Less than three hours by car from Seattle, Yakima is in the central part of Washington, the state’s agricultural heartland. Where Seattle is gleaming high-tech and home to major corporations such as Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft and Amazon, the Yakima Valley is rural and home to more than 11,000 acres of vineyards. The area is also responsible for 80% of the nation’s hop production. The people who live in the valley are shaped by the land. Where Seattle is famous for the birth of grunge in the early 90’s and the hipster culture more recently, residents of Yakima and the surrounding area are salt-of-the-earth folks who work hard, play hard and, as the saying goes, “keep it real.”
Cody Beebe burst on the music world in 2013 when he and his band The Crooks released the critically acclaimed album Out Here. The record was not looked at as commercial or trendy; but rather described in various reviews as “roots-rock” or “Americana.” Many people assumed that Beebe was the latest in a long line of exceptional musicians to come out of Seattle, a natural assumption since Out Here was recorded in the Emerald City and Beebe and The Crooks gigged there extensively. In fact, Beebe makes his home in Yakima, and the music reflects the spirit and work ethic of the Yakima Valley.
In 2015, after Beebe and the band returned from touring Europe, he started Rust on the Rails, in what was originally intended as an unplugged side project to The Crooks. His founding partner in ROTR (as Rust on the Rails is frequently notated) is Australian native Blake Noble, whom Beebe met when he booked Noble to play at Chinook Fest, an eclectic music festival that Beebe runs each summer. At the time, Noble had a band too, so ROTR was a nice little acoustic diversion for both musicians.
Over time, the project morphed into something very different, as musical projects tend to do. In early January ROTR will release their full-length album Talisman, which rocks pretty vigorously and is definitely plugged in. So what happened?
“Blake got an electric guitar,” laughs Beebe. “Well, we also got a deal with Gibson Guitars in Seattle,” replies Noble.
“Initially, we did start acoustic,” continues Beebe, “and then I switched over to electric about a year ago. And it was mainly because when we first started, we had Tim Snyder playing electric violin. So there was…that element was there. A lot of the times when we do live shows, we’ll still lean on that acoustic side of things. But at that time, I don’t think we really let the music develop, and we really hadn’t…it was just kinda like, ‘Okay, well, we have six songs. How do we stretch this into a set?’ You know? And then over the last year, we’ve actually really written some songs. And then so when we recorded them, that’s the way it felt right Blake, can you speak to that?”
The songwriting for the album was a collaborative effort, with Beebe and Noble taking the lead. Both had years worth of ideas in the can, so to speak, and like all good songwriting teams ideas were traded and spliced to create a finished song out of various parts.
Noble says “We had the initial ideas for the songs, like rough concepts that we had. I brought a couple of my ideas to the table, Cody brought a lot of his ideas to the table that we had both kind of jammed on individually over the last eight, 10 years, even. Some of those riffs and songs or just lyrical ideas that are really old finally have become songs. And that’s really cool, because for me, I’m an instrumentalist, so I need someone like Cody to complete the song. So a few of the songs on there were initially, my kind of Australian roots rock ideas that eventually turned into something else, because Cody put his spin on there, and I put in the guitar part, and then he sang over the top. Obviously, the lyrics really kind of make the song.”
Beebe chimes in with “Well, and we…like Blake said, both of us brought songs to the table. Two of the songs he brought, he’d been playing in Australia for years prior to coming to the States. And then when he moved here, they were always just songs he would play, and I had heard…you know, he would play them acoustically, but I had heard versions that he had done where there was a singer on there. However, one of them was him singing and, I was like, ‘dude, that’s an incredible song’ which is actually Lost and Found on our record. We ended up just kinda singing harmonies together. And then Can You Feel It is another one that he used to play and sing at, like, bar gigs and stuff in Australia all over the place. So…it’s kinda like a party song. And I liked the funk of…like how it felt pretty funky and bluesy, all at the same time. And so we ended up kinda developing that one. And then, you know, some of the other ideas, like, Play The Fool, that guitar line at the beginning, I’ve been just, like, playing that over and over again basically, since I learned how to play guitar. So it was this melody that I’ve always liked, and then we developed that one. But that all being said, like, it really does stem from Blake and I. The process goes, Blake and I hash out the overall arrangement. We get rough, lyrical ideas and melodies in place, and then we usually take it to the band at that point, so that they know, you know, like…and then they add, you know, what they add. And obviously, Chris [Lucier, drums] and Eric [Miller, bass]
are incredible players. ”
One important addition to the creative process was a friend of Beebe’s, Austin Jenckes. In addition to the music, the two have a common bond in that they are both from rural areas of Washington State. Jenckes is originally from Duvall, with a population of roughly 7700 people. He gigged locally for many years before moving to Nashville in 2012, and later appeared on season five of The Voice. Says Beebe, “We’ve always really respected Austin as a songwriter and as a friend, and so we asked him if he would co-produce it with our other friend Seth Paul and ourselves. But Austin has a really good musical sensibility. I really appreciate how he goes about writing songs. And, if you’re sitting there writing a song and you have the opportunity to change things here or there, he’s always…I like the decisions that he makes in those instances. And so he flew here and did a couple of shows with us, and we later sat down and basically went through all of the songs, except for Foolish Pride, which we wrote with Nick Foster, another Seattle musician. But Austin has co-writing on the majority of the record, because we wanted to have his input on those things.”
