Red Oak Ruse makes folk music fun again

The members of Red Oak Ruse – the newest progressive folk act to come out of Northwest Arkansas – are not new to playing music full-time; they, in fact, all have a widely varied and extensive background in music and have toured regionally with a number of bands based in Arkansas, Missouri, and Georgia.

But they’re already breaking barriers when it comes to genres and traditional music styles, blending the sounds of modern and classic folk-rock, pop, and bluegrass for a sound that could be described as a mixture of The Avett Brothers, The Eagles and Third Eye Blind. We’re gonna call it Ozarks folk-pop; they laughingly dubbed it “Ozarkana” in a recent interview with ShindigMusic.net.

Red Oak Ruse is comprised of Michael Schembre on fiddle, acoustic guitar, and vocals; Justin Thomas Easter on lead guitar and vocals; Jonathan Hagood on bass and vocals; and Chris Loeffler on drums. All but Loeffler are Eureka Springs residents and full-time band members; Loeffler still lives in  Missouri – Jefferson City to be precise – but don’t be surprised if Schembre recruits Loeffler to move to the Ozarks, just like he convinced Hagood.

A native of St. Louis suburb Crystal City, Schembre – pronounced SKAMbree – has been playing fiddle since age 5, when he began studying homemade instructional videos by Doug Drury of nearby Festus, Missouri. “He would record his hands playing, and I’d go home and mimic it. He’d tell me, ‘Go watch this and do it,’ and so I did,” he recalls, laughing. “He loved me the most of all his students, I think, because I was the only one that method worked with.”

Schembre, 28, says the result is that he plays with “horrible form,” but it works. “My wrist goes the wrong way, with the fiddle resting on my right hand bent backward. He tried to correct me once, and I was like ‘Ow!’ He said, ‘Never mind, do whatever feels better.’”

He later added guitar to his repertoire, and his vocal training is evident on the band’s debut album, which is available online now but will be featured at their official album release show on Sept. 2, 2017, at Chelsea’s Corner Cafe & Bar in Eureka Springs. [See full album review here.]

Since his teen years, Schembre, has played with a number of bands in the St. Louis area, including The Kay Brothers, The Hat Trick, Mary & the Giant, Mountain Sprout, and Opal Agafia & the Sweet Nothings, of which he remains a member, along with Easter. 

Schembre joined Eureka Springs-based Mountain Sprout in late 2013; but he remained a resident of St. Louis for most of his time with that group. 

“I never imagined I would ever move to Eureka,” he said, discussing their song “Sunset’s End,” which speaks to their love of the Ozarks artists’ mecca. “I was in St. Louis, feeling like I was killing it, thinking, ‘Eureka Springs? Yeah, right,’ and then all of a sudden it just called me, and I had to come.”

How exactly did that happen? He recalls jamming on a friend’s porch in Eureka Springs during a thunderstorm, watching it lightning. “It was just, I don’t know, super chill – and internally, it was calming. It was the timing of what I needed in my life right then. I had been traveling so much with Mountain Sprout and had not wanted to move down here at all, but that night … I suddenly just knew that I was supposed to move here.”

Easter says he, too, felt “called” to Eureka Springs – but he bases his initial attraction to his being a self-described hippie. “I was living in Massachusetts at the time, and all these crazy things kept happening around me that just made me feel like the universe was pushing me to leave. I felt like Eureka Springs was calling me here because of all the crystals here,” he says with a grin.

(Arkansas is said to contain under its mountains the largest singular deposit of natural quartz crystal on the planet, “exuding an exquisite energy that has drawn many for millennia. … Between the north-south vectors of Magnetic Cove and Eureka Springs in the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains are deposits of magnetic lodestone, magnetite, and a massive 177-mile deposit of uniquely embellished quartz crystals,” state several website articles discussing the belief that relates Arkansas’ natural wonders to the legend of Atlantis and related crystalline theory.)

But regardless of why Easter came, he says he knew without a doubt that it was the right move once he got here, and every time he leaves, that knowledge is confirmed when he comes back to Eureka. “Sometimes, things get weird no matter where you are, and you question whether you are in the right place. I’ve asked myself, ‘Do I really belong in Eureka?’ But I don’t really feel much at home anywhere else, and then I’m driving through the Ozarks and back into Eureka, and I realize, this feels like home. THIS feels like home.”

For these reasons, Easter says, the most meaningful songwriting for their debut album was for the track “Sunset’s End.” “It’s just so much about getting lost in the beauty of this place and getting lost in love and in your own situations – but in a place that feels like home.”

Easter started his music career at age 4 by “banging around” on the piano and then with lessons the next year, and he later added guitar, drums and voice lessons; he eventually went to college at the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media, where he studied music theory and performing (bass guitar). While in Atlanta, he played in a prog-metal band called Beastbomb, and while “nothing big” ever came of that group, “a lot of good recordings came out of it,” Easter says. “All those musicians and I are still in contact; they are all monsters at their instruments. I could write music out note for note and we would all learn it perfectly.”

Easter played in “a lot of other bands, but it was sort of just partying and enjoying life for a while,” he says. He didn’t get serious about playing music again until he and several other Eureka Springs musicians formed Ice Cold Fatty around four years ago; it was a short-lived but much-loved local jam-rock group that included Caleb Lindsey of Fossils of Ancient Robots and Daniel Redmond, formerly of Mountain Sprout.

 Easter also has starred in a number of big musical productions in his former hometowns, including as the lead male character in “Anything Goes” and in “Pirates of Penzant” – which he summed up as “hard as shit, and not as fun as Anything Goes.” 

His thoughts on joining Schembre to form Red Oak Ruse? It’s everything he could ask for in a band, he says.

“It feels way more genuine than maybe a lot of the stuff I’ve done; there is an honesty to the content, and somehow I feel like there’s a deep honesty in the music as well,” Easter explains. “It’s really expressive in a way that has not been possible for me before. I have played in other genres, and you usually just write music for the genre you’re in; you sort of have to take on whatever musical personality that your band’s genre lends itself to. But now we feel like we are doing whatever comes naturally to each of us; we meet in the middle, instead of just trying to fit the music that comes to us into any mold in any way.”

Easter, as a college-trained bassist and a so-called “prog-metal geek,” said he was extremely relieved the first time he met and played with Red Oak Ruse’s new bassist Hagood. “With my metal background in Atlanta, coming back here, I figured I would kinda have to keep it to myself a lot,” he said, laughing. “So it was a big relief when Jonathan showed up, and he also had a metal background like me, and we could geek out on it.”

Hagood says he grew up learning classical music and classic rock, then became a committed fan of heavy metal and hard rock bands like Megadeth and Metallica; he later warmed to ’90s pop and rock, and then studied more blues and jazz. Hagood plays piano, guitar, and drums in addition to the bass; he began learning piano first, by ear at age 6, and he said he’s never taken a music lesson other than seven months of voice instruction about five years ago “It helped me learn my range first of all, and it helped my breathing and definitely my projection, too.”

Hagood’s musical role for the last 16 years has been lead guitar; he notes that he wasn’t sure – when he first decided to move to Eureka last year and join ROR full-time – about how he was going to feel turning that position over to someone else. “Then Justin shows up and shreds, and I had no qualms about letting him take over after that,” he says. 

Easter has similar praise for Hagood’s skills on bass. “Jonathan is really good sliding taps and sounds on the fret board; he knows when to drop the low notes and when to step forward and fill space…”

Hagood interjects: “But the bassist has to keep it tasteful and in line. Bass can be forgotten easily if you don’t put your foot forward now and then; you have to find the empty spots and fill those in…”

“You’re good at holding down the groove,” Easter tells him. “First you have to have the feel for the groove, but when you’re playing bass, you have to be like a QB, paying attention to what everybody’s doing, and you also have to own and use that control – whether it’s powerful or light or interesting when you’re playing.” 

Easter explains, turning back toward the interview: “I played bass in my Atlanta band, so it’d be hard for me to play in a band if I was worried about the bass player. But as soon as I heard him play, I knew he knows what the point is in bass, what his job is, and he is good at it.”

Hagood has put in 15-plus years of work as a musician, playing in bands for nearly two decades, including St. Louis- and Columbia-based groups Mary & the Giant, Made In Waves (Eurepean style prog metal), 4 Skeevy Dudes (punk/ska), and Dead Bed Bad, for which he played bass and an old M3 Hammond organ, alongside drummer Loeffler.

Hagood, too, describes his decision to move here a year ago as a feeling of being summoned here, both literally and figuratively. “I had just gotten a very lucrative job as a massage therapist in Missouri, and then the work dried up out of nowhere. I went on vacation to Colorado, and then Mikey called and said he needed me. It just felt like Missouri was pushing me out, and now I’m glad I’m here.”

For that reason, he also has a particular affection for the track “Sunset’s End,” but he said it also features the first bass line he wrote for the new album.

Easter’s favorite song on the record, he says, is “Dust in the Rearview Mirror” – and not just because he wrote the lyrics.

“The music on that song is so fucking beautiful, but it’s still really rocking. It’s just plain catchy, it’s a great moment with great harmonies,” Easter explains. “And it’s also my favorite guitar solo – nothing real fancy, but it’s just powerful and filled with soul and heart. But there also is this thing Mikey does in that song and throughout the whole album, this epic kind of sliding – like creating new sound effects – he’s simply amazing. I love everything he plays, but I can’t even do that shit with a pedal on the guitar. But … his tricks! You can get a lot more out of an instrument if you can find all the nuances in them and exploit them.” 

Immediately, in unison, Schembre and Hagood replied: “We’re all pretty good at that.”

Schembre adds that the moment he first heard Easter’s solo on the track “Strain” was unforgettable. “He was recording it, and I was just relaxing and having a good time in the booth and listening, and Justin rips out this solo. I looked at Jonathan and said, ‘What the fuck just happened?!?’ I’ll never forget that. Our jaws were on the floor, and we were laughing our asses off, but we couldn’t make any sound at all because it was being recorded.”

Easter replies: “I’ll be honest, that part is hard and it’s fast, and I was honestly thinking about (Eureka Springs guitarist) Mike Hopper when I wrote the song; I couldn’t wait for him to hear it. I love his playing.”

Hagood adds: “I think all good musicians have a lot of respect for each other; the best players in the scene really play for each other mainly.”

Schembre in particular takes that to heart even during recording, and prefers to ad-lib his solos around the instrumentals already written and in place. 

Now, with dual roles in Red Oak Ruse and Opal Agafia & the Sweet Nothings, Schembre hopes to continue building both as “tandem bands.” He also wants Red Oak Ruse to work with as many bands as possible to further build the Northwest Arkansas music community and fan base – whose support he says he is extremely grateful for.

Similarly, Easter calls the NWA region the “promised land” for musicians.

“When I was in Atlanta, I would tell my friends about this region, and they of course had a hard time considering moving to Arkansas when we’re playing in freaking Atlanta – there are commercial gigs everywhere out there,” he explains. “But starting your own band and your own sound, I kept telling them that this area, the Ozarks region, is the promised land. I moved back here, and now I’m making the same kinds of money playing Opal’s music that I made in Atlanta.

“People here are receptive of new sounds and new music, and they come out to see that music here. We are so appreciative of that support, and I hope to see that continue and grow with all the great local music here.”

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