Vital Vinyl: Bombadil’s ‘Tarpits and Canyonlands,’ a Diamond In the Rough
Comprised of Stuart Robinson, Daniel Michalak and James Phillips, North Caolina’s Bombadil are one of the most important bands I’ve had the pleasure of writing about. They have a bleak but inspiring story, making beautifully heartfelt music in the face of grim circumstances -- all the while creating a unique brand of folk music that feels both traditional and brand-new.
In 2009, Bombadil released ‘Tarpits and Canyonlands,’ their second full-length studio album -- arguably, one of the best records of the last five years. Unfortunately, you've likely never heard it. They were unable to tour in support of it -- prior to the making of the album, Michalak began experiencing severe pain and fatigue in his arms; as a multi-instrumentalist, this became quite a concern not just for him, but for the band as well.
Fast-forward to 2014 and you'll find Bombadil’s record label, Ramseur Records, rereleasing ‘Tarpits’ as a limited-edition triple-LP.
I had the opportunity to chat with the head of Ramseur Records, Dolph Ramseur, while he was driving through Kentucky. We covered his history with Bombadil, the trials and tribulations of the band, and why ‘Tarpits’ needs to be in everyone’s collection.
Starting the label 14 years ago, Ramseur tells me, "I kind of look at my record label like I’m still a kid in my bedroom making mix tapes for people. That’s my mindset." That attitude has allowed Ramseur to not only support bands like Bombadil, but also acts like the Avett Brothers. "We’re on the front lines of the independent fight, you know, trying to put out albums where the artist has control to do what they want to do. We try to have some fun doing it."
It didn't take long for his label to pick up steam. "I started working with the Avett Brothers in late 2002. Bombadil, it seems like I met those guys in early 2004," he recalls. "They opened a show for the Avett Brothers in Chapel Hill. That’s where I first met the guys. I heard a song by them, ‘Jellybean Wine,’ you’ve got to hear it. You just have to hear it."
"I’ve been working with them since then. We kind of have a 'shake hands' kind of deal. I’m one of their biggest fans, if not their biggest fan. That’s just the relationship, you know?"
The Plight of Daniel Michalak
"If my memory serves me right, we recorded 'Tarpits and Canyonlands' at the end of 2008," Ramseur says as we get into the discussion about the record's recent vinyl reissue. "We had it ready to go at some point in early 2009."
But, as Ramseur and Bombadil prepared to release the album, things took an unfortunate, but expected, bad turn. Ramseur remembers it vividly: "What happened was Daniel, his hands -- probably a year prior to even going into the studio -- had been giving him problems. His hands, fingers, arms ... he looked everywhere to get help. I think he went to eight specialists to try and figure out what was happening."
It got so bad that as Michalak traveled, he couldn't even open doors. "Things that most people take for granted, he had to be careful with," Ramseur says. "Car doors, carrying bags -- he had to put serious thought into it so he wouldn't jeopardize wearing out his hands and wrists to where he couldn't perform."
Even though he was going through this pain and frustration, Bombadil still set out to record and finish 'Tarpits and Canyonlands.' Ramseur tells me, "During the making of the record, he sometimes could only do one take of either the bass or guitar or piano, whatever instrument he was playing."
Once recording was finished, Michalak made the tough decision many likely knew was coming. "He just couldn't get out there and perform, and his hands got worse -- he could barely feed himself. He couldn't type an email. It was a real dire situation," Ramseur admits. "The record was basically shelved."
Taking 'Tarpits' Off the Shelf
Even though the band couldn't get on the road to promote 'Tarpits,' Ramseur knew he still had to support them. "Just to kind of keep the guys with money coming in, we put [the album] up on iTunes," he says. "All the money that came in went to the band and it kind of became an underground thing -- all their hardcore fans knew about the record. We sent it to maybe 10 radio stations and 10 people in the media."
Even during this bleak period in the band's life, Ramseur never gave up on them or the record: "I always wanted 'Tarpits' to have its due. It's a really special work of art." So, he decided to take things in his own hands and figure out how to reissue the album -- an album that never received a proper issuing in the first place.
