Ruby Dee Philippa, lead singer for locals Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers, promises the quintet will be back in time to play Highway 99 on Saturday, July 15, to celebrate their new CD, North of Bakersfield. But right now? She's calling from a small cafe somewhere in Juneau, as the band wraps up its second week of dates in Alaska.
To hear her tell it, Ruby Dee has always had the pioneering spirit, a willingness to hit the open road in service of good music. "I would actually drive from San Diego to Los Angeles to see X when I was 15," she recalls. "I would sleep in my car, and wash out with someone's hose behind their house."
The Snakehandlers have racked up plenty of hours and miles in the four years since their formation, taking their sweet time since the release of the 2003 EP Five for the Road. So why the hold up? "We were fine-tuning," says the singer, apropos of the long spell between records. "We had a pedal steel, and then we didn't. We had a rhythm guitarist, and then we didn't... and then she came back again. So we wanted to stabilize. We certainly didn't want to go into the studio and then have everything change again."
While solidifying that musical foundation, the group amassed an impressive fan base... who will be glad to hear that North of Bakersfield is well worth the wait. Produced by Conrad Uno and lead guitarist Jorge Harada, the 12-song set boasts several standout tracks that draw on one of country music's favorite subjects: broken hearts. On the opening "Who Is She?" Ruby wails like a young Wanda Jackson, while the band—which also features rhythm guitarist Liz Smith, bassist Pete Smith (no relation), and drummer Lewis Warren—lay down hep, hopped-up rockabilly licks, while the succinct, punchy choruses of "Now I Want You (Out of My Head)" neatly break up the longing Ruby pours into the verses.
Although she was preoccupied with romantic tribulation during the first few years of writing her own material, today Ruby Dee admits she finds herself in a different predicament. "Now the problem is, I'm in a happy relationship. I'm a little bit worried I'm going to forget how to write songs."
That seems unlikely. Elsewhere on Bakersfield, she addresses other topics with admirable aplomb. Stripped down and rhythmic, "4500 Saturdays" is an homage to her independent-minded grandmother. "Just One Day," a song about addiction, boasts a gentle but none-too-naive character that reflects the singer's fondness for Loretta Lynn and early Dolly Parton.
And like those ladies, Ruby Dee and her counterparts are surprisingly tough. Juneau may be relatively sophisticated, but not all of the Snakehandlers' Alaskan shows have been in such civilized climes. One night they may be playing for college kids, the next to a smoke-choked room of grizzled, drunken loggers and fishermen, says Ruby. "You know, the type of place you walk out of and cough up a lung."