Sunday, Feb. 18, ArtRat Gallery is excited to kick off the 2024 season of its roots music series with Americana Sundays: An Afternoon With The Blue Water Ramblers. The show runs 3-5pm at 46 Division Ave. S in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. (Admission $20; tickets available from Eventbrite.)

The Blue Water Ramblers write and sing traditional music with modern themes — songs of Michigan, America and your life! As the founder of Farmhouse Music Organization in northern Michigan once wrote of the Blue Water Ramblers: "There are few music groups who take so little and give so much. The Ramblers’ deep love for good music and the people who attend is evident in all you do. You bring so much joy and good will with you wherever you travel."

Ahead of the show, ArtRat asked co-founder R.H. “Bear” Berends about the ingredients that go into the Ramblers’ sound.

Founded in 2002, The Blue Water Ramblers may be the longest-running act to visit Americana Sundays. How has the West Michigan scene changed over the past two decades?

Bear Berends playing guitar on stage.

Well, it’s quite a busy place these days! There are so many fine young bands repping the next generation of Americana (Folk) musicians. Back when we started (in the late ‘80s with a band called Beats Settin' Home), there was maybe a handful of what were called Folk bands at that time. 

Matter of fact, nobody wanted to be tagged with the ”Folk” moniker — it was like the kiss of death for bookings — ha! But Banjo-Jim and I never ran away from that — embracing the old writing, arranging and singing traditions of the Folk movement of the late ‘60s and ‘70s ... And we still carry forth with those today!

Were you raised in a musical household? What music inspired you growing up?

The Blue Water Ramblers performing on an open-air stage in front of a wooden building.

My mother was a singer around the house and took her place in the soprano section of any church or community choir she could join. I tried the clarinet starting in fifth grade and only lasted a year.  could never get the hang of reading music. It made no sense to me — still doesn't. So onward and upward I went, playing and singing by ear. Standing next to a strong baritone in my high school choir, I could always hear his part — that was no problem. 

For Christmas 1965 (ninth grade), my parents bought me a Sears Silvertone guitar and a Peter, Paul & Mary songbook, and the rest is history. My present partners in the Ramblers all read music, and I continue to be fascinated by their technical conversations about how a song and a harmony line is constructed — for me, they just tell me what to sing and play, and I say OK!

Please name five bands you’d recommend to someone who wants to get into West Michigan roots music.

At the core of the band, you and “Banjo-Jim” Foerch write and sing most of the songs in the Ramblers’ original repertoire. What’s your process for collaborating?

Banjo-Jim Foerch's hands playing banjo.

Ha — we really don't — at least not at the beginning of the process! Banjo-Jim, California Dan and I all write the initial words and music independently — then bring that work into a Rambler rehearsal. At that point it starts going into instrument arrangements, harmony considerations and lyric edits — number of voices or just a solo — number and style of breaks (very important to an Americana song). It usually takes a year to figure all that out and polish the final arrangement up so that it's ready for a performance. 

Matter of fact, we will be debuting two new songs at ArtRat in the second set. They both were written about a year ago — winter 2023 — and they are just now performance ready, so stay tuned!

You’re playing a Sunday double-header in Heartside: first at ArtRat, then at the Winter Wheat event at The Intersection! What do you like best about performing in Grand Rapids?

So the Ramblers tour all over Michigan and the upper Midwest —  about 50 shows a year pre-pandemic, and now (after the bottom fell out due to Covid) around 40. What really has dropped off is the number of inside venues available during the cold weather music season. The summer festival and concert In the park circuit is just about back, so that's great ... yet that's why it’s important that places like ArtRat have come into being to help pick up the cold weather indoor concert season. 

And of course, playing in our hometown of Grand Rapids is great 'cause we get to sleep in our own beds while our friends and family members can come on out and enjoy our music. So thanks, Matthew: You and Kris did a great thing in establishing Americana Sundays at ArtRat last year. Please know that the Ramblers are honored to join your lineup on Sunday, Feb. 18 — kudos!