Look at Rust on the Rails’ Facebook posts and you’ll see the band playing at local schools–definitely not the typical gigs bands usually book. But it comes full circle as to how Beebe and Noble are tied to the area they live and how they give back to the community. When asked about that, Noble answers quickly. “I wanna say something about that real quick before Cody jumps in, because I’m a visitor to this country, and I’m a visitor to this area, and the reason that I live here…well, there’s a couple of reasons, but one of the main reasons is the people here that I met through Cody and through Chinook Fest, I’m here without my family or anything, from a foreign country, and they embraced me as one of their own, and they always have. Cody’s family, and I mean everyone around them, the entire Chinook Fest…they call it a Chinook Fest family because it really is a family. We all take care of each other. So I think it’s spot-on when you say that with Cody’s character, that comes from his family and the people that we know in this area. And we do what we do because they listen, and that’s a really cool thing in this kind of music industry, just to have that home fan base. And we don’t even call them fans, because they’re all friends. We know everyone by name. They come to all the shows, they travel just to see us. And that’s a big part of it, for sure.”
Beebe adds “Yeah, I don’t know what else to say about that other than it comes down to community, you know. We’re trying to build a community for the future, and whether that’s a world community or you start on a fairly small-scale, and you can really build out quickly if people kinda see your vision. And I think that that’s what’s cool, like Blake said, people that got onboard with Chinook Fest day one, there is and was a need for music and culture in rural America. Watching Blake play in front of people for the first time is always an experience, because he may…I was saying this to Blake the other day, it’s like, he might be the only connection at all that they can see, touch, smell, feel, whatever, that will lead them to Australia. And maybe that’s the one place that they’ve always wanted to go in their life, or they’ve seen postcards or whatever it is. And he used to live on that beach. And so I think that to be able to bring him here and show that to people, it’s just cool to watch the fan base build around that as an element. And then to go and take it to the schools, you know, we’re really fortunate to be able to do that.”
“There was a superintendent that was a fan of the festivals, and a fan of us as well, for sure. But it really was about the atmosphere we were creating, and he reached out and asked if we would be musicians and residents for a school district in the lower valley. And it’s a very low-income community, for the most part. But the kids, they need it more than anybody. So that’s what it really comes down to. And some of those kids will probably never get to leave the valley. And if they get to leave the valley, they might not ever…I mean, the chances of them getting to go to Australia, I mean, it’s one-to-none. So, you know, that’s the kinda…” Noble quickly adds “We’ll just have to go there today, because we…more than 300 kids got to create and paint and learn how to play their own didgeridoo today.”
Beebe continues the story. “Yeah, we brought in 300 tubes with paints and a bunch of stuff. And, you know, the school district supports that, and they pay for those materials. So it’s pretty cool. And then for them to do that for their kids is amazing. It’s an investment in those kids to bring the arts back to schools, because we all know that the arts programs are the first ones to go when times are tough. And maybe now, times are turning around a little bit and people are starting to invest in the arts again, because it’s really important for those young people.”
“And then other districts saw it and asked if we would come, because they saw the reaction that we were getting. So it’s been cool. It’s been really cool to see it kind of build, and now we’re in year two, and we can schedule it with…it works out really well because we can schedule it around our own tour schedule, so it’s flexible. And then we also are able to help some of our friends that are coming through the area. You know, that’s one of my favorite parts about being a musician, is having a network of world-class musicians that you can call on. And I know what it’s like to be on the road touring, and so for us to be able to get them to play in front of…by the time that they’re done with the two days at the schools, they’ve played in front of almost 4,000 kids. It’s a really quick wham-bam, thank you, ma’am, but they get to effect that many lives. Those teachers do that every day, and they deserve double the pay, because they’re incredible human beings that take care of our children, and that’s not an easy job.”
And so the story comes full circle. Two musicians spending a fair amount of time in an interview talking not only about their music, their band and how their album was conceived and recorded, but also explaining how they love giving back to their community, their beloved extended family in the Yakima Valley.