"The guys were all in support," he remembers. "They all knew the album never got a fair deal, it never had a chance to succeed because the band couldn't get out there and tour. As you well know, in today's world, you have to get out there on the highway to help get projects out. It is what it is."
"They shared the same sentiments as me," Ramseur continues. "They were really proud of 'Tarpits' and wanted it to have its day in the sun."
Pressing the Album
Taking advantage of the resurgence of vinyl, Ramseur wanted to make sure 'Tarpits' received more than just a standard release; it needed to be an experience for fans. "I feel like it was the right thing to do. I'm a big fan of vinyl and I know that album was recorded to analog tape, so I just always knew it would be really special to put out on vinyl," he explains.
‘Tarpits’ is pressed on two gorgeous splattered discs, each 180-gram and mastered at 45 RPM. Housed in a deluxe tri-gatefold jacket, the packaging features a pocket that’s secured by a string that includes 14 art prints. "A company designed the actual cover artwork," he tells me as the excitement in his voice steadily grows. "In addition to that art, they did art for all the songs. All of those pieces of art, each one represents a song. We never used those with the original CD, and I always wanted to."
Bringing up the CD brings back some somber memories for Ramseur: "Back in 2009, we had a CD release party. The band couldn't play. Daniel was there with braces on his hands. We sold some of those prints that night -- I just always liked those pieces and with this release, I wanted those to be represented. It was a real sad day when we had the original CD release party."
But, years later, the sun is shining a bit brighter. "It’s been a good thing for this release because I tell you, when Daniel was in such a bad physical way where he couldn’t drive a car or feed himself, that was a real down time for me," Ramseur concedes. "He’s such a nice young man and so vibrant -- it was just a sad time. But now, it's come full circle. This release has helped with the whole situation. This vinyl is like a new beginning. We weathered the storm."
The Future of Bombadil
Ramseur isn't shy about his love for 'Tarpits.' He has no problem calling it a masterpiece or claiming it as one of his favorite records of all-time. In fact, he believes one of the album's tracks, 'Marriage,' will forever be Michalak's crowning achievement.
"I remember telling Daniel's mom -- you know he graduated from Duke University, a great institution -- I remember telling her that when Daniel is on his deathbed, nobody will say he went to Duke. Nobody will say he got a degree or remember his SAT score or any of his accolades," Ramseur says. "They will say, he wrote the song ‘Marriage.’ I think it’s that great of a song. It’s one of the greatest songs ever written about the human condition known as marriage. To me, it’s just a classic song. It’s a great work of art."
He sets the bar high, but Ramseur has complete confidence in the future of Bombadil and their music. "This new record, I think it's even better," he tells me about the band's upcoming album. Little is known about the new LP, but as Ramseur puts it, "It will do some great things for the band. I've got a good feeling about it. Bombadil have come a long way. At one time, they were always referred to as whimsical and a little bit out there. But I think they write tender, pretty love songs. That's what draws me in to Bombadil."
And with the new record, Bombadil will get back on the road -- though, they'll have to be much more conscious of Michalak and his health. "He has to be careful with his hands, but we’ve learned how many shows he can play in a row. It’s not an issue," Ramseur assures me.
Comparing their concerts to those of the Avett Brothers, Ramseur says, "They’re always on a tightrope, and you always think they might fall off, but they never do. That’s another thing that draws me to this band. From a live point-of-view, no one show has ever been the same. They’re so different. Three nights in a row, you’ll see three different shows."
As our conversation nears its end, Ramseur wraps things up with a simple thought about 'Tarpits and Canyonlands': "This is so much more than a record -- I'm really proud of it."
And he should be; 'Tarpits and Canyonlands' is an important record because of the music that is found in the grooves of the records -- music that should never serve as background noise. Bombadil's craft is one that necessitates an intentional listening session, and there's no better way to experience it than spinning the vinyl.
The vinyl edition of Bombadil's 'Tarpits and Canyonlands' is currently available at their official website. Get details on the package -- as well as their tour itinerary -- here.
Bombadil -- 'Tarpits and Canyonlands' Vinyl Edition