Band reunions prove dreams can come true

by Ogi Overman

This is how life works: Just when you’re about to hit the wall, the god of your understanding will step in and cut you some slack. When events beyond your control are on the verge of driving you over the edge, somehow you’ll get a dose of good news that reins it back in and puts it all back in perspective.

It is generally the rogue Bush who brings out the worst in me, who causes me the most consternation and discontent, who makes me crazy. But just when the blood is starting to spew from my ears, I am afforded the grace that enables me to flick him aside like the scurvy little spider (to borrow that great line from It’s a Wonderful Life) that he is.

Last week I received, on back-to-back days, a double dose of news that swept me back to those pre-Days of Duh when the flowers bloomed, the birds sang and life was good. And now that I’ve gotten my weekly rant out of the way, let me tell you about it.

One of the guiding forces in my life has always been music, and back in the mid-’90s – God, it seems so long ago – I fell head over heels in love with two bands, both of which rocked my world like it hadn’t been rocked since Little Feat and the Allman Brothers. Other than talent, these two groups – the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Rankin Family – really had nothing in common except that their star burned brightly for too short a time before being dimmed, one sadly, the other tragically. But I loved them both madly and when they called it quits I grieved as if I’d lost a family member.

The Zips were the band that not only put Chapel Hill on the musical map but led a revival of swing music that turned into a genuine craze by the late-’90s. But just as it was peaking it flamed out when co-leader Tom Maxwell left abruptly. He’d penned their No. 1 hit “Hell” and, although the other co-leader, Jimbo Mathus, was a more prolific writer, they were never able to capture lightning in a bottle again.

Then it went from bad to worse when Mathus and his wife Katharine Whalen, who sang and played tenor banjo with the band, split up. Last time I talked to Jimbo was at the Green Bean when he was playing with a trio called Knockdown Society and she’d released an exquisite album with her group, the Jazz Squad, and everything seemed fine. You never know.

But back when the Zips were riding high and I was cranking out stories on them left and right, I received a package in the mail from their label, Mammoth Records. Tearing it open, I pulled out their gold record for their mega-hit album Hot and on it was plaque with my name on it. Needless to say, that gold record remains my most prized possession.

Concurrently, I’d begun what’s become my annual trek to MerleFest and had discovered a group of five siblings from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia called the Rankin Family. The first time I heard them I was so mesmerized that I knew it as going to be a life-changing event. They returned to MerleFest for the next five years, becoming superstars in Canada but barely making a ripple in the good ol’ US of A. I never missed a single performance during that span, even following them to the Cat’s Cradle one year for a Monday night piggyback gig.

My old office at ESP was adorned on one wall with the Zippers’ plaque and on another with three poster-sized and framed photos of the three Rankin sisters, Cookie, Raylene and Heather.

Tragedy struck in 2000 when oldest brother and keyboard player John Morris Rankin drowned after his car hit an ice patch and plunged into a fjord near Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was A1 news in every paper in Canada but, again, unless you were on their mailing list you would not have known about it around here.

Still, in that secret place buried way deep inside, I kept thinking that one day after the healing hands of time had woven their magic, maybe they’d get back together. I knew it was a longshot but I never gave up hope.

Last week I got an e-mail from fellow Rankin-phile Dave Doyle with the joyous news that not only have they re-formed but that they just released an album and are on a two-month tour of Canada. The very next day my pal Alex Gold called with the news that the Zippers are playing a four-date reunion tour, including a sold-out show at the Cradle, and may try to make it as a band again.

Wow. Sometimes it really is a wonderful life. Plus, I didn’t write even a word about ol’ what’s-his-sneer after the third paragraph.

Ogi can be reached at