Music » Music Feature

Inspiration All Around

Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers create aggressive, no-nonsense honky-tonk music


From out of the great Pacific Northwest come Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers, armed and taking no prisoners with their contemporary take on classic country, rockabilly, Western swing and Bakersfield-style honky-tonk music.

The 5-year-old, four-piece combo from Seattle (at least for now) is scheduled to play Vaudeville on Wednesday, Oct. 1.

The Snakehandlers were founded by vocalist and lyricist Ruby Dee Philippa and top-notch guitar-slinger Jorge Harada. Bassist Sean Hudson and drummer Kipp Crawford constitute the rhythm section.

The band is touring to promote its second full-length CD, Miles From Home, which was released in June on the Los Angeles-based independent label Dionysus Records.

Dionysus, by the way, is owned and operated by former Tucsonan Lee Joseph. A veteran of such local acts as Jonny Sevin and Yard Trauma, Joseph left Tucson for greener pastures in the mid-1980s.

"He's a genuinely nice man. We love working with him," enthused Philippa about Joseph in a recent phone interview from Seattle. She and Harada were both on the line, taking a break from their preparations for the tour.

Philippa, who is 44, is originally from Northern California and has lived in San Diego and Alaska. She said she couldn't exactly explain how she and the Snakehandlers are able to so convincingly capture the sound of classic twang while keeping it real in the 21st century.

"We definitely nod to those who come before us in musical history," she said. "But we are trying to create our own personality as a band and reflect what's going on around us, too, musically and in the world.

"I also think it sounds that way because we aren't really reacting to what came before us, and we don't think it out too carefully. I mean, it's not like I say to myself, 'I am going to sit down and write a song with this style today.' It just comes out how it does."

Philippa's lyrics on tunes such as "Since You Went Away," "Childish Memories," "Don't Need a Man" and "Drunk Talk" are so straightforward and un-ironic that they become poetry, gentle and moving, but at the same time aggressive and no-nonsense.

She said inspiration for songs comes from all around her.

"I might be inspired by something in my life, or in a friend's life, or something I saw on TV. But then when I review what I've written and am editing it, I think, sometimes, I avoid making reference to anything too timely or specific, as if I don't want the songs to become trapped in specific references, you know?"

Philippa's singing style is equal parts chirpy rockabilly chick (but not too chirpy), purring romantic and robust-rock growler. It's not surprising that her singing recalls that of such legendary artists as Patsy Cline, Wanda Jackson, Brenda Lee and Loretta Lynn, but the band's Web site also cites other, less likely influences such as Chrissie Hynde, Deborah Harry, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt and Judy Garland, among others.

Slower, down-tempo and intense numbers such as "Round and Round," "Cry All Over Me" and "Comes a Time" will break the most hardened honky-tonkers' hearts.

Harada's trick-roping on the guitar is wonderful, always well-modulated, usually vibrato-laden and often rumbling in classic Link Wray style. He is especially well-showcased on the mostly instrumental "Gunslinger (Return of Nobody)," punctuated by one of the band members roaring like a mountain lion above the guitar hurricane.

Harada, 40, says he recorded "Gunslinger," a staple of the band's live sets, on a lark under duress from producer Conrad Uno.

"We hadn't planned on putting it on the album, but it came out pretty well," Harada said. "(Uno) liked it, and everybody else wanted it on the album, so he actually made me put it on the record."

Like his partner in crime Philippa, Harada's been on the music circuit for about 20 years, having played in rockabilly bands in Los Angeles and Las Vegas before landing in Seattle.

But Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers are not long for the Puget Sound area. They're planning a move at the end of the year to Austin, also known for its thriving music scene. They've even bought a place there.

"It's about 75 percent for our career, and 25 percent personal. I mean, our publicists are already located down there, and we have family nearby," Philippa said.

"But a big part of it is as a band, we tour to earn a living, and in order to tour from the Northwest to the rest of the country, what with the price of gas these days, it's really not the most ideal location to have as a headquarters here."

Add a comment