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Mike & Ruthy: In The Family Way by Peter Aaron

2008 saw the release of The Honeymoon Agenda, the dazzlingly great debut by area folk rock duo Mike & Ruthy—aka Michael and Ruth Ungar Merenda—on the couple’s Humble Abode label. Flush with breathy parlor pieces (“All the Time”), rollicking back-porch jam-kickers (“Beg and Borrow”), and heartfelt, highly creative re-imaginings of tunes by Tom Waits, Etta James, Bob Dylan and others, the album has rightly found a place atop many an Americana lover’s list of treasured recordings. But in 2008 the two life partners, erstwhile Mammals members, and solo artists also proudly unveiled another monumental release: their son, William Puck Merenda, who was born that January. The new parents belong to a deep and lengthy folk music lineage: Ruthy is the daughter of fiddler Jay Ungar and folksinger Lyn Hardy; her stepmother is singer/multi-instrumentalist Molly Mason; and the two played with Pete Seeger’s grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger in the Mammals. All of which means that one can’t help but wonder if Mike & Ruthy have picked out an instrument for little Will yet. Who knows, maybe we’ll see his name on the credits of future albums by his mom and dad—and vice versa.

So which is harder, being working musicians or being parents? Have Ruthy’s folks given you any tips for balancing the two?

Ruthy: I think the parenting challenges are a little harder, but the rewards are great! The hardest thing is balancing work and being a parent—as any self-employed person can tell you. Our together-all-the-time lifestyle has spared me from things like breast pumps and daycare, but I definitely stop and think, “Wow, how did my parents do it?” I know they took me along on the road for my first five years, and on weekends and summers after that. For his first six months or so it was easy to hand Will to a babysitter for show time. He likes to know where I am, and show time coincides with bedtime—which is a tricky time for any baby to be away from Mama.

Mike: We definitely find ourselves wondering what the heck we used to do with all that time before Will showed up! Having a child certainly makes you appreciate the time that your own parents put into you. I think the most important thing I’ve learned from Ruthy’s parents regarding being musician parents is to never stop being a musician! In other words, one does not have to stop being who they are on account of a child entering their life. Wouldn’t that be about the worst lesson you could teach a child, to curtail your career and dreams because they showed up?

You guys are currently working on a record tentatively called Rise. Can you tell us about that project?

Ruthy: It’s great! We just spent a week at Dreamland Recording Studio tracking 15 songs with (Honeymoon Agenda producer and engineer) José Ayerve on bass and Craig Santiago on drums. I play fiddle on more than half of the songs and electric guitar on four. It’s a mellow but upbeat folk rock record. We’re so excited about it!

Mike: As wonderful as it is for us to perform as a duo, there’s always the thrill of playing and developing material with a band. With my first instrument being drums, I hear drum parts on most songs I write. It’s nice working with Craig Santiago, partly because he lives here in the Hudson Valley but mostly because he’s an incredible drummer. I fancy José as one of the crown princes of indie rock and I trust him inherently with my songs. I’ve learned a lot about recording from working with him in the studio. The songs on Rise come out of our more rock/pop influences. Writers like Tom Petty, the Grateful Dead, and Dylan, of course.

You also have a whole other album in the can, Waltz of the Chickadee. When was that record made? What’s it like?

Ruthy: The Waltz of the Chickadee album was mostly recorded last year. We’re finally putting the final touches on each mix this month and it will hopefully be out in the spring—which is fitting because the title track is a fiddle tune I wrote last spring. It was just getting warm enough to bring Will outside in the mornings, and I would sit on the porch swing while he napped in his little bouncy chair. Two mornings in a row a little chickadee came and sang to us. I tried to capture some of his happy song in the end of the tune. This CD captures the more sparse and traditional-styled music that we write and play. We do a Woody Guthrie blues, a version of “Hang Me” that was inspired by Dave Van Ronk’s recording of the song, and a few fiddle and banjo tunes and some great new original songs that we commonly play around the kitchen table or the campfire. My family (Jay, Molly, and Lyn) joined in on bass, fiddle, and harmony vocals (in that order), and we had a fantastic time creating this entire project at our home studio.

