Ragged Union Regroups on New Release

Geoff Union is reviving his "grassicana" band.
Geoff Union is reviving his "grassicana" band. Brian Lam
Bluegrass flatpicker and standout songwriter Geoff Union never gives up. Despite lineup changes in his band and a variety of pandemic-related setbacks, Union keeps on playing his down-home music.

"It's been a minute since the previous version of Ragged Union released its last album, Time Captain, [at the end of 2017]," reflects the 51-year-old Louisville resident. "We went to England after that record, in 2018, and performed a bit. Then my wife, Christina, decided to retire from touring with the band. Not long after that, Benny Galloway joined us on bass for about a year. That was fun, but in 2019 the group of musicians who were part of that iteration sort of drifted away. After that, I played some gigs with [mandolin player and vocalist] Elio Schiavo, who is part of our current lineup, but between that last release and now, not much has been happening. I kind of feel like at this point in the Ragged Union trajectory, we're starting over. So we kind of need to reintroduce ourselves."

Based on the sound of Union's latest release, Round Feet, Chrome Smile, which dropped at the end of September, the pandemic-related downtime was a blessing in disguise. And while a reintroduction might be in order for some, it's safe to say that Union still has the musical chops that put him on the map to begin with, and then some. With the talented help of Schiavo and Schiavo's wife, Juilliard-trained violinist and vocalist Rebekah Durham, Union has re-emerged with an impressively fresh yet classic sound. The band sometimes refers to its music as "grassicana," with this latest effort revealing pleasantly hooky songwriting, virtuosic picking and bluegrass- and country-styled vocals.

"With the exception of maybe one track, we recorded it live in Boulder at the Nevei Kodesh synagogue, which is a Jewish renewal synagogue," explains Union, a North Carolina native who moved to Colorado from Austin, Texas, in 2013. "As a day job, I've been doing bookkeeping and accounting for a few years, and [Nevei Kodesh] is one of my clients. I figured out that they rent their space out, so we did a couple livestreams from there and really liked it. We rented out their sanctuary at the end of October last year, and Elio, who is an incredibly talented audio engineer, set us up in the space there, and we recorded the album in the course of a week. The acoustic qualities of the synagogue are really impressive. Elio was like, 'This room has the perfect reverb.' I give him a lot of credit: He did all the engineering, placed all the mics, did the recording, played on it and mixed it."

From the old-time-boogie-inflected and comfortably familiar title track to the foot-tappin', feel-good vibe of "Lazy Ol' Daddy," the album, which also includes the musical input of Chris Elliott and Eric Thorin, continues to impress. Tracks such as "Way Up There" (an instrumental) and "Somebody Call the Doctor" (a tale of backwoods wisdom) see the outfit stretching out and showcasing its nimble acoustic chops, while "Hooter Thunkit" provides a fine cover of a fun John Hartford number. Union wrote or co-wrote the bulk of the songs on the release, and with the invaluable talent of Schiavo and Durham, his knack for penning strong material shines here — as does his guitar playing.

"I've had lots of music education and training, but as far as my flatpicking goes, I picked it up by ear and by listening to what other players had to say about what things to work on," Union says. "I'm mostly self-taught."

While the band might not be strictly bluegrass, its overall sound should please fans of the genre and its adjacent styles. See Ragged Union for yourself at a free show on Friday, October 21, at Number Thirty Eight.

"We no longer have a banjo in the band, which has allowed us to broaden the sound a bit," Union muses. "We aren't technically a bluegrass band, if you go by the rigid definition, but here in Colorado, 'bluegrass' is a broader category. I'm really happy to be working with Elio and Rebekah. It feels organic and good, and we're all really excited about it. Rebekah played for a band called the Ginny Mules, and we were really happy to bring her on board. We're a trio now, but we're also looking for a bass player. In my last band, it was sort of myself and my wife leading the group, with the other players being more like sidemen."

Past versions of Ragged Union have roamed as far afield as China and the U.K., though the current iteration of the group plans to play locally for a while before pushing beyond the borders of the Front Range.

"This new version of the band feels like we're all equally invested. It's all about the music, and if anything good comes of it, great," Union says. "But we're playing this music because we like it. Eventually we hope to go on tour, but for now we're playing around home."

Ragged Union plays a free show at 5 p.m. Friday, October 21, at Number Thirty Eight, 3560 Chestnut Place.
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Nick Hutchinson writes about music for Westword and enjoys playing his guitar when not on deadline.
Contact: Nick Hutchinson

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