Not too long ago, the Red Stick Ramblers ran into a problem — they couldn't find a live chicken to butcher in New York City. "It's not like you can go shoot animals in New York," says guitarist Chas Justus, with casual nonchalance.
But when his band plays, it's just not a complete experience unless dead animals are involved.
The Red Stick Ramblers take their name from the city where they came together as students at Louisiana State University. Baton Rouge translates loosely to "red stick." The local Native Americans would use red sticks to mark their territory along the Mississippi River, Justus explains, hence the name given to the area by the French trappers venturing inland.
Justus clarifies that he's no cultural anthropologist, however. And that's part of what makes the Red Stick Ramblers stand out among other Cajun-revival groups. The sextet isn't actively digging up music by old dead men to record and bring back to life — they're just playing the songs they've always known, from zydeco to Texas swing.
"I never thought of us being too conscious about being musicologists, which might have been our saving grace," says Justus. "We're sort of irreverent. We've never consciously gone to the archive and tried to find old stuff; it's just what we like. If you were doing a Beatles song, nobody would question it, because it's way more popular than the stuff we actually listen to. It's never been very academic for us."
That sentiment is reflected in their live shows and recordings, including 2007's
Made in the Shade and the 2009 follow-up, My Suitcase is Always Packed. The former's title track is a rollicking dance number about an old-timer who makes whiskey from a still in his backyard. The band met him, spent the day drinking his product, and wrote a song about it — simple as that.
Their big breaks have come along just as naturally. When Anthony Bourdain chose to visit Louisiana for a season finale episode of No Reservations, the crew asked around to find the right band for a "boucherie," a regular event in Cajun culture where the community comes together to butcher a pig and share its bounty (followed by music and drinking, of course). The Red Stick Ramblers, who regularly play and host boucheries, were immediately suggested.
"Down here, refrigeration came later than in other places, so when you butchered a pig, it wasn't like you could just save it for one family," Justus explains. "You shoot the pig at dawn and render it by mid-afternoon. Different people in the community would end up with specific skill sets for breaking down the pig."
Now that Frigidaire has conquered Cajun country, boucheries aren't as much of a necessity for food, but they're still an integral part of keeping local tradition alive. At their boucherie with Bourdain, they caught the ear of Treme co-creator David Simon, who began working them into episodes of that show as well.
They're a logical choice for a party scene, with two fiddle players in the band, an accordion, and enough energy to prompt a barn packed with people (or the lawn at Middleton Place) into a raucous two-step.
"On one hand, having two fiddles is just another way to split the money and another person making a racket, but if you listen to an old Bill Monroe recording, I don't think he ever had less than two fiddle players," Justus points out. "That doesn't really exist anymore, even in Cajun music. It definitely makes a statement, and a commitment."
Although the Red Stick Ramblers are certainly committed to their craft, their Spoleto appearance marks one of their only shows this summer. Five of the members are touring with a new project, The Revelers, and they're saving Ramblers shows for festivals and special occasions. They've been particularly excited about performing in Charleston since last year's Spoleto finale performer, pal Cedric Watson, came home raving about the experience.
"I heard it was madness. We always bring the party, so it sounds like a great fit," says Justus, who's excited to play a concert that concludes with fireworks. "Our music has always been functional. We're playing for dancers."
Fortunately, any wild animals roaming the Ashley River needn't fear for their lives. In addition to the Palmetto Brewing Co. beer garden, the Middleton Place Restaurant will have Southern fried chicken and hickory-smoked barbecue sandwich picnic boxes for sale. But good as that may be, it probably won't compare to what the Red Stick Rambler boys are used to serving up when they host concerts and boucheries closer to home.
"The boucheries kind of turned into more of an event than they used to be, because of the media attention," says Justus. "We've always just played music all day, you know? We just do what we do."