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Once a Weedhawk, always a Weedhawk

By Staff | Jan 27, 2009

A grizzled journeyman rocker washing dishes to pay the bills meets a charming and talented symphony violinist. She moves in with him while he’s in the midst of a Hank Williams/honky-tonk obsession. She starts to dread the orchestra and begins exploring classic country music and western swing styles … enter “The Weedhawks.” Ruby Jean plays violin/fiddle and mandolin, Bobby Lane plays guitar and harmonica, with a stunning blend of vocals between them. This West Virginia duet is unique, amusing and musically entrancing. They are known to walk out among their audience, like the troubadors of old, only with quirky original, and thought provoking songs.

When they first met, Ruby played violin in a local band, the “New Relics.” Ruby remembers: “They had their own studio, a brand new van and more equipment than they could use but they couldn’t grab anyone’s attention. Bobby Lane on the other hand had only his songs, his guitar and everyone’s attention.”

Their partnership raised a lot of eyebrows in their little town. Ruby remembers being warned about getting mixed up with him: “Bobby had attained a reputation around the area as being quite a wildman. Everybody told me to get away from him, but I thought he was a nice guy deep down. He was the first person that I ever played with who put on a show from start to finish.”

Their difference in age is 19 years. Bobby Lane played his first show in 1981, when Ruby was two months old. She started formal training at the age of 3 1/2 with WVU graduate student Beth Williams. Bobby started informal training after seeing a Bruce Springsteen show in 1978. Three days later he bought a Fender guitar and set out to learn to make it talk.

Ruby Jean’s house was filled with music while she was growing up in the hills just outside of Morgantown. Her parents both played music, and when she was 8, her mother took her to see Kathy Mattea. Since she was from West Virginia, she felt a connection with her and inspired her to sing more. Shortly after, she and her dad learned some songs, and he took her to her first open mic.

While Ruby Jean was being inspired by Kathy Mattea, Bobby was playing in a thrash metal band called “Senslis Killin,” and running a small recording studio in an office building in New York City where he lived on the sly and made demos for death metal bands for rent money. He recorded a demo for a band called “Brutal Truth” that got him a job as traveling sound man. “My first gig as a sound man was at The Ritz in New York City in front of 4,000 people. Talk about being thrown into the fire.” Bobby traveled the United States with different bands as a sound man, roadie, and driver for the next couple of years. In 1992, he formed a group called Brain Police that toured on and off, and while on the road with them, he got caught in a blizzard in West Virginia at the end of 1995. “We were stuck in Morgantown for a week and everybody was so nice we just fell in love with the town and the people.” After getting home he decided to pack up and move there. “It was a great place to get away and concentrate on song writing, which at that point was my main interest.”

Fast forward to Morgantown, fall 2001. Ruby Jean is a student at WVU. “Sept. 11 changed the way I looked at life. I was thinking, if it can all be over in a minute do I want to be having fun or be locked in some room with a bunch of orchestra geeks?” Around this time a friend kept telling her, ‘You gotta meet my roommate, Bobby Lane.’ The afternoon they met they passed the guitar back and forth and played their songs for each other. Ruby found Bobby’s songs to be very personal and related to them immediately. Bobby remembers: “Ruby and I were on either side of my roommate and while we were singing this Steve Earle song together he had this freaked out look on his face. The blending of our voices was really there and for some reason he got up and quickly rushed Ruby out the door. I didn’t see her again for months. I kept asking him for her number, but he wouldn’t give it to me. After a while I was almost ready to turn him upside down, so he finally gave me her phone number. I walked to a pay phone right away and invited her to perform with me at a show two days later. That was Dec. 27, 2001. A week later she moved into a new apartment with me and we’ve been playing music together ever since.”

In 2002, Ruby Jean quit school and focused on music full time. The pair stopped at any place that sold beer and had pick-up trucks parked out front. They would whip through a quick 3-song burst, pass a tip jar, and head out the door to the next joint. “Hit ‘em and Quit ‘em,” they called it, and a steady stream of gig requests followed.

Competing with bands that played for only beer as payment was a battle. Bob figured: “If you wanted to earn the money, you had to play harder, better and longer than the competition. We had one gig back when we first started that promised a decent guarantee and then only four people showed up. I knew that if we took a break they’d try to cut our set short and send us home with less money, so we played straight through for four hours without a break. We didn’t even pause between songs, just bang, bang, bang, bang until 2 a.m. They gave us our money.”

“This became a way for us to stand out from the crowd. We were starting to become known as the band that plays all night without a break. One night we played for 7 1/2 hours straight. One group would leave and another would come in so, we’d just keep going. We were making a living doing what we loved on our own terms and at that time that was enough for us.”

Another thing that separates them from the pack is their original songs, and they don’t speak of sneaking them in, the way other bands might. If anything they sneak in a few covers between their own songs. “Hillbillies Working on the House,” “Don’t Shrink My Clothes,” “Old School Hippie Funeral,” are but a few of their originals which leave audiences smiling. Ruby’s vocals on her original, “Sugar Coated Lies,” are reminiscent of old jazz torch singers, with slow lilting melody and poignant lyrics.

They record many of their live shows, and make these recordings available to their fans. The Weedhawks discography includes: “See America,” “Eat Something Besides Cocaine,” “Sex for Dummies,” “Drunkness on the edge of town,” “Wargasm,” and “Live at Mountainfest.”

PBS is currently filming a documentary about The Weedhawks, it is expected to air by next summer.

Contact Robbin at rmahonen@graffitiwv.com