Colorado’s Jim Ratts has been living in Small Towns for decades—but now, the musical storyteller has finally finished his newest long-in-the-works concept album about the triumphs and tragedies of the classic American small town.
“The small town simplifies a way of looking at America that is small enough for you to process,” Ratts said of a pet project that was simmering in his home studio since 1998.
“All towns are small towns when you consider the universe,” the CD cover art says.
The aptly named Small Towns by Jim Ratts and Runaway Express is a cinematic soundscape that culls Ratts’s interpretations of Janis Ian, Jesse Winchester, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle with the singer’s own music, each song—or interwoven musical chapter— taking a distinct trip down the Main Streets and dirt roads of America.
“It’s like you have a handful of marbles, and you have this giant map of the United States. Every place that one of those marbles could possibly land is another story,” Ratts said.
Ratts is no stranger in town when it comes to Americana music. His own songs have been recorded by such artists as Sam Bush (the bluegrass chart hit “Howlin’ at the Moon”) and the Dillards, among others. In the 1990s, he was one third of the Wild Jimbos with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jimmy Ibbotson.
Small Towns, Ratts’s latest album, follows such ambitious sound collages as Yeah, Buddy! and Oh, Boy!, his companion tributes to rock icon Buddy Holly. Woodstock was his cinematic recreation of the 1969 festival, mixing covers of songs performed there with Ratts’s originals serving as a sort of narration on Woodstock history, replete with theatrical sound effects.
In the following interview, Ratts, a small-town boy, explains why he went home for his newest and most personal collage project yet.
How did the concept of “Small Towns” develop?
First and foremost, it’s where I come from. Small towns are so very complex. They can be closed minded and conservative, or they can be a place where you realize your full potential—it’s not so overwhelming. You can smile and wave at people, as opposed to rolling up your window and driving on by.
Then, at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1993, around a campfire an unknown girl named Iris Dement sang “Our Town,” a song that made the earth move. I walked over to her, introduced myself and said, “I need that song.” That was the beginning. I knew I needed to record an entire album of songs that would reflect on small towns. Iris’s song was such an inspiration—it reminded me of the fact that having grown up in a small town, I had a lot of things to say about them.
You grew up in the farming community of St. John, Kan., where your father still lives.
He’s 103 years old. I lived on a farm. So going into the big town was going into St. John, which was about 2,000 people, with a beautiful picturesque square that used to have grand trees and brick buildings that were built in the 1880s and ‘90s. A lot of the town was built on the agrarian nature of the work that the people were doing. In going back and visiting Dad, I was continually reminded of those things that were pivotal for defining me in the way I see the world—basic friendliness, openness, not being threatened by the outside world.
At the same time, your CD is not just about idyllic small-town life. There is a dark side.
Yes, the hardest thing on the record is “Oildale.” It’s what happened to an oil-boom town north of Bakersfield. The town basically died, so now Oildale is the shattered remnants of what it once was. There is rampant poverty and drug abuse. “There ain’t no yuppies in Oildale.” That’s because nobody wants to raise their kids there. It’s a despicable town, but it hasn’t always been.
“Oildale” segues right into your own song, “Kansas Skies,” an evocative contrast.
Yes, my hometown couldn’t be more positive. That’s the whole point. That’s me reminiscing about an idyllic childhood: “A farm boy cried with the future in his eyes watching Indian summer fade away.” I lost my mom—that’s what happened. It’s like loving that rainbow, but knowing that rainbow is going to be gone in five minutes. Then you deal with life without a rainbow. I don’t always write songs that are that nostalgic or sweet, but that is an honest representation of how I felt.
“Small Towns” is a concept album in the era of the mp3 when even the album format, itself, seems almost like a dying small town. You’re going against the grain with segues and recurring themes.
I’ve always been drawn to audio collage—Spanky and Our Gang’s Without Rhyme or Reason and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper around the same time. I’ve always wanted to incorporate that kind of stuff. I’m not competing in an arena that cares if it’s in fashion. There is an archaic concept of just listening to an album all the way through. What I’ve learned from people who love this record is that they keep coming back to it. It’s long enough that if it goes on repeat, this sucker can be a soundtrack for a road trip.
At the same time, you have acknowledged contemporary listening habits with a remixed downloadable version.
Yes, people can download the entire 17-track album as a theatrical project, or they can cherry-pick individual songs. Those individual songs— the radio versions—are remastered and remixed to stand alone. The radio stations are also going to have each individual track. They will receive both discs in the same package.
“Small Towns” includes a range of songs by other songwriters. How difficult was it to choose the songs?
The theme was a metamorphosis. Each song that I felt belonged to the project added depth to what the overall project was. John Mellencamp had a great small-town song that I did try. It just didn’t fit for what I was doing. As I added each new song, it redefined what the project became. So each one of these songs is like a little vignette. It’s like a collection of short stories that have intertwining themes. I really consider this to be a cinematic project.
Small Towns is available at http://www.runawayexpress.com, at CD Baby, or by sending 18 bucks to Runaway Express at P.O. Box 2333, Englewood, CO 80150. Check out the “Kansas Skies” video at http://www.youtube/R56nGZkInhs.
By Peter Jones
Photo: Jim Ratts, top center, and Runaway Express