APPALACHIAN REGGAE- A BOND OF CULTURES
North Carolina birthed Alan Childres. Jamaica fathered Ras Alan. Combined, the Appalachian Reggae of Ras Alan took complete root in 1985.
Come Sept. 10 at Johnson City’s Down Home, Alan will stage “25 Years of Appalachian Reggae.” The show and forthcoming performances into next year herald Alan’s 25 years of original recorded music. “The Native album came out in 1992,” said Ras Alan. “I played music for 10 years before that — world beat jazz and this and that.”
Five albums and a forthcoming new record, Love The Way You Love, mark Alan’s recorded output. Expect generous dips into each of those albums during his anniversary show. “The new one, it’s mostly love songs." Alan said. “It was written mostly in 2015. An instrumental album will come on the heels of that.”
An obvious question often accompanies mention of Ras Alan and Appalachian Reggae: What is Appalachian Reggae? For one thing, Alan created Appalachian reggae. “Accidentally, I did,” he said. “It was in the late ’70s. I loved how Mungo Jerry and Paul Simon had that strong backbeat. Then when I got into Rasta reggae, which had the spiritual and more humble part, was in the early 1980s.” Add touches of gypsy jazz rhythms courtesy Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Exposure to Richmond-based reggae band, Awareness Art Ensemble, proved pivotal to Alan’s creation of Appalachian Reggae. “That was definitely a eureka moment,” Alan said. “They were the first reggae band I ever saw live. They played all of these simple lines in exact timing. It was this unified music, which leads to unified people. I thought, ‘I’ve got to study this.’”
In 1985, Alan heard about Reggae Sunsplash. Staged in Jamaica, the annual reggae music festival instantly pulled at the musical adventurer. “I thought, ‘this is the mother lode,’” Alan said. He sold a table saw, booked a flight to Jamaica and took the last step in the formation of Appalachian Reggae. “It changed my life for the better,” Alan said. “I got to see the subtle differences in the genre.” He learned that country music influenced the origin of reggae. Consequently, a fusion of his Appalachian music roots and reggae not only seemed possible but logical. It made sense. Ras Alan said, “It doesn’t complete the circle. It continues the circle. It was country music and folk music. It was the people’s music.”
It was Ras Alan’s music. Appalachian Reggae is frayed and ragged and akin to Alan’s waist-length dreadlocks. "It’s substance.” “There’s some kind of magic there,” he said. “It happened by letting go of preconceived notions while chasing a sound. It’s a big world but a small vibe.”
Musical vibes in mind, Ras Alan will play his newest creation on stage at the Down Home. Decades after studying guitar making in Nashville, he has begun anew with his line of Childres guitars. “I’m building guitars,” Alan said. “I’m taking my guitars on tour, to sell them. I’ll take orders for my prototype. The price range is about $3,500.”
So listen close. To hear Appalachian Reggae and Ras Alan is to hear a bond of cultures. “Absolutely!” Alan said. “It’s a world music. We’re just sharing things about life.”
Ras Alan: Press
"Mountain Stage" Blue Ridge Outdoor magazine...
Appalachian folksinger Ras Alan mixes old-time and bluegrass music with reggae!
Equal parts Doc Watson and Bob Marley, The Carter Family and Burning Spear, Ras Alan has been blending old time Appalachian music with reggae rhythms and Rastafari spirit for over 15 years. His self-styled “reggabilly” has won Alan wide acclaim; he has toured Jamaica numerous times with his band, The Lions, has been profiled on programs on both CMT and PBS, was a featured performer at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival during their Year of Appalachia in 2003, and three of his albums are now permanently housed in the Smithsonian Archives. BRO caught up with Alan during a recent trip to visit family in North Carolina.
BRO: How does a boy from the Blue Ridge Mountains get into reggae?
RA: I grew up listening to a lot of AM radio, like a lot of the people in the 60s and 70s, and I heard stuff like Paul Simon and Mungo Jerry. Around that time I heard Eric Clapton’s version of “I Shot the Sheriff” and I really liked the rhythm part of it. Then a friend of my cousin told me that if I liked that, I should hear the guy that wrote the song. And I remember clearly to this day him dropping the needle on that vinyl record of Bob Marley and the Wailers' Live at the Lyceum. It changed my life. I grew up a Southern Baptist and this music had all the women singing the gospel harmonies and the spiritual feeling to it, and then you add the guitar and electric bass and the drums. I was smitten. It was cool, too, because it was a little outside the norm for a young radical forming his opinion of the world.
BRO: What is reggabilly?
RA: It’s music and stories from Southern Appalachia inspired by the heartbeat of Rastafari. We coined that term in 1991 when I was trying to think of what we could call this type of music that’s got bass and drums and harmonies with me flatpicking over it. Nobody else was doing that at the time and we were just thinking about it and it became obvious-it’s reggabilly. It’s hillbilly music with a reggae beat.
BRO: Reggae music is infused with a political and social consciousness. When you look at the world today, what do you see that fuels that sort of message in your music?
RA: I grew up in a large, spiritual family that was not endowed with wealth or land. I grew up in the woods, and if we found some boards and some nails we were stoked. I didn’t know we were poor. Now, all of Appalachia has been looked up to for spiritual guidance, for beauty, for craft, for entertainment, and at the same time destroyed, taken apart, and decimated for capitalism through mountain top removal, the coal mines, the timber industry, the hosiery mill industry. The capitalist powers came in and took all of the mineral wealth, all the wealth that we were endowed with because of our locale. They took the wealth and they didn’t spread the wealth to all the people. When I see the world, I see the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. The unfortunate thing is that the haves are having at the expense of the have-nots and are making the have-nots not have. And it isn’t just here-it’s worldwide.
