They met at a dive called Little Red Hen. As Ruby Dee describes the place, "You walk in and there are ladies in beehives, and older men sitting there sucking back longnecks at the bar, and one of those claw machines that you can win a prize for the little lady, and a little tiny dance floor and even tinier stage. Some of the best honky-tonk music in Seattle goes through there." One night, Ruby Dee was hanging out there with some friends. She had been singing backup in the band Deadwood for five years and was about to quit; she had started writing her own songs and they weren't being played, so she was ready to move on. Her friends knew she wanted to put together her own band and needed a guitarist.
Ruby Dee continues the story, "And one of my friends said to me, 'Oh there's your guitarist right over there.' He pointed at Jorge. So I marched right up to him, because I'm not too shy, and I said, 'Excuse me. I hear you're my new guitarist.' And he turned back around and looked at me and said, 'Well, show me what you got, little lady.'"
Four years later, with the additions of Liz Smith on acoustic guitar and backup vocals, Pete Smith (no relation) on bass, and Lewis Warren on drums, the band is touring to support a rambunctious debut full-length CD on the Dionysus label. Ruby Dee writes the lyrics and develops the melodies, then fleshes out the songs with the band. The result, North of Bakersfield, promises a hard-rocking live show.
Ruby Dee gives credit to Harada for working with producer Conrad Uno to capture the band's live sound. Harada has been playing guitar in bands for the past 20 years and was a member of the Las Vegas rockabilly group Dragstrip 77. He says he logged a lot of studio time, and was a big part of making the Dragstrip 77 albums at Ronny Weiser's legendary Rolling Rock Studio.
Harada's many years of experience came in handy at the recording sessions. "With everything we've done I've just tried to recreate what this band sounds like live," he says. "The record was recorded live. The drums and bass and the rhythm guitars were all done on the fly. My electric guitars we overdubbed, along with the pedal steel. Then we did all the vocals so we could really take our time and do them right. The number 'Make it Last,' we only cut once, and that made it to the album."
The CD features a pedal steel played by Grant Johnson on several tracks. On the road, Harada takes over those parts. "I have this little gizmo called the B-Bender on the guitar, and it basically bends the strings like a pedal steel," Harada explains, then quickly qualifies that statement: "I do an emulation of a pedal steel. I imply it." Ruby Dee laughs and adds, "Don't let any pedal-steel players think we're trying to say we sound like a pedal steel because they'll come and kick our ass."
Ruby Dee and Harada share a similar musical odyssey, though they ended up in Seattle and the roots-country world via different routes. Ruby Dee grew up in what she calls the southern part of Northern California. Harada says he's from Mexico, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Both started out in punk bands, though Ruby Dee's roots led her back to country music, and Harada transitioned from rockabilly, which he says he discovered while spending time overseas. "The most salient thing is that I listened to the Clash a lot, and there was something that was very American-sounding about it."
Though you may not find country music fans and punk aficionados fraternizing with one another very often, Dee doesn't see anything particularly strange about mixing the two sensibilities. "I think that country music and punk have a lot in common, with the subject matter," she says. "We're unhappy about something, or something went wrong, woe is me. It's all the same thing - you're just saying it with a different twang. The chords are quite similar. It's the lament of what's going on, that's where true roots country comes from."
"Also, for me, after playing rockabilly music, with the intensity of being up front, it's nice to back up a singer and just play the guitar instead of jump around and do that kind of stuff," adds Harada.
But that doesn't mean Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers have forgotten their punk roots. The band, which won "favorite `signed` local band/artist" in a 2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer readers' poll, recently toured Alaska, playing for rough-and-tumble crowds. They have plenty of stories to tell, and they're primed for a late-summer tour of California and Texas.
Harada sums up the band's audience- pleasing strategy: "Don't let them sit down. We keep them on the dance floor as much as we can."