I first crossed paths with the Ridgewood Boys last fall, having parachuted into Frankfort for a family emergency. It had been years since I’d spent much time here, and I was feeling a little shaky about what lay before me.
The Sunday after I got here, I wandered into the Kentucky Coffeetree Café, lured by the strains of music that sounded a little too polished to be live and a little too vibrant to be recorded.
The sound that hooked my ear is a particular specimen of Kentucky music that isn’t heard or played much anymore, even on the bluegrass and folk circuits, which favor full bands, usually armed with an assault banjo. All but left for dead, the plaintive sound of “the brother duet” is being kept alive by a Frankfort father and son duo.
I went inside. The music was live. I was delighted. I’ve lived in Los Angeles half my life and you can’t hear anything half that good in a coffee house, no matter what time of day or night. I figured they were a couple of guys who got lost on their way back to Nashville after playing some prestigious folk festival.
The Ridgewood Boys turned out to be father-son duo Rick and Chris Saenz (pronounced “signs”). They play every Sunday at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café from 1 to 3 p.m.
So there I stood listening, feeling a whole lot better about being back in my hometown with winter coming on, listening to these two voices quite angelically entwined as they’re singing a version of Satisfied Mind that is just bringing tears to my eyes (and I’m not exactly the most sentimental person in the world).
Rick is faintly suggestive of Jerry Garcia’s much healthier younger brother. He plays a miniature acoustic bass adapted from a ukulele body that delivers a big, organic sound. Chris is tall and rangy, and with a wide but shy smile alternates between guitar and banjo, which he plays in the old clawhammer mountain style.
As I say, this is a style of music you don’t hear much anymore. Its distinguishing characteristic is the melding of two male tenors into a plaintive call. You can almost imagine it coming back at you as an echo from a cave back in the mountains. The sound itself comes from the effect of “close harmony,” which is two voices singing so close together it’s hard to tell which is the melody and which is the harmony.
Often as not, the song and the way it’s sung is telling you a story that will break your heart without seeming to sound a note of self-pity or anger. It can take awhile to get on to that part of it because that is not an emotional stance you ever hear in music anymore. Telling the facts like they is, and the facts… a little cruel as these things go. But once you start tuning in, you find yourself having a mental dialogue with the singer: Don’t put up with that [stuff] from her! That place needs a union! Oh, thank heavens, saved on his deathbed!
Not surprisingly, they’ve certainly got a local following. “First, we started coming for the music, then it became one of our Sunday rituals,” says downtown resident Beau Barnes, who visits frequently with his wife, Stephanie and 5-year-old son, Jack. “They’ve got such a soothing, Sunday morning feel to them. We always come away in a good mood.”
The roots of Appalachian mountain music run deep – back to Scotland and into the hymnbooks of the Primitive Baptists, across the Atlantic and from the penal colonies of North Carolina west into the Appalachians.
If you don’t yet have motion sickness, it first came down from the Kentucky mountains with the Monroe Brothers in the 1930s, and imitators arose in legions. (Back then it was all about brothers, and duos as well as whole bands called themselves “brothers” because, well, people liked it when brothers played music together instead of, say, throwing rocks at one another— not that the two are mutually exclusive.)
So out of this came a genre known as “the brother duet.” Among them also were the Stanley Brothers, the Louvin Brothers and later the Everly Brothers (also Kentuckians), from whom Lennon and McCartney derived much of their vocal sound.
It’s easy to assume that these songs had been handed down to Rick Saenz over generations, but Rick grew up in an Army family, so he’s from all over the place, though as he and his wife, Debbie, began raising their seven children, they gravitated toward the southeast.
Musically, he sang in church, and people told him they liked his voice a lot, but that was about it. “My tastes in music were completely generic,” he says.
GETTING THEIR START
About 10 years ago, the family wound up in Bristol, Tenn., recognized by Congress as “The Birthplace of Country Music.” It’s where the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers made their recording debuts. Young Chris had taken to singing along with the radio, but instead of singing the melody, he made up his own harmonies.
“My first reaction was, ‘knock it off!’” Rick says. “He wasn’t singing conventional, church-hymn intervals, which is all I really knew.”
But Rick, who currently manages a network of bluegrass music teachers for banjo star Pete Wernick, gradually began to realize that Chris had an uncanny ear for harmony.
Before long, Chris took to guitar lessons with an intensity that didn’t go unnoticed by his dad, and he tore into the banjo with equal rigor. Chris obviously had been bitten by the music bug, so Rick started learning bass guitar as a way to avoid premature loss of patriarchal steerage. He enrolled Chris in Wernick’s Bluegrass Jamming Camp where students learn to play solos, sing harmony and generally become part of a musical pack.
Meanwhile, father-son/brothers-to-be duo began soaking up the traditional music of the hills in which they were dwelling, and within a couple of months they were doing their first open mike performances.
They had a voracious appetite for learning these “brother duets,” and now the list contains around 400 songs. The list draws mostly from the ancients, but they also apply their strict sense of musical time and place to some contemporary songwriters like Gillian Welch, as well as some of Rick’s own songs, such as “Where’d the Money Go?” written for Occupy Wall Street, and such utterly persuasive antique reproduction songs as “You Can’t Stow Away on the Gospel Ship” and “I Should Not Have Turned and Walked Away.”
Chris says that, when they’re playing music, the father-son relationship really does turn into a brother duet.
“Dad listens to my ideas, so on that level we’re equal,” he says. “It’s kind of an unusual relationship musically when you think about it. Mostly, fathers hand music down to their children, but Dad and I got into music at the same time.”
Chris, I think, represents a new and very healthy attitude toward the music business among younger adults in that he treats it as an avocation.
“I’d like to play at a professional level of skill, but not have to rely on music for my livelihood,” he said, a sentiment his dad echoes. “That way, you’re free to do what you want.”
“What I love about these songs is that they take you to a different world,” Rick says. “One that took me awhile to tune into, but once I did, I just wanted to preserve them and breathe a little life into them. So sometimes I’ll write some contemporary lyrics to a very old tune just to keep the tune alive.”
The Saenzes were living in Adair County about three years ago when they encountered Mary Nishimuta, co-owner of Coffeetree Café, who offered them Sunday afternoons to showcase their music.
Recently, the family relocated to Frankfort.
“The café and the Ridgewood Boys were a match made in heaven,” says Mary. “We’ve always been about community building, and their music has been such a great focal point for people gathering together.”