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Don't call them folksy
Story by Mike Prevatt and
Photography by Checko Salgado
The All-Togethers are more like hillbilly jazz that blends everything from classic bluegrass to … Lady Gaga covers?
At first glance, it’s like a cliché come true: small, folksy band playing a bar in small, folksy Boulder City. Add Ken Osborne’s wool pants, his wife Cindy Osborne’s stand-up bass and drummer Brian Phipps’ washboard resting against the wall, and suddenly Mumford & Sons don’t seem so precious.
And then The All-Togethers begin to play, and your expectations drop like the walls of Hoover Dam. Traditional bluegrass fills the room. Your eyes fixate on frontman Ken’s nearly-century-old instruments: the mandolin, the ukulele, the metal-coned resonator guitar. Your brows furrow as what initially sounds like an old blues standard reveals itself to be a cover of a cover of Jay Z’s “99 Problems.” Mothers and daughters get up to dance.
“A lot of people say it’s refreshing because it’s different,” says Cindy.
Which proves The All-Togethers (thealltogethers.com) aren’t just wannabes of the fast-plateauing suspender set. Unlike The Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men, et al, this Las Vegas-via-Virginia acoustic act doesn’t peddle folk ’n’ harmonies as schtick. The foursome (they recently added guitarist Michael Louis Austin) comes from Appalachian country, and its bluegrass style is rooted in their childhoods — though it didn’t necessarily come early in the musicians’ artistic evolution. Cindy’s great-grandparents were banjo players, and her father and grandparents played the guitar, but high school band brought her to the saxophone and flute first. And Ken took to the guitar his bluegrass-loving father bought him only after he heard, of all things, his brother’s copy of Boston’s Don’t Look Back.
There’s no wrong way
In fact, it wasn’t until the couple relocated here in 2010 — spurred by memories of a 2007 Sin City honeymoon trip — that Ken even flirted with roots music, joining a local Southwestern/Americana act. He’d part ways with that band two years later, having a clear vision for a duo band — one that would finally allow him to play music with his wife, who had already graduated to guitar and bass.
“I just popped in an old Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin film — because my mom gave me an appreciation for that era — and I was thinking, you know, no one ever does ’20s or ’30s music out here,” says Ken. “The ’90s had that swing revival, but you never heard about a Scott Joplin or Django Reinhardt revival. I thought, let’s do that, bring some bluegrass into it, mix it up, and see what comes of it. I texted Cindy and said, ‘We’re doing this.’”
The resulting mix of old Appalachia, hot jazz and Dixieland inspired Cindy to dub their style as hillbilly jazz. “We invented this genre!” she says. “No one can tell us we’re playing it wrong!”
In February 2012, at an open mic at the now-shuttered Republic Kitchen and Bar, the two introduced Henderson to their old-fashioned but refreshing sound, played on relic instruments, fully adorned in Depression-era garb — down to Ken’s armgarters, bought from a costume store at Universal Studios. At first, the two were so obsessed with authenticity, Ken told Cindy he wanted them to don the traditional duds onstage and off. Luckily, their fellow supermarket shoppers were spared the sort of exhibitionist hipsterdom that has made Brooklyn the laughingstock of the country. “We thought, this is a little pretentious, let’s call bull on ourselves,” he says.
Act like you own the speakeasy
That loosening up would serve them when the evolution of their hillbilly jazz became problematic, especially when joined a few months later by drummer Phipps, a childhood friend of Ken’s. They had to overcome structural limitations within the styles they wished to adapt, but any rigidity began to melt away after the now-trio began to take cues from progressive bluegrass act The Punch Brothers, resulting in something that sounded more natural.
Even trickier was the live show. The naked, spare sound made the musicians anxious — even Ken, who had played in several bands before (“He couldn’t turn around and face his amp!” Cindy jokes.) Being unplugged in a loud town didn’t help matters, even though Ken, a sound engineer, knew where to place the mics. And they felt out of place in a scene where they felt (and looked) like outsiders. After a few shows, they employed a psychological trick.
“It’s 1931, you walk in, you’ve played this gin mill a hundred times; this is our own personal speakeasy,” Ken would tell his bandmates. “And Cindy started walking into the (venues) like she owned the place after that. The nerves kind of went away.”
[HEAR MORE: Listen to an appreciation of jazz legend Dave Brubeck on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
Curiosity drew a small fan base. This, after all, wasn’t the usual Vegas nostalgia act. But that didn’t solve the promoters’ problem of who to pair them with on show bills. Fortunately, The All-Togethers weren’t the only Americana band in town. The Clydesdale broke the mold years ago with their Wild West take on country music, and other rootsy, decidedly untrendy groups like Dusty Sunshine and Coastwest Unrest were on the rise, even before the fiddle frenzy hit the airwaves.
But the newbies were game to play with anyone. When a local promoter needed to fill a slot on a metal bill at the last minute, Ken and Cindy (then without Phipps) jumped at the chance. As the Osbornes tell it, the Bunkhouse crowd was receptive, if full of quizzical expressions. One onlooker looked at Cindy’s stand-up and exclaimed, “That bass doesn’t have a cabinet!”
A touch of the modern
Ken was initially indifferent about the reception of his band, but quickly learned he had to read the crowd and make his music relatable. Which The All-Togethers did by highlighting the modern influences within their original bluegrass songs (see recently released album Ridge Runner), and occasionally playing old-timey covers of chestnuts like A-Ha’s “Take On Me,” now transformed into a slow-swing song, and Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi,” which, in its stripped-down form, surprises and wins over both the families of Boulder City and the cool crowd of downtown, every time. Ken is unapologetic about what most of his peers would decree an unforgivable transgression: “I hate to say it — no, I don’t. If (Gaga) is the one writing her songs, her songs are very well-written. The way they are put together and formed are so good. Most people write ‘Paparazzi’ off as pop trash. It’s a brilliant tune.”
It’s an extension of Ken’s pedigree honed both behind the guitar and in the studio — where he has worked with several Vegas bands — in finding the hook in any sort of music: Strip away the artifice to determine a song’s true worth. The bandleader also developed a knack for spotting unlikely bluegrass influences in modern music, especially in the bands of his teenage years: Green Day, Weezer, Social Distortion. “If you really break it down, if you slowed it down and played it on a banjo, it’s bluegrass,” he says. “I think it all comes back to revisiting your roots at some time.”
And speaking of revisiting roots, the band’s summer 2013 tour reached Cindy’s hometown of Roanoke, Virginia. That was followed a few months later with an appearance at October’s Life is Beautiful festival, where the group performed not on the Homegrown Stage, but on the southwest corner of the El Cortez hotel-casino, a scene that recalled watching the old-timey trios and quartets on Disneyland’s Main Street as passersby stopped to watch (and even throw a few bucks to the buskers, who brought an old-school tin bucket for thematic legitimacy). And, in a more subversive nod to the libertine era that birthed their music, the quartet landed a January slot at 35 Steaks and Martinis at the Hard Rock Hotel during the Adult Entertainment Expo and AVN Awards weekend.
Versatility has best served the new and certainly unlikely Vegas favorites, who have successfully acclimated their throwback package for a fickle and fussy bunch.
“And,” says Ken, “a little Southern hospitality hasn’t hurt.”
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Also available at Clark County and Henderson libraries.