The music you play together and with the Mammals is best described as a blend of modern rock and old-time/folk styles, a sound that seems to have been catching on more and more with many alt-rock-raised musicians in recent years. Why do you think so many younger players have been drawn to old-timey music lately? What attracts you to it?

Ruthy: I can never say why people like what they like. I think old-timey music is fun to play and inspires a bit of a community vibe. For those reasons it will endure. There will always be those who are traditional preservationists and those who wildly bend the genre. I like to think that we fall somewhere in the middle.

Mike: One of my favorite things about traditional music is that it can be more inviting and inclusive in mixed company than original songs. It’s got a driving steady beat with hard driving tempos and energetic melodies. Also, it’s rather strange music when you get right down to it. I mean, you’re not hearing a lot of trad music on mainstream radio, so doesn’t that make it…“alternative”?

On the Mammals’ website, it says that the band is “hibernating.” Are there plans to reactivate the group in the near future? What are the other Mammals up to these days?

Ruthy: The Mammals don’t have any “wake up” plans right now. Tao has been performing quite a bit with his Grandpa Pete—most notably at the recent presidential inauguration. Mike’s brother [Mammals drummer] Chris Merenda is living in Great Barrington, where he is finishing an amazing double album of his original music.

Prior to the Mammals you two played in another band, Rhinegold, when you lived in New York. Can you tell us about that group? What were those days like for you guys?

Ruthy: That band may have been short-lived, but we sure made a lot of lasting memories in that brief time! Let’s see, we were in our early 20s in New York City, so we stayed up too late, smoked and drank too much, played music with moderate skill and maximum heart, and eventually fell in love. We both still share a lasting love and friendship with our third band mate, Carter Little, who is a new parent as well this year. He writes songs and makes music in Nashville, Tennessee.

Mike, you were recruited to be on the hockey team of your alma mater, Maine’s Bowdoin College, and you still play on a local team. Do you still have all of your teeth?

Mike: I do have all my teeth, thanks for asking! From the age of four and right into college I played an incredible amount of ice hockey. It was a huge part of life growing up. I love everything about it. It had been absent from my life for the last 12 years until I discovered the Saugerties men’s hockey league last winter. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to play “competitively” again.

You guys have a knack for picking great cover songs, tunes that adapt really well to your own style. Which are your favorites, and what does a song have to do to make it into Mike & Ruthy’s set list?

Mike: Some of the songs we cover have been with us a long time. They are souvenirs we’ve collected from different times in our lives. Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is like that. It’s a tune a friend put on a mix tape for me when I was in high school. When I sing that song I’m transported back to that time and to those friends. It’s like time travel. The Dylan tune “I’ll Keep it With Mine” really gets me. It’s a powerful, very honest expression of love. I learned it off a bootleg vinyl record that Molly Mason gave me. She bought it on the West Coast back in the ‘60s. When I found that song it felt like an incredible gift. I love the line “I can’t help it if you think that I am odd / If I say I love you not for what you are but for what you’re not.” It’s a line I can relate to. Something I wish I had written. So I had to sing it to feel what it’s like to communicate that idea myself, out loud.

And then there are the songs written by our friends. Songs that we carry around with us in our minds that probably not a lot of other people have ever heard. “Short While” [featured on The Honeymoon Agenda] was written by Carter Little, and we performed it in Rhinegold. To sing it now brings me right back to that time my life, right to the time Ruthy and I met. There’s a hell of a lot of good singer-songwriters in this day and age. And you can learn a lot about your own songwriting by learning the songs you love.

Mike & Ruthy will perform at Baby Cakes café in Poughkeepsie on February 20 and at the Center for Creative Education in Stone Ridge on March 21.

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