How thrilled we were when icons of old-time music like Clarence Ashley, Doc Boggs, Kirk McGee, and Mississippi John Hurt materialized at festivals back in the 1960s, as if they’d stepped full-bodied off the spinning shellac of old records. They were our musical models from a golden era some 40 years past, when the music they recorded was definitive, as we struggled to learn their banjo licks, guitar runs, and fiddle techniques. Some of us are their aging children, carrying on and extending the old-time tradition. For example, among the urban young who were captivated by the meat, bone, and gristle spirit of the old bands were the Canebrake Rattlers. They’ve stuck together as a band for 30 years, and we interviewed three of them in Lanesboro, Minnesota last spring when they appeared at Bob Bovee and Gail Heil’s Bluff Country Gathering. Now that our icons are laid in their graves, the Rattlers channel the old-time songs and performances like no one else. Young devotees might emulate them if they could only purchase their recordings. The Rattlers released three albums: Old Familiar Tunes (Flying Crow LP 104, 1980), Songs of the Hills and Plains (Cinnamon LP 1201, 1981), and When The Yankees Came Down (Marimac cassettes 9006, 1986). All are out of print, with no new releases or world tours planned.
We wanted to learn more about their approach to the music, about the New York music scene of the 1970s and ’80s, and the Rattlers’ history and influences, so while they were in Minnesota we queried Pat Conte, Bill Dillof. and Tom Legenhausen.
COMING UP WITH THE BAND NAME
Q: How did you come up with your name? Why “Canebrake,” not “Timber Rattlers,” or “Copperheads?”
PAT CONTE: We had no idea there was such a thing as a canebrake rattler. Who thought of it first? I did. Bill did. I did. Bill did. I did. It’s a combination of two things: we had, very early on, a favorite band sound, the Tarheel Rattlers, and at that time, Bill had discovered a Texas fiddle tune called “The Yearlings in the Canebrake,” which was part of our early repertoire. And we put them together one day, and it sounded right.
BILL DILLOF: I heard Frank Mare, a “major” record collector, call him that often on his radio show on WKCR.
TOM LEGENHAUSEN: That was Pat’s name from high school, Contay.
Q: With a band name like that, I assumed one of you was a zoologist.
PAT: You mean a herpetologist. We met one, and he had seen canebrake rattlers, and said he’d seen enough of them. He said it was not too pleasant. He said that those, in particular, he didn’t like. So there must be extra meaning to that. We had a business card, and the closest thing we could come to for a logo from this printer was not a snake at all, but a dog.
WHAT ATTRACTED THEM TO THE MUSIC
Q: Most people who listened to someone like [Bob] Dylan went on, the next year, to follow the next pop thing—listening to whatever’s in style. What sent you off on a sidetrack?
PAT: You hear good music, that’s important. That changes your mind. It’s not pushed at you, it draws you in. It’s not a product.
BILL DILLOF: It’s a sense of mystery. I always went to the mystery. If I heard something by a performer, I needed to know the original source. That represented some kind of mystery to me. If there was an earlier version of the song out there, I had to hear it. And if that came from an even earlier record, I had to hear that. And I think I’m not alone in that. There are a lot of people out there who have a sense of going for the mystery. And many of us have ended up playing old-time music.
TOM LEGENHAUSEN: What attracts you to music is like romance. What attracted you to your spouse? You don’t know. Long ago, I once saw Bill Monroe on television. I didn’t know who he was, even afterwards: “Who was that guy with that little instrument?” It was riveting—for some reason, that completely moved me. You don’t know why.
BILL DILLOF: I'm reading a wonderful book about early jazz in New Orleans, and there’s a comment by Joe Oliver, King Oliver, one of the earliest hot bands in New Orleans, and he was talking about the dynamics of a jazz band, and the key word is texture—it’s all about texture. I could say that about our conception of string band music. The other thing he said, and this is a paradox in a way, is that all the instruments of the band blend together to create that texture, one sound; but, on the other hand, you hear each instrument separately; there has to be space between. In this case, room for the banjo to carry out its rhythmic role; there has to be space for the fiddle to lay out the melody on top of the rhythm and the bass. And there has to be space at the bottom for the guitar. We try to blend together and at the same time leave space for each instrument.
Q: If you learn something note-for-note, it’ll sound mechanical. What’s the re-creation process you use?
PAT CONTE: No, we didn’t learn it note-for-note. That’s number one. We weren’t that good. But what we were good at was to make a kind of caricature of the thing, and that was the most fun. It’s not smoothing over the edges—it’s not anything like that. It’s not shortcutting. It’s something else. It’s the way we hear. Nine times out of ten, we agree—we hear it the same way. So there’s not much arguing there. There’s a way to get to the essence of it without being note-for-note.