"We're kind of in weird spot because we're a little too hip for real square country music, and a little too square for real alternative music, says singer-guitarist Jo Miller, calling from the Old Vienna Coffeehouse in Westboro, Mass., before a soundcheck. "We're not really truly western because our subject matter isn't western themes, but we are western enough that we're not really country. We're in this middle ground, which I like and find very refreshing, but if people can't categorize you it can be difficult."
Miller describes Ranch Romance's sound as "a really weird combination" of swing and western. "We really mix up the genres because we were so influenced by them and we listened to such diverse music," she says. "But even though we're influenced by so many different styles, it has a common thread through it that makes it feel similar so it's not a herky-jerky show."
Among the band's biggest supporters is k.d. lang, who chose Ranch Romance to open a 20-city tour in 1989. "It established an audience for us in a lot of major cities, because her audience just loved us," says Miller of that tour. "It was really great because it can be frightening to be an opening act in a major concert. She really loved the band and plugged the band, giving us a lot of good quotes. It's been awhile since we worked with her, so I don't know that it has much of an effect anymore, but at the time it did."
Besides rhythm guitarist Miller, Ranch Romance includes Nova Karina Devonie on accordion, Nancy Katz on bass, and David Keenan on electric guitar, mandolin and banjo. The band, which takes its name from a 1930s western pulp magazine became a quartet after fiddler Barbara Lamb left the band to pursue a solo career in Nashville. "We definitely were sad to see Barbara go, but it's always interesting to see how the sound will evolve," says Miller. We've been very pleased with it we were very relieved to find that we liked it because Barbara was such a big part of the stage and sound. We took a tour to New Zealand and it was wonderful to try out a quartet sound in a place that had never heard us."
Lamb's departure was the band's second lineup change; in 1991, Keenan and Devonie replaced mandolinist Lisa Theo. "We had all known David he was a bluegrass picker, and he and Barbara had been in a band together for years. He was just sitting in with us, but then we realized that he was such a good player and so great to tour with," says Miller. After you've been on the road all the time you realize that it's important to find someone you get along with well. So we just felt like we were being very sexist to be exclusive and only have women players when he was obviously such a good choice to fill the slot."
Miller notes that Keenan's addition gave the band a musical credibility previously lacking with some listeners. "It's weird, but being an all-girl band can put you in a ghetto and create this novelty situation that can be a bit oppressive," she says. "We have a lot of humor in our show and we do some novelty within our show, but it just started feeling like we were known for being an all-girl band than for being good musicians. So it's been interesting to see the differences it's made having David in the band. It's been positive for me because I enjoy his playing and his company."
With the smaller lineup, the band now places more emphasis on its seamless vocal arrangements. "I'm pleased with the way the vocals have turned out," says Miller. "We're doing some rearranging -- David has started singing a lot more parts and it's a very nice sound."
Ranch Romance has a strong 1950s influence on its sound, which Miller, who was born in 1959, ascribes to moving from the small town of Carlton, Washington, to Seattle. "I met people who turned me on to bluegrass and then (my tastes) just evolved through the years honky-tonk, rockabilly and kind of got stuck in the fifties," she says. "That's my favorite era for jazz, rhythm and blues, almost any style. That was to me was the real high time of bluegrass and country music. I just love that era."
Miller notes that she wasn't gender-exclusive in her listening while she counts Patsy Cline among her influences, Hank Williams, George Jones and Ray Price were equally important, as were several bluegrass artists.
"There weren't a lot of women role models, but I guess it didn't matter; I was just very moved by the music itself and I started performing it," she says. "I did find bluegrass to be a difficult world for women to fit into, in a way, but my ears and my style started evolving to where I got more into the honky tonk, western swing, rockabilly sound. At this point we're not really suited for the bluegrass festival circuit; we're kind of in this no-man's land no pun intended where all those things aren't as important."
The 1950s influence also extends to the band's stage image anyone who's seen its album covers will know that the band leans towards colorful western wear. "We still tend to put on a pretty good suit," says Miller. These days, I've been into old fifties' sharkskin suits with western ties. Nova and Nancy have some really great outfits going, as well. We do like to dress."
Copyright 1995 Cheryl Cline