As soon as the sound of Ragged Union’s music fills a listener’s ears, the subtle cleverness of their name hits home. They play bluegrass — a genre known for being anything but ragged. On the contrary, it requires attention, precision, and of course, careful uniting of diverse instrumental and vocal skills. The band’s second album, Time Captain, releasing Oct. 27, confirms just how adroitly the band’s six individual talents merge into one well-meshed whole.
The fact that two members of this Boulder, Colorado-based collective — flatpicking guitarist/vocalist Geoff Union and vocalist Christina Union — are also united in marriage (and as chief songwriters) just adds another layer of wit to their moniker.
Despite their occasional propensity for wordplay, however, the members of Ragged Union are quite serious when it comes to making music, and have the pedigrees to back it up. Fayetteville, North Carolina native Geoff Union is a veteran of the renowned Two High String Band; mandolinist/vocalist Jordan Ramsey, a Newport, Tennessee, native, won the 2016 national mandolin championship at the Walnut Valley Festival (aka Winfield); banjoist Chris “C-Bob” Elliott, originally from Huffman, Texas, played in Spring Creek and the Blue Canyon Boys; fiddler Justin Hoffenberg, of Boulder, Colorado, a Long Road Home veteran, teaches at Rockygrass Academy; and bassist David Richey, originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, studied bluegrass and old-time music at East Tennessee State
University, was in the Billy Pilgrims and led Dave Richey & the Ruined Nation Boys. (Michael Sivcovich played bass on the album). Christina Union, the only non-instrumentalist (unusual for a bluegrass band), hails from Eagle River, Alaska, but gained recognition as a singer in Colorado.
After Christina and Geoff became a couple, they lived in Austin. Once his former band ran its course, the pair moved to Golden, Colorado, where Ragged Union began taking shape in 2014. (The couple joined their bandmates in Boulder in 2016.) They’ve since become a presence at festivals and clubs in North America and beyond, including touring the United Kingdom twice.
Time Captain, which follows 2015’ Hard Row to Hoe, was produced by Geoff Union and recorded at Basement in the Sky in Boulder. It contains a mix of writing credits: Christina penned three tracks, Geoff wrote four and composed three more with longtime writing partner Jim Harris, and Elliott wrote another. It’s a mix of styles, too: “You Don’t Love Me,” “Leaving Town” and the lone cover, the folk tune “Diamond Joe,” are more traditional; “Moonshine Boogie” and the title song can be described as Americana; “Leaving Louisville” and “Rabbit Dog” are old-time melodies; and “Rented Room,” “Half Lit Parking Lot” and “Smoke and Mirrors” are progressive, while “Bridge on Fire” adds a little western swing.
That variety comes from a vast range of influences, from Hazel Dickens, John Hartford, Danny Paisley, Alan Munde and Danny Barnes (and the Bad Livers) to Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and the Grateful Dead (and Dead lyricist Robert Hunter).
The band’s willingness to embrace tradition while making adventurous leaps into unusual lyrical and musical territory places them in a realm they label contemporary bluegrass.
“Like many bands these days, there’s something borrowed and something new about Ragged Union’s sound,” Geoff Union explains. “Recognizable bluegrass melodies and country lyric themes fit alongside non-traditional lyrics and rhythmic arrangements, breakneck grassy duet numbers and slower ‘country-funk’ tunes.
“We like a broad approach,” he adds. It’s an approach Dry Branch Fire Squad’s Ron Thomason called “fresh and innovative,” while U.K. critic Maggie Loughran dubbed it “hard-driving modern bluegrass at its absolute best.” Other critics have been equally effusive.
All of which suggests there’s no time like the present to check out Time Captain — and catch the band when they swing by a venue near you.