By Steve Wildsmith, Weekend editor, The Daily Times · Maryville, Tennessee · March 7, 2018
Suffice it to say, whether you’re in the audience for the band’s abbreviated “Blue Plate Special” show or Friday night at The Laurel Theater, you haven’t seen — or heard — anything quite like Roochie Toochie and the Rag Time Shepherd Kings.
In person, the quintet draws inspiration from traveling minstrel shows that roamed the countryside during the turn of the last century; part musical act and part vaudeville entertainment, they make it their mission, according to the band’s website, “to perform the weirdest songs from the early days of Tin Pan Alley on the format on which they were first recorded — wax cylinder.”
The band’s sole album was recorded on wax cylinder, a now-rare process by which sound was captured on literal cylinders; they were the earliest commercial media for recording and reproducing sound and predated disc records, as LPs are also known. Only a handful of studios can still record via the wax cylinder method, ukulele player Timmy Findlen told The Daily Times recently, and Roochie Toochie was determined to find one in America at which to record.
“Wax cylinders were (Thomas) Edison’s contribution to recording technology in its infancy,” Findlen said. “At that point, there were more records that we know today as spinning discs, but the wax cylinder was Thomas Edison’s format that Edison Records used. A lot of the most popular songs from the 1880s to the 1920s were recorded on wax cylinder, so if you were a person in 1910 and you were hearing the newest Irving Berlin song — which was the biggest pop music of the day — you were likely hearing it on a wax cylinder player.”
Findlen first fell in love with wax cylinder recordings in Portland, Maine; a retired minstrel who played with a family of vaudeville banjoists started a 24-hour radio station that specialized in wax cylinder recordings, and the tinny sounds, the hisses and pops that are hallmarks of wax cylinder recordings, fascinated him, Findlen said.
“When I heard it for the first time, I really felt transported back to a different era,” he said. “At the time, I was developing a fascination with turn-of-the-century America and the changes that were happening and the history of that era; hearing those records and getting a little more familiar with the novelty songs and the political songs of the era really helps transport you back and puts you in that time. It helps you use your imagination and lets you unlock the door of understanding of a different time.”
Almost immediately, he said, he began learning the songs he heard — “the comic songs are my favorite, just because it’s so funny to hear what people found funny back then,” he added — and started assembling a group of fellow musicians with similar interests. That was in 2007, and it took a few years, but eventually Roochie Toochie and the Rag Time Shepherd Kings were ready to make an authentic wax cylinder album.
“All of us were on board with it, and come heck or high water, we were gonna figure out a way to do it,” he said. “That’s when we met Martin Fisher in Nashville; he works at (Middle Tennessee State University) and is an audio engineer, and he’s able to record on wax cylinder.”
Recorded songs are just one facet of the Roochie Toochie experience, however, and not exactly an easy one for contemporary ears to digest in one sitting, Findlen added.
“If you’re experiencing the recording, you have to think about it as an experience like reading a book,” he said. “The background noise, the cylinder itself, is part of the recording and part of the world we’re trying to create. To us, it’s not distracting from what we’re trying to do; it’s part of the story. But it’s not easy on the ears if you’re not used to it. You can get lost in another world, like in a novel, but we don’t recommend trying to listen to our entire album all at once. It can be hard on the listener, but we’re trying to present to people an experience, and the noise of it all is part that experience.”
And the live show is another beast altogether. At the 2016 Knoxville Stomp celebration of Old Time string band, jug band and other primitive forms of American music, Roochie Toochie was one of the biggest hits of the weekend; credit much of that to the work Findlen and his bandmates put into setting up and recreating the experience of a show from the distant past.
“I think the correlation between the cylinder recordings and the live show is that the wax cylinder has a lot of constraints, meaning that certain instruments don’t show up on old recordings, and with time constraints, we have to change arrangements of songs and mash things up,” he said. “If you want to get a musical joke into a song, you have to be pretty clever about how you do it, because you only have so long to do it. It’s a ballet of doing the recording and making our our songs sort of madcap, so when we do the live show, we take that frenetic energy and then we pair it with touches from a classic vaudeville show, which is also kind of representative of the general era of the material that we play.”