BRO: So, do you think music can be a way of inspiring solutions to these problems?
RA: Absolutely. My earlier songs were heavy songs that did a lot complaining, that pointed out problems that I saw in the world. These songs were fueling the idea that we were under the boot of “The Man.” I later began writing more mature songs that asked, “Do you notice that these things are awry, and what can we do to fix them?” I soon realized that we aren’t under anybody’s boot but our own. It is up to us to understand that all we have to do is step aside and re-create our path. Hopefully, as I age, my music can be even more uplifting. We are going to acknowledge that there are major problems and inequalities in the world, but we are going to dance, play, laugh, love, and sing anyway.
BRO: So, any given night at a Ras Alan show, who would be the better guest-Doc Watson or Bob Marley-assuming Bob was still alive, of course?
RA: Man, that’s a trick question. I can’t choose. I mean, Doc Watson is like my chosen grandfather, simply because he represents so much of the Southern Appalachian experience to me. And Bob Marley, he came from such a similar situation in Jamaica. Those are my two guiding lights. I put them together but can’t take them apart. As they say in Jamaica, “Mi cyan’t sey, mon!"
"Reggabilly at its best!"
LISTEN CLOSELY - Local Music Roundup
"...the "reggaebilly" singer's FOLKLIFE is by turns joyful and reflective, trimmed with punchy guitar and Alan's eminently likable voice...it's hard to imagine more pleasant listening than "So Much Betta", a sweet-toned critique of TV culture, or the gentle moral nudge that is "Golden Rule" and it's Neil Young-by-way-of-Kingston melody."
"Ras Alan's been able to blend vintage country and Appalachian folk with the steady grooves of Jamaican ska and roots reggae. Despite seemingly obvious culture clashes, the songwriter's personal ability to correlate the two genres makes the music breathe with authenticity.
With his homemade acoustic guitar and steady percussive footbox, he revives the dusty mountain ancestry of the Carter Family while bringing a modern context to the soulful social outcry of the Marley message."
10 YEARS OF SMILES AND MUSIC AT SMILEFEST IN NC
Appalachian Reggae stalwarts Ras Alan & The Lions welcomed Acoustic Syndicate's Jay Sanders on bass for a tasty set of mountain grooves, which also saw Syndicate's Jeremy Saunders joining on sax for a few numbers. Combining the sweet rhythms of reggae with a traditional bluegrass outlook resulted in a unique combination of sounds that were perfect for the afternoon sunshine.
Finding out that Ras Alan, a bonafide reggae master, would be in the house at The Georgia Theatre, I knew immediately that I would do whatever it took to make it for the WHOLE show from the first second!!!
From the beginning, there was reggae music playing over-head, which was the perfect vibe to get the crowd ready for what was to come. Having never heard one note from Ras Alan, I did not know what I was in for. Before the show started, I went over to check out the merchandise table and check out what they were all about, and much to my surprise, there were band members AND Mr. Alan setting up and waiting to go on stage. I couldn’t help but be drawn to want to say hello to who I found out to be Ras Alan, basically, just because of the positive vibration that exudes from him and the dreadlocks that have, over many years, grown all the way down his back!
Ras Alan…Mr. Appalachian Reggae himself. Ras Alan is a beautiful rastaman and has performed with some of the most esteemed reggae artists of my time, at least…the Legendary Wailers, the I-Threes, Burning Spear, and Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. When the MC brings Mr. Alan out, they break into an old Ras Alan & The Lions tune, “Nice up Natty” from the 1992 “Native” album. In an instance, the whole place was transformed and transported straight to Jamaica, where the reggae flows free and funky. Mr. Alan even broke into a couple of Sublimesque free-flows that took me over to Long Beach, California for a moment! This is my kind of party!!! For more information on Ras Alan, jump over to http://appalachianreggae.com/ and check out the newest tour dates and awesome pictures from Jamaica!
Ras Alan and Lions, Bele Chere It was really good to see Ras Alan again - haven't seen him and the Lions since I was in school - and no, I won't tell you how long ago that was but, I do know these guys have been serving up their Appalachian Roots reggae for many many years. They are so low key and non-pretentious - singing about organic farming and mountain living - so laid back that everyone just has a good natural time listening and dancing. So sweet! A big thanks to Ras and the fellas -definitely a high point for me this past year at Belle Chere.
"Ras Alan, you have touched so many lives through your music; we appreciate you taking time away from your family to share your message with us. It was a pleasure to share such a special evening with you and we hope to have an opportunity to work with you in the future."
"You have been incredible at our school. A R Lewis is so fortunate to have had you here. Thanks again."
"Energetic and kinetic...this music sounds as natural coming from the mountains of North Carolina as the music from the hills of Jamaica's Blue Mountain Range."
"Good examples of homegrown, skanking, Southern reggae."
"People like [NATIVE]...good reaction to it in this city...good work giving us positive vibes."
"Highly uplifting, conscious, roots reggae in a mesmerizing country bluegrass-reggae style. The lyrics capture the true essence of Rasta philosophy- upliftment of the masses."
"All original, homegrown, mountain roots reggae...weaving the traditional reggae sound with the front porch flat-pickin' generally associated with Carolina bluegrass musicians. This group is really something!"
"Ras Alan demonstrates the strength of the music, Reggae, in the heart of Man...an awakening approach to the Oneness of Life."
"Ras Alan is able to weave blues, bluegrass and country elements into his rootsy Reggae fabric. It works!"