As the only singer-songwriter that is a charter member of both Reggae Ambassadors Worldwide and the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance, Ras Alan enjoys a unique place in our big musical world. On one of his many trips to the Caribbean, Ras Alan spent months exploring Jamaica by mountain bicycle, carrying solar-powered recording equipment, camping and cooking gear, and even a guitar, received from a fifteen-year-old in Negril, in exchange for fixing a radio-boombox. Both were repaired by bicycle tools. Ras Alan also carried small bottles of fabric paint, decorating local Jamaicans’ fabrics and tee shirts with red, green and gold names, teams and Rasta flags in exchange for dasheen, bammy cakes, a jam session and a good spot to camp for a day or three.
The motto “Live to pick, pick to live” was well-practiced in Ras Alan’s formative years. Seeking out new musicians, songs and of course any ancient fabled guitar, mandolin or fiddle, the hollers, coves and mountaintops of his native Appalachia were rich with experiences. The instruments went everywhere, and the only rule for finding yet another old 4wd truck to drive was that you could sleep in it. And the instruments stayed dry. Right beside the food co-op, his version of a combination picking parlor, music store and coffeehouse had patrons and pickers dancing by re-purposed bus seats, huddling around a kerosene “chimney” stove and enjoying poetry, puppetry and all sorts of acoustic music, from strict traditional renderings to zoo-grass and jazzed-up world vibes.
The reel-to-reel tape recorders of his father and uncles’ Saturday afternoon Carter Family, country and gospel carport guitar picking sessions certainly helped fan the flames. Borrowing his dad’s old Gibson acoustic to earn a “Kingston” electric six string guitar, he was on his way. Before he was ten, Ras Alan’s mother was able to acquire an old upright family piano and put it in the living room. Removing extraneous parts, he retrofitted an AM-FM receiver into his parents’ prize wood cabinet console record player. What bass!
Ras Alan sold a table saw years later and bought his first airline tickets to Jamaica and Reggae Sunsplash, a landmark Jamaican music festival held then at Jarrett Park in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Sugar Minott, Third World, Gregory Isaacs and many others made powerful music… with only two chords. Bluegrass and mountain music used three. The studies were now in earnest. How do they do that?
Ras Alan’s original songs chart the reggabilly journey of a rural mountain guitar player… from an apple barn country dub party, to a two night run in summertime Las Vegas; from the dance floor at the iconic Carter Fold in Hiltons, Virginia, to the dirt stage under the trees at the Rough House in Jamaica; from crewing on the hand-built, Gdansk, Poland-based sailboat Bagheera off the Caribbean islands of Antigua, Dominica and St. Lucia, to singing songs about dreadnecks at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC. Ras Alan told his stories in the amphitheater of the Blue Ridge Music Center in fabled Galax, Virginia, discussed ital (vital, healthy) food with Jamaican reggae legend Neville Livingston, or Bunny Wailer, in the North Carolina foothills, played Beethoven with mandolin innovator Frank Wakefield in California and drummed with Nigerian Babatunde Olatunje by the fire. Ras Alan was featured on Country Music Television’s Small Town Secrets along with Wayne Henderson and Jim Lauderdale, showcasing Bristol TN/VA, the “Birthplace of Country Music”, and the various branches of those musical roots. He picked informally with American musical icons Doc Watson and Jethro Burns, and sang on the porch of The Highlander Center , an Appalachian catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building for Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger and Martin Luther King. Ras Alan shared peaches with French gypsy violinist Stephane Grapelli at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and played music and shared a tea ceremony with Africa’s “Father of the Blues”, Malian master musician Ali Farke Toure. He performed with Senegalese sabar drummer Katabe Cissoko at Tuff Gong's release party for Bob Marley's Talking Blues album in White River Junction, Jamaica and was a featured keynote speaker at the Appalachian Research Symposium and Arts Showcase at the University of Kentucky. “We invited Ras Alan because his work challenges and invites us to think about Appalachia in a global context” said Ann Kingsolver, director of the UK Appalachian Center.