Double Dutch

The Ranch Girls keep the heart of American country beating in Holland.

One listen to the Ranch Girls & Their Ragtime Wranglers might lead a listener to assume that the bandmembers are native students of Americana -- heartland dwellers raised on cowboy movies and the Carter family. Western swing, '40s-girl-group singing and rockabillied country are just a few of the styles that the band -- composed of vocalists Mary Ann and Mary Lou, guitarist Joe Sixpack, mandolinist Jerome, standup bassist Patrick and drummer Seitse -- handles with the confidence of a bronco buster taming an unruly steed. But the Ranch Girls' genre-hopping agility is rooted not in Nashville, Texas, Memphis or the Midwest, but the Netherlands, a land more famous to many Americans for its THC culture than its C&W heritage. It's a cultural collision that invites almost comical imagery. Close your eyes and you can see Dutch-speaking retro-rockers in cowboy garb and '50s fashions, their pompadours and ponytails hanging over smoldering squares of hash. Through the haze you can picture these vintage-minded stoners filling their lungs with primo smoke before stumbling onto the dance floor and into each other, in a Reefer Madness-meets-"The Hop" nightmare.

It's an interesting picture, all right, one that Wrangler guitarist Joe Sixpack (whose very name lets you know how he catches his buzz) says is pretty inaccurate. "Most of us just drink beer," he says from his Rotterdam home as his bandmates straggle in for rehearsal. "I used to go to the coffee shops, but it has changed a lot. People from the universities have worked and worked on what they grow in the greenhouses and everything is so strong now. Too strong. Now it's like getting LSD. It's terrible."

Sixpack and his mates now indulge themselves with healthy hits of American music, and they fuel their pursuits with a different sort of inebriant. "Before we practice, we must drink coffee," says lead vocalist Mary Ann, in sweet, slightly broken English. "It's a Dutch thing. We drink the most coffee in Europe. It goes on all day."

They enjoy being Ranch Girls: Mary Lou (left) and Mary Ann dream of their Ragtime Wranglers.
They enjoy being Ranch Girls: Mary Lou (left) and Mary Ann dream of their Ragtime Wranglers.

That practice may provide a clue to at least one cultural difference between the Ranch Girls and their American counterparts. Musically speaking, however, Mary Ann sees more connections between her homeland and her chosen form of music than many Americans ever could. "Somewhere in a lot of hillbilly and even rockabilly," she says, "it's almost like there's a recognizing of the traditional European songs, songs that have been changed into something new." In Europe, she says, "It's sort of like history stood still here for maybe hundreds of years; the people kept the music exactly the same as it was in the old days. But then some pioneers took it over to America and it grew into something new. It wouldn't have happened if everybody had not moved to America and gotten together in such a beautiful country."

Mary Ann's initial interest in American roots music was sparked by her parents, who discovered America's sound through U.S. soldiers stationed in Europe during WWII. "My father used to live up north where the harbor is," she says, "and all the American Navy soldiers were there as well. He used to peek in through the windows and he saw them jiving." When the war ended, her folks married and indulged their tastes in the records of American artists that had started arriving on European soil; years later, Mary Ann herself dug into the collection that her parents had amassed. When she was a kid, Mary Ann and her sister sang Andrews Sisters songs around their Rotterdam home. "It's almost like an addiction," she says of close, tag-team crooning. "If you're singing with somebody else and you're doing it right and the notes are reaching at the right point, you get this vibration in your nose. It's so incredible, the feeling."

In 1994 Mary Ann launched the Ranch Girls with vocalist Caroline. Sixpack, a pop musician who underwent a rockabilly conversion in the early '80s, signed on to manage the group but ended up as the band's chief guitarist. Hillbilly Harmony, the band's most recent full-length CD released in 1996, showcases the group performing a wonderful mix of buckaroo-bop and Southwestern swing, highlighted by the sparkling playing of Sixpack and his sidekicks and the tandem vocals of Mary Ann and Caroline (who left the band in 1998). The disc is a wholesome mix of vintage all-American glory, enhanced by the group's not-quite-perfect but charming, heartfelt playing. Adding to the experience is the joy of hearing Mary Ann deliver such lines as, "Hey, sheriff, open up the jail/We gotta form a posse and get on the trail," from "Hey, Sheriff," sung with a noticeably non-American drawl.

According to Sixpack, the cultural and geographical chasms between his band's music and its American origins haven't limited the Wranglers' ability to perform western-bred songs. "I think our country is a little special," he says. "Holland has always been interested in other cultures. For example, after the war, there were many Hawaiian combos. In the '60s, there was this big folk boom, and folk, bluegrass and cowboy music became very popular. Woody Guthrie and stuff like that. I think Woody Guthrie is very close to Jimmy Rogers, and it's easy to jump from one to the other." Mary Ann sees the distance between the States and the Netherlands as a hurdle, but one she can overcome. "To get my feelings back into how it used to be [in America], in a period that I wasn't in, that's very difficult," she says. "But I always try to picture how it used to be in my imagination, and then I start writing. Sometimes I just think of how my parents lived in those days, and just move it to another place in the world."

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