By Noah Hubbell
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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."
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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."
On the other hand, she avoids stripping her music of a foreign accent. "We put our own culture in it," Mary Ann says. "That's why it's a little bit different from how an American band would play it. It's not better, but it's different." She cites the group's harmonies as proof. "We listen to the old American harmonies from the '40s," she says. "But they used to sing harmony here, as well, back then. Sometimes, we put maybe a few chords from a Dutch harmony into a song and it sounds different to you, since you're not used to it. It's a weird mixture of tunes. And we don't speak the English language the whole day, so that's also why it will sound different."
One stylistic maneuver the group has embraced is the antique recording method of America's early trailblazers. Hillbilly Harmonyis distinguished by the same rustic production that thrills vinyl-collecting diehards who seek out dusty records by both known and unsung American artists. The CD's liner notes even include a listing of the band's arcane recording gear -- including old-fashioned microphones, vintage slapback and echo units -- and a stage plot showing where each performer stood when recording the platter straight-to-tape. Like the disc's minimalist sound, these details are a clever nod to the production values of the band's idols. Not that every listener has appreciated these touches, though. "We got a lot criticism about it," Sixpack says, "because sometimes it sounds so cracky. Everything was done in one take, and maybe in that one take there's a slip of the string in my guitar, or a voice is a little hoarse. It's not perfect."
Since the majority of Europe's record buyers have been weaned on modern recordings, Sixpack says, people have complained that the band sounds amateurish. Some of that criticism may be true, Sixpack admits. "We recorded with all of that old equipment but with no engineer," he says. "No one who studied how to handle that stuff. In the old days, those guys had more knowledge about studio equipment than they do today, there was a lot of science going on that is lost now. Some of those guys had big ears back then. The old equipment had its limitations, but they knew how to work with it." On the two new full-length CDs currently in production -- an all-covers set to be released under the full band's name and a solo recording that will be under Mary Ann's handle -- Sixpack says the group will make a few concessions to modern recording styles, blending old methods with current ones.
In addition to working on these new recordings, the band is awaiting the release of a few tunes they cut in England with rockabilly legend (and Golden, Colorado, resident) Hardrock Gunter. This past winter the band also backed up the Collins Kids -- Lawrence and Lawrencine -- for a few shows on that act's reunion tour. Over the past few years, the Ranch Girls & Their Ragtime Wranglers have developed their audiences in Scandinavia, Italy, Germany and other European countries. They're now in the swing of a ten-date/ten-cities tour of the United States in an effort to put their names back in the consciousness of Americans who haven't seen the band since 1998. (That tour included a stopover in Denver for one of the now-defunct yearly Rock-N-Rhythm Billy Weekend events.)
The current stateside jaunt is a chance for the band to play with some of their American allies, too -- artists such as Deke Dickerson, Dave Stuckey and Big Sandy and others with whom the band has played in Europe. The U.S. tour is also something of a homecoming for the group, a chance to retrace the steps of their music's creators. "We will play some clubs that existed back in the '50s," Sixpack says, "the same clubs where some of the bands we like played. It's very exciting. Here in Holland it's so different. We have so little space and so many people, they tear down things so easily. And the entire center of the city was bombed in WWII, so we have not many old buildings left here. In the States there is more old stuff to see."
"Over here there's almost no nature left anymore," Mary Ann says, "while in America there is so much room." There's also plenty she wants to see. "In Seattle I want to see the tower," she says. "How do you call that, the Needle? Yellowstone Park, that's something I really want to see, also. It's so beautiful. And maybe if we have time in San Diego, we will try and get to Mexico. And driving across the desert and seeing all the cactus, that is amazing." Beyond all that scenery, however, there's something else she and her mates are even more eager to see while they're on North American soil: crowds of smiling people soaking up the band's born-in-the-USA sound. "Coming to America to play is a big thrill, and it's so weird for us," Mary Ann says. "It's the same as an American band coming over to play Dutch music. It's unbelievable that we come over to your country to play your music. It's a thrill that somebody even wants us there!"