Friday, April 07, 2006

Ras Alan Connects Appalachia, Jamaica

By Jedd Ferris
published: April 7, 2006 6:00 am

Ras Alan’s artistic vision revolves around the simplicity of rural life. That’s why he sees the connection between his native Blue Ridge Mountains and the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. For more than two decades he’s used his appreciation of both cultures to continually cultivate his creation of Appalachian Reggae.

Once a musician devoted to old-time and swing jazz, Alan — who grew up in Burke County and now lives just over the state line in Greene County, Tenn. — traveled to Jamaica in 1985 to attend the famed Reggae Sunsplash Festival. It was that trip and the many thereafter to the far reaches of the island’s hills that solidified his musical future.

“I was raised a Southern Baptist playing gospel and bluegrass,” Alan said. “When I really started checking out Bob Marley, Burning Spear and the Itals, I noticed the biblical words of the Rastafari were similar to what I was raised on. There was a similar passion in the music, and I was instantly attracted to it.”

Alan also saw similarities in rhythm, noticing the chop on the mandolin reminded him of the Stratocaster’s role in island music’s steady pulse.

“I discovered listening to fiddle tunes with a pumping upright bass on someone’s front porch had the same effect as a reggae show.”

As a result, Alan’s been able to blend vintage country and Appalachian folk with the steady grooves of Jamaican ska and roots reggae. Despite seemingly obvious culture clashes, the songwriter’s personal ability to correlate the two genres makes the music breathe with authenticity.

With his homemade acoustic guitar and steady percussive foot box, he revives the dusty mountain ancestry of the Carter Family while bringing a modern context to the soulful social outcry of the Marley message.

“The main connection between Appalachia and Jamaica is the people,” Alan said. “It’s large families that help each other and have had to be creative to sustain and entertain themselves.”

Alan’s work has resonated at home as well. In 2003, he was a breakout performer at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., playing in front of a crowd of tens of thousands. He recorded all of his 10 sets at the event and recently combed through tracks for the live album “Folklife,” which is set for a May release.

The self-proclaimed “Dreadneck” tunesmith also received national attention recently by appearing on a spot of Country Music Television’s “Small Town Secrets” with fellow songwriters Jim Lauderdale and Wayne Henderson.

Jedd Ferris writes about music for the Citizen-Times. E-mail him at

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