Music : Ralph White's fusion-grass music
At first, as a banjo plunks out the first few bars of Ralph White's "Look Down That Road," it sounds like the beginning of a folk song from Eastern Appalachia. However, what follows, while grounded in centuries-old musicology, is anything but traditional. It is like listening to some ancient rural avant-garde music. Mr. White has made a career of tweaking music, moving it beyond what is expected from a genre or style.
As a member of the Bad Livers, the Austin, Texas, band whose music drew on Cajun, Mexican, bluegrass and punk traditions and currently as a solo musician who has played with the likes of Michael Hurley and Michelle Shocked, Mr. White's sound has been called trash-grass, punk-grass, and noise. Regardless of what term is used to describe what he does, it inevitably fails to define what is heard.
"I compose music, improvise music, and steal music," Mr. White explains, "but I really think that the more the lines between these categories are blurred, the more interesting it becomes. So I guess I'm a blurrer."
This Saturday, Feb. 28, Mr. White brings his considerable talents and penchant for the unconventional to Che's Lounge in Vineyard Haven as part of a New England tour that stops, among other places, in Boston and Amherst. The Martha's Vineyard show will mark Mr. White's first visit to Martha's Vineyard. The show will open with the Martha's Vineyard band, Chorus of Arrows.
Chris Liberato, who runs the Martha's Vineyard record label and promotion company A Whale of a Label, first heard Mr. White's impressive third album, "Navasota River Devil Squirrel," last spring, and it became one of his favorite records. He decided he needed to bring the multi-instrumentalist to an Island audience.
Mr. Liberato explains, "I liked the Bad Livers just fine, but Ralph White's music is a whole different thing entirely. It's more folksy and rootsy and somewhat psychedelic."
Mr. White's down-home sound attracts many fans. His high, twangy drawl is perfect, crying out woes-of-the-world bluegrass lyrics. But his instinct to explore, to expand this musical tradition beyond what is expected, sets Mr. White apart.
On his solo records, Mr. White plays violin, six-string banjo, button accordion, and the eerie kalimba, an instrument with African origins that lends many songs an other-worldly quality that escape categorization.
His ability to fuse musical styles as diverse as Jamaican roots music, Colombian Cumbia, and Australian surf-punk to a bluegrass heart, which dizzies the ear with new-found sound and has reviewers groping for hyphenated descriptions, separates Mr. White's songs from any else. You can't simply hear the songs he creates; you have to engage with them, actively listen and allow your preconceptions to go away.
At the end of "Look Down That Road," Mr. White asks, "Don't the road look dark and gloomy?" and the depression era landscape of dust, drought, and broken souls - images brought to mind by the banjo and violin progressions at the heart of the song - are expanded to encompass a larger, contemporary world transformed by globalization. Our access to various cultures and traditions offers new frontiers for creative synthesis, and Mr. White combines these in a way that makes them accessible.
His music is artful. It may not always be easy or pleasing to the ear, but his talent is evident. If one is willing to listen, Mr. White will explore and expand the boundaries of definable, categorized music.
"The only thing to do really," Mr. White says, "is to just find your own voice, and I'm on that path..."
Ralph White, Saturday, Feb. 28, 7:30 pm, Che's Lounge, Vineyard Haven. Opening acts by Chorus of Arrows, Constant Sickness. $8. BYOB. 508-627-0307.
Justen Ahren is a poet and freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury.