Some hear blues, others hear jazz, some think it's bluegrass, others call it hillbilly swing. The Muddy Basin Ramblers don't care what you name it. They just love to play. The Ramblers draw inspiration from jug bands, blues songsters, string bands and swing jazz groups from the early 20th century, and seek to breathe fresh attitude into these classic sounds.
Imagine if troubadours from America's medicine show era found themselves wandering through Asia. This sums up the spirit behind the music of the Ramblers, a group of American and UK expatriates living in Taipei, Taiwan. The band strives for authenticity in their hot swing and jug band grooves, but the energy behind their music is tied to their lives on "Ihla Formosa," with its mix of vibrant modernism, quaint tradition and the carefree attitude that goes hand-in-hand with island life.
The band has always played a classic repertoire, whether it's songs by delta blues great Charlie Patton, jug band/medicine show legends Gus Cannon and the Memphis Jug Band or a swing jazz standard. Nowadays the Ramblers mainly perform original material, showcased on latest double-length album released in November 2013, the "Formosa Medicine Show."
Ask the Muddy Basin Ramblers how they managed to start a jug band in Taiwan and then keep it going for over a decade, and they'll say they're wondering the same thing. Little did the guys expect that their beer-fueled, Friday-night acoustic jams in a corner of a park in Taipei would get them to where they are today: playing major festivals across Taiwan to a strong, loyal following, with two well-received albums under their belts.
But as they say, it's all about the music. The band members, all long-term residents of Taipei and enthusiasts of Chinese language and culture, bonded over a mutual love of roots music and making "homemade jam" to get their minds off the hustle and bustle of city life, not to mention the grind of a day job. Why the name "Muddy Basin"? Like any band worth its salt, the Ramblers derive their name from geography. The "Muddy Basin" is the band's chosen affectionate name for their adopted home and city, tucked inside the rainy and wet Taipei Basin.
The Ramblers never fail to attract and then keep a crowd's attention, with their array of instruments and penchant for good-natured mischief. They've played on all kinds of stages, from festivals and pubs to parties and public parks, and have shared the stage with a wide range of artists: the talented Canadian singer-songwriter Dana Wylie, Taiwanese folk singer and protest music icon Lin Sheng-xiang, Okinawan musician Takashi Hirayasu, and acclaimed American blues artist Nathan James. The Ramblers were also pleased and honored to be Michelle Shocked's backing band when she played in Taipei in 2005.
The Ramblers' unique and lovingly crafted concoction of swing, traditional jazz, string band and blues also incorporates music from other "worlds." From the band, one will also hear sounds from the Pacific Islands, Taiwanese temple music, Japanese Enka melodies and an occasional gypsy tune. Anything goes, the band says, as long as it makes people smile and move. Their sweet "noise" comes from an assortment of string, brass, and homemade instruments, which include kazoos, a ceramic jug, a washboard and a washtub bass. Having fun has always been the top priority for the band, but they have also come to be regarded as accomplished musicians in Taiwan. Vocalist/multi-instrumentalist David Chen and harmonica player Conor Prunty shared a Golden Melody Award, Taiwan's highest music honor, with folk singer Lo Sirong, as well as the Golden Indie Music award for best folk album of 2012 for their record "The Flowers Beckon".
The Muddy Basin Ramblers were formed in 2002 by David, who originally hails from Chillicothe, Ohio, and includes members Tim Hogan, of California, on washboard and percussion; TC Lin, originally from the US but now a proud Taiwanese citizen, on washtub bass, baritone, and trumpet; Sandy Murray, of Scotland, on ukulele and tenor and soprano saxophones, Conor Prunty, of London, on harmonica, washtub bass, and ukulele; and Will "Slim" Thelin, from Omaha, Nebraska, on jug, tap shoes, kazoos, trombone, and vocals.
Throughout the years, the Ramblers consider themselves fortunate to have worked with talented friends, including the aforementioned Dana Wylie and violinist-turned-professional-adventure-seeker Zoe Moffat. The band is pleased to be currently collaborating with Eddie Lin, a young and talented jazz pianist from Taipei, and Canadian singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Marie-Josée "Mojo" Laviolette, both of whom feature on the Ramblers' latest record.
The group's self-titled debut CD has delighted fans and music lovers all over the world, and has become a cult classic among fans in Taipei. In 2013, the band members outdid themselves with the release of "Formosa Medicine Show," a 23-song extravaganza of almost all original songs. The CD was nominated at the 57th Grammy Awards for best packaging design.