic one, was a very special thing.” Mike followed up by saying, “Having Pete, our children, our band, along with other musicians on one stage getting to share that very classic quintessential Pete Seeger experience was a high watermark – a real ‘moment.’” Starting its third year in August, the magic of the Hoot is a real thing.
Their new LP, Bright As You Can, on Humble Abode Music/Thirty Tigers, has strong folk roots with a high level of robustness and features a full band lineup; Mike Merenda (vocals, guitar, banjo), Ruthy Ungar (vocals, fiddle), Jacob Silver (bass), Charlie Rose (pedal steel) and Konrad Meissner (drums). This album is the perfect balance of clean-cut folk and infectious blues. Their lyrics and instrumental tones are so deeply personal; they are a solid example of how music enhances storytelling. Ruthy advises to “stay out of the way and let the song happen. Sometimes I don’t know what I want to say; once a song feels like it’s true, suddenly you have something – it’s organic.” Music says as much as the lyrics do. The groove of the song is telling of everything and it is the most positive energy that you can put out there. Ruthy says, “Vulnerability makes listeners feel something more strongly. Lyrics are able to make songs really personal. Folk music is so good at that because you have a change to hear the words.”
In terms of their songs and lyrics, they write about what they know, yet every song on the album feels like its being sung for you. For Bright As You Can, Mike proudly asserts that, “We sat there from beginning to end; we sat there and wrote it all. Close to three thousand words!” Music informed the words and before they knew it, they had something tangible. But it’s important to note that not everything happens overnight. Mike explains that “Chasin’ Gold” took almost eight years to finish and that “the song really came to life when we shifted it into the minor key.” It goes to show that a song doesn’t have to be written in one sitting. Mike noted that adding a (personal) story element to a song makes it seem that much more real, relatable and listenable. Ruthy notes, “It is a [truly] revealing song. Mike says certain things about himself that holds people’s attention in a whole new way.”
When I first listened to Bright As You Can, I was immediately struck by the fact that it sounds and feels like I am experiencing the band live. Perhaps that’s because Bright As You Can was recorded live, used all first takes and no overdubs. Recording live sessions makes for a more authentic product. Mike comments on the process, “We’re all in this one room, there is a positive collaborative energy, and everyone is giving in their best.” Ruthy chimes in: “We use the same mentality as playing a live show” and that is certainly evident and consistent throughout the new record.
Mike and Ruthy seem like old souls who are wise beyond their years, and their music is a reflecting pool. Mike and I seem to have the same major outlook on life in common: something comes out of every experience. Mike advises, “Any time you leave the house, have an instrument in your hand. Any time you have an intention of making music, something will happen.” A piece of advice for musicians and non-musicians alike: maybe you’re not there yet but remember that you are in it for the journey. Through conversing about life’s plan for us, it came to light Mike feels that maybe you don’t end up where you thought you would, but you’d end up in a pretty good place. You can only set an intention for a journey, then you must let it unfold. Ruthy’s words have also stuck with me: “If you are at peace with the journey, then you have already won.”
Follow on Twitter @mikeandruthy
photos by Eric Gerard Photography