By Josh Winborne
Before performing with his bluegrass band Uncle Monk Saturday evening at the Rock House Music Venue in Reeds Spring, this writer had the opportunity to sit down and speak with punk rock legend Tommy Ramone, the only surviving, original member of the ground-breaking rock and roll band The Ramones.
Born Thomas Erdelyi on January 29, 1952, in Budapest, Hungary, Ramone and his family moved to Queens, New York shortly afterward. Growing up on music, by high school he played lead guitar with future Ramones bandmate Johnny Ramone, then called John Cummins, in a band called The Tangerine Puppets.
After high school, Ramone began working at the Dick Charles recording studio and later moving becoming assistant engineer at the prestigious Record Plant recording studio. He later opened his own studio with friend Monte Melnick, called Performance Studios, where The Ramones first began to rehearse. Tommy was recruited by the band as their manager.
Contrary to popular understanding, the band members were not actually brothers. They each adopted the last name Ramone as part of the band’s image.
When the band’s original drummer, Joey Ramone, took over singing lead, the drum seat needed to be filled. After a vain search for a replacement, the band persuaded Ramone to take the spot. “Before that I’d never been behind a drum set in my life,” quipped Ramone.
Ramone continued with the band, writing, playing, managing and producing their first three albums until 1979, when he decided that he was better suited as a producer than a drummer. He trained his replacement Marky Ramone on his drumming style before returning to the studio.
As The Ramones went on their way, Ramone spent the early 1980s producing albums for The Replacements, Redd Kross, The Rattlers and The Talking Heads.
Then in 1984, he returned to the sound board for The Ramones, producing their album “Too Tough To Die.”
Ramone is credited for much of the band’s early success, writing many of the songs that the band would perform throughout its career. He also developed a drumming style that is still used in punk music today.
Maintaining his love of old-time and bluegrass music, Ramone began playing the music himself in the early 2000s, training himself on banjo, mandolin and dobro. During this time, he met fellow music lover and guitar player Claudia Tienan, formerly of The Simplistics. The pair began to write songs together, with ideas of eventually performing those songs live.
In 2006, the duo released their debut, self-titled album and began touring festivals around the country in support of it. With their homespun styling and authentic vocals, the pair are a musical force that has to be seen to be appreciated to the fullest.
Prior to his performance, Ramone sat down to answer questions about both his history and his new musical journey.
Q. How did you get into old-time and bluegrass music?
T.R. This is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve had a love for this music since I was a small child. My father was a bluegrass fan and my brother used to bring home old records of it from the library that I would record and play over and over. Its something I grew up with.
Q. How did you and Claudia get together?
T.R. We both ran in the same music circles in New York and share a deep love for old-time music. Uncle Monk originally began as a trio, but has evolved over time into what you see today.
Q. Is there an old-time or bluegrass movement in New York today?
T.R. There is one, but its scattered; it lacks a real focal point. I guess to say there is interest there, instead of a movement, would be more accurate.
Q. Who are some of the influences for the music you perform now?
T.R. As far as old-time music, the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon and Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers are some of the big ones. For bluegrass, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe and Ricky Skaggs.
Q. How have you been received so far with this genre of music?
T.R. Overall, the response has been great. Some people are a little confused by what we’re doing, but those are few. Most people have been very open-minded and accepting of this.
Q. What are some of the coolest or strangest occurrences that have happened to you on tour?
T.R. Wow, I’ve never thought about that. Honestly, there have been so many its overwhelming, every day something like that happens. Maybe I should start keeping a list!
Q. After having been associated with the Ramones for many years, has that been a benefit or a detriment to what you are doing now with Uncle Monk?
T.R. In actuality, what I’m doing now is just a continuation of what I’ve always done. Obviously there are differences between punk and old-time music, but they are extremely similar in theme, attitude and even structure.
Most of the people we play for “get it.” The Ramones were a great concept band, sort of an art project for us. I was very lucky to meet up with those guys when I did. I started out as their manager and eventually joined as their drummer. It was a breakaway from the glam-rock movement that was going on at the time. That attitude is still present in bands like Uncle Monk today.
Q. Have you enjoyed being able to tour smaller areas such as this?
T.R. I’ve enjoyed it very much, I mean, it was from areas like the Ozarks that this music came from. It has been great to experience those origins for myself.
Following this interview, Ramone and Tienan went on to perform an exquisite show before a packed house. Performing only original material, the end of their set was met with a standing ovation and many compliments on their beautiful sound.
Thank you to Uncle Monk for taking the time to play at the Rock House Music Venue and for a great performance that left us all wanting more.