Motor City folk heroes making noise on Ramseur Records

by Ryan Snyder

Frontier Ruckus will perform on the opening day of the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival. (photo by Julie Roberts)

Between the rich history of Motown, the underground beginnings of techno, and all the garage rock and hip-hop stuffed in between, Detroit’s music scene has for decades been a lightning rod for national attention. Meanwhile, a vigorous folk scene has prospered for years in college towns like Ann Arbor and East Lansing, and one of the bands currently at the forefront is the experimental and emotionally charged quartet Frontier Ruckus. Signed to the North Carolina-based Ramseur Records — home of likeminded folksters the Avett Brothers and Langhorne Slim — in early 2009 after being “discovered” by folk singer Samantha Crain, the rootsy Ruckus have hit the accelerator since the release of their second album Deadmalls & Nightfalls earlier this summer.’

Forgive vocalist, guitarist and primary songwriter Matthew Milia if he has trouble proffering any major influences beyond the obvious Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Growing up in the metro Detroit area didn’t offer a wellspring of early, localized roots influences. He latched onto their music at a young age because of their ability to write a massive and diverse catalog of songs, from which he says he was able to draw an array of emotions. Those artists provide a template, he said, that allow Frontier Ruckus to imprint their own volatile stamp. Banjoist David Jones holds down the band’s old-timey undercurrent, while multi-instrumentalist Zachary Nichols is the group’s variable. There might be blasts of trumpet on one song and the eerie wail of a saw on the next, and it’s that kind of unpredictability that makes Frontier Ruckus such a compelling and multi-dimensional Americana act.

“That’s what works best: really sensing the emotional direction of the song when we write,” Milia noted. “We definitely have an attraction to very epic moments, which is imprinted on both of the last albums; a lot of blaring horns and textures like that to build up songs.”

Listen to the bands first two full-length releases, the first being The Orion Songbook, and you’ll hear a band in love with dramatic, textured instrumentation and deeply personal, provocative lyrics. At the heart of it is Milia’s conflicted relationship with his hometown, a place reviled for its cold industrialism and also the only home he’s ever known. Deadmalls & Nightfalls at its core is like a forlorn love letter to Detroit that illustrates all the reasons they were right and wrong for each other, and to Milia writing it was a healing exercise.

“Self-therapy is the only reason I write, to organize all of these places and feelings into a way that I can better understand and have control over. It’s very self-empowering in a way,” Milia said. “The writing wasn’t so much political or economical. I wasn’t so much speaking to the conditions overall, it’s really very personal on the locality that I’m obsessed with, which has changed due to economic factors.”

Frontier Ruckus has received innumerable praise for the album in the months since its release, but possible the greatest compliment they received came from rocker Ryan Adams during a show in Kalamazoo, Mich. Adams was playing in the city the following night and got a recommendation to check the band out on his off night. When Adams went to purchase an album, he found himself short of cash and was directed to an ATM across the street. Milia chased him down and put the album in his hand.

“I talked to him for about half an hour. He is a very eccentric guy but he does have kind of a magnetic personality to him as well,” Milia said. “He went on and on about how much he liked it.”

Adams liked it so much that he noted his admiration for the album on Twitter, possibly hinting at the kind of sound that might be found on his next release. “This is what I want to get back to. Those tunes go forever,” Adams posted. That kind of positive affirmation didn’t go unnoticed from Milia, who said years ago he began to wean himself of an extreme desire for validation for his own psychological health.

“Doing something that requires so much faith and so much daily selfmotivation, playing songs to nobody and sometimes to hundreds of people can be very inconsistent,” Milia said. “Kind words can go a long way, and he’s influenced tons of people, so a nod from him means a lot.”

While Frontier Ruckus’s music might be having an impact on the eccentric Adams, it’s also noteworthy that the opposite may also be happening. Milia said he’s been on an indulgent kick of late-’90s altcountry of late, Whiskeytown in particular. The band has been touring extensively during that time, marking the longest period by far that he’s been away from his home and his primary songwriting inspiration.

“Conveniently it kind of crystallizes a lot of vantage points toward Michigan for me that I might not have been able to see otherwise. I’ve experienced a lot in the past year, so it’d be difficult not to write about certain other things outside that have influenced and affected me profoundly,” Milia said. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens when I get home this winter and sit down to write. I certainly don’t know what to expect.”

Frontier Ruckus will perform Thursday afternoon at the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival in Silk Hope.