They're gypsy troubadours who turn Big Easy jazz blues, Texas swing and mountain jams into sprightly irrepressible music with a speakeasy flair. And while the Blue Ribbon Healers' sound may be weathered and old-fashioned, their subject matter is infused with a modern sensibility.
Denizens of Panama City, Fla., Rob Pate and Cindy Rose turned gypsy to deal with the seasonal nature of their hometown scene. They've spent time in New Orleans, Austin and San Francisco the past two years while honing their swinging Americana sound. Through all of January, they'll be in Colorado performing as a three-piece.
Reminiscent of acts like the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Asylum Street Spankers, they're distinguished by the interplay of Pate's gruff baritone and Rose's sultry fluttering croon, a sort of fire and ice like Tom Waits courting Bessie Smith.
"A lot of people have commented they like the contrast of our voices," says Rose. "My voice is softer and sweeter, and he's got that gruff, gritty, underworld-sounding voice. It's a nice balance."
Pate's less diplomatic. "She's the orchid and I'm the rusty beer can," he says.
The couple first met at a show in February 2009, when he was in Panama City visiting a fiddler friend. They hit it off immediately. Rose's father had been a professional fiddler for 40 years, and Pate grew up in Montgomery, Ala., surrounded by blues and R&B before going over-the-edge for string music.
Rose joined Pate and the fiddler on a tour of the East Coast, and from that moment on their romantic and professional lives would be intertwined. When tourist season ended, they relocated to New Orleans for a few months, integrating indigenous jazz and jump blues styles into their bluegrass and Texas swing.
"There's enough discipline in bluegrass that you can tackle a lot of things that are really related," Pate says. "As different as they are, if you can study up on a particular swing genre, you can get into the next swing genre with a lot of success really quickly. Like, for instance, going from New Orleans swing into a more Django Reinhardt-type swing."
The couple also spent months in Austin and San Francisco, using the time to make contacts and play local residencies (much as they're doing here).
One of the Blue Ribbon Healers' finest songs, "Notes from the Underground," came from living in a rundown San Francisco residence hotel. Over a capering jazz groove, Rose coos about the dilapidated building and its oddball tenants, consoling herself that it "doesn't matter if it's real, if we live by what we feel."
"It was a monkey house," says Pate. "There were certifiable crazies there walking the halls."
"That line, 'live by what you feel,' is because I had to remind myself why I was in that place," says Rose.
After recording two live albums, the duo went into the studio for the first time this summer and recorded a five-song EP with Austin producer Andy Tindall.
"We're hoping to hook up with him again when we leave Colorado in January," says Rose as the couple continues to play it all by ear. "We might just add onto the EP or we might make a whole new album. We'll see what happens."