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Friends of the DFC - Ragged Union

If you haven’t heard of Ragged Union, you are in for a real treat! The band is made up of founder Geoff Union (guitar, vocals), Elio Schiavo (mandolin, vocals), Rebekah Durham (fiddle, vocals) and Matt Thomas (bass). Ragged Union has gone through some changes over the years, but this latest incarnation feels and sounds more than just right on their new album Round Feet, Chrome Smile.

Musical Evolution
The original Ragged Union (2014-2018) was a typical six-piece bluegrass band with a more traditional approach. Geoff says they “still wrote original material, but it had a straight-ahead bluegrass style, more than we’re doing now.” By the beginning of 2019, everyone in the band had left and Geoff was ready to call it quits too, “but people kept calling me for gigs and I wanted to do them.” 

Luckily that fall, a mutual friend intervened and introduced Geoff to Elio. “We started playing together, and then with Rebekah (Elio’s then fiancé, now wife). Then COVID hit. We got together when we could and played music and tried to have fun … outside, wearing masks, twenty feet apart. So, the three of us have formed the core group of the new version of the band.”

Musically, Geoff says, Ragged Union’s sound has shifted in a more interesting direction than the original band. “The musical scope is way broader now than it used to be. You can still hear bluegrass in the music, but there’s a lot more going on and more places we can go with the sound, the music, the style, the composition and arranging. It’s fun! 

“Another big difference is the band before was me, my wife (Christina) and a bunch of great musicians who were just sidemen, which is perfectly fine – lots of bands operate like that. But now the cool thing about this version of the band is that everyone is here because they want to be in the band. We like the band, we like playing together and it feels more organic and like we’re on the same team.”  

Just Call it Good Music
Geoff isn’t really concerned with labeling Ragged Union’s genre of music. But he knows some folks are. “Depending on who you talk to, labeling music is a problem. If I call it bluegrass, some people aren’t going to care and some people are going to care a lot. So, what are we going to call it? Grassicana is a term that Bluegrass Today (an online publication) uses and they even have a grassicana chart. To me it’s just a term that means there’s some bluegrass in it, some folk in it, some country in it, a little bit of jam grass. It’s just one of those terms that if you had to label our music, you could call it that and it would make sense to some people. It’s bluegrass with a broader scope of musical style.”

The Gateway Drug to Bluegrass
Geoff and Elio share some of the same musical influences including the Jerry Garcia/David Grisman collaboration, Old & In the Way, and the Grateful Dead. And then the music goes off in every direction, in a good way. Geoff says his first taste of bluegrass came from “listening to Doc Watson. That was a pretty direct connection to a really cool sound on an instrument that I played. But I was attracted to music like the music Tony Rice recorded of Gordon Lightfoot songs and others, sort of nontraditional bluegrass songs that he chose to cover. There’s even a version of a Joni Mitchell song. It’s the sound of bluegrass but the songwriting and musical changes of other genres.”

For Elio, his first experience with bluegrass was his “dad having The Seldom Scene’s Live at the Cellar Door and Willie Nelson’s Stardust on repeat for a long time. I remember loving that Seldom Scene record. And then obviously the Jerry Garcia/David Grisman collaboration that was happening in the ‘80s. That’s how I found my way into playing mandolin and learning about bluegrass music. That was a gateway drug for a lot of people who were into the Grateful Dead. Good stuff.” 

Weird, Magical Lyrics
Geoff’s songwriting has been described as “light and bouncy on the surface, but lyrically deep and complex, with plenty of twists and turns to make the listener come back again and again”. And if you’ve listened to songs on Round Feet, Chrome Smile, like “Somebody Call the Doctor” and “Mirror Lake” you can hear just how true that is.

For Geoff, inspiration comes from a number of different places. “On the one hand, I sometimes cowrite with an old friend of mine. He’s kind of a poet so he’ll send me his poetry and sometimes it translates into something that’s useful for songwriting. Some of it is out there and I don’t know what he’s talking about. That’s part of it - finding some cool lyrics he sends me. Sometimes shit comes to me in the middle of the night and I write it down or record it. Then later, I have to turn the sound up all the way because I was whisper singing in the middle of the night. I get inspiration when I’m driving around. Your subconscious sometimes comes up with some cool ideas and you’ve got to get it down somewhere. I like to write about something that’s real to me.

“Growing up listening to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, you get used to those weird, magical lyrics. I like country music but writing wise … none of that bad stuff every happens to me, fortunately. The things that come to my mind writing wise are more like Robert Plant or David Crosby. For me it’s always an intersection of that bluegrass sound and instrumentation and feel, and the songwriting style that’s not traditional country.” 

A Unique Recording Space
Geoff does accounting for the Nevei Kodesh synagogue in Boulder and during COVID, the band played a few livestream concerts there. Elio describes the synagogue as “a cool place. The sound … it’s very big and all wood inside with a giant vaulted ceiling. And I thought it would be awesome to do some recording in there. Geoff made it his job to rent out the space for a week. We loaded up a bunch of equipment, set it up and spent five or six days recording all the tracks for the new record. It came out nicely. There are two songs on the record that weren’t recorded in that space. To the trained ear you can tell the difference. And you can only hear one bus if you turn it up super loud." [laughter]

34 Years of Iron Maiden
Although he enjoys playing Ragged Union’s style of bluegrass, Geoff doesn’t listen to it. He’s currently catching up on decades of music from a favorite band, Iron Maiden. He realized that he “had stopped listening to them after whatever album they put out in 1988 (Seventh Son of a Seventh Son). I’ve been catching up on that – there’s some interesting stuff in their catalogue. And I’ve been listening to a lot of Fela Kuti and Afrobeat, music from Ghana, Nigeria from the ‘60s/’70s especially.”

Rebekah is practicing for some upcoming symphony performances, so there’s a lot of symphony music around the house for her and Elio these days. He’s also a big Radiohead fan. “That’s been my mainstay of listening and gaining influence. We just got a new record player and shopped for a bunch of records. We’ve had Harry Styles stuck in our heads for a week straight. There’s also Jon Batiste’s new record, which is really good. I’m trying to not just listen to the oldies I’m used to – trying to listen to new things.” 

Taking Music to the People
Ragged Union has been performing around Colorado this summer. They’re happy that “after COVID all the old spots are opening up again. But we don’t have any solid plans to take it on the road anytime soon. We’re nailing down some dates for festivals next year. The old band was traveling all the time. We have a new album out now and that’s what we’re working towards - touring again.

“We like taking the music to different places, playing for new people and for those that haven’t seen us in a while. The music and the players are really good, and we have a sound and an approach that’s a little bit different. We have something to offer that’s different than what’s out there. The festival circuit is really where it’s at for me. The audience comes to hear that kind of music. They hear us and we’re interesting and we make some new fans and friends.” 

See Ragged Union LIVE in Colorado in November!
Nov 11th – Longmont, CO – Oscar Blues

Nov 17th – Golden, CO – New Terrain Brewing Company
Nov 25th – Denver, CO – Globe Hall