Telling Post-Katrina Bluegrass Tales with the Ramblin’ Letters

The fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is the focus this week for so many documentaries, retrospectives, art exhibits, performances, readings and seminars, all alternately seeking to commemorate the tragedy or express the ways in which that titanic event changed our lives. Tonight and Saturday, local singer/songwriter/guitarist Michael Millet puts his own spin on the experience –– and his own twang, too.

A physical therapist by day, Millet is part of the city’s small but growing folk and bluegrass scene. He’s been playing for years, and the band he helped form in 2008, the Ramblin’ Letters, has been building its name lately with gigs held seemingly everywhere and anywhere. They might play in the sunshine at a Northshore park one day and then at the hip, dimly lit Japanese tavern Yuki Izakaya the next. Wherever you catch them, though, it’s impossible to miss Millet’s penchant for expressing the modern New Orleans sentiment in song.  

In the American folk tradition, his original songs convey a strong sense of time and place, and they’re packed with pleading immediacy yet balanced by humor. His plain-speaking, post-Katrina masterpiece, the song “Hard Times on the Bayou,” can prove a tear-jerker, yet it’s relieved with wry chuckles thanks to references about our former Congressman “Dollar Bill” Jefferson and about Ray Nagin’s post-storm dalliance with Dallas. I don’t see how anyone could have endured the Katrina aftermath without trading between tears and laughter, and this song evokes that surreal time well.

More recently, Millet reworked the classic tune “Paradise” by the great singer/songwriter John Prine with lyrics in synch with an all-too-contemporary local theme. Prine’s original song was about the environmental abuses of a coal mining company in Kentucky, though Millet has brought it to the Gulf and loaded on local references for his “Sportsman’s Paradise (aka Paradise Lost).“ Here’s the chorus:
“And daddy won’t you take me back to St. Bernard Parish/
Way down on the bayou where Paradise lay/
‘I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking/
British Petroleum has washed it away’”

You can hear the whole song, along with “Hard Times on the Bayou” and others, here.

Joining Millet in Ramblin’ Letters are John Norwood on resonator guitar and mandolin, John Depriest on banjo, Harry Hardin on fiddle and Will Jordan on upright bass. Some of these guys are familiar faces at the Monday night bluegrass “pickin’ party,” an open jam held at the Hi Ho Lounge each week that is helping nurture the bluegrass scene here.

 The Ramblin’ Letters play a short set tonight, from 10:30 to 11:30, at the Circle Bar. And they play an early show on Saturday, Aug. 28, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Maison.


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