Sons of Ralph plays a monthly residency at Jack of the Wood in Asheville, N.C. Photo: Jay Coble
Sons of Ralph have the spirit of legend behind them. Band leader and family patriarch Ralph Lewis played with the late “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in the early 1970s, touring internationally and making numerous appearances on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
These days, though, the 83-year-old Lewis steps beyond the bounds of tradition in his expansive acoustic outfit with sons Marty (guitar) and Don (fiddle and mandolin).
Based in Asheville, N.C., Sons of Ralph formed back in 1997 with the sole intention of getting family members together to play music. Soon after the band’s inception, a then-new brewpub in Asheville, Jack of the Wood, opened. Marty Lewis knew the owners and volunteered to play on the pub’s tiny stage with his new band. Fourteen years later, Sons of Ralph still holds a monthly residency at the venue, and their shows have become legendary, attracting audiences from across the country.
“It’s our home base,” says Marty Lewis. “People still e-mail us, asking when we’re playing Jack of the Wood to plan their vacations around it.”
With the addition of cousin Steve Moseley on bass and Ozzie Orengo Jr. on drums, the group regularly packs the house with a rowdy brand of Americana combining traditional bluegrass with the edgier elements of country rock.
“Dad was always playing straight bluegrass, but my brother and I were playing a broader range of stuff,” Marty says. “By adding an electric bass and drums, we realized we could play any kind of music.”
As youngsters, the Lewis boys learned how to play from weekly jam sessions that Ralph hosted at their childhood home in the shadow of Mount Pisgah.
“All the best musicians from the area would show up, and they took it seriously,” Marty adds. “We’d fall asleep and still hear banjos playing.”
Soon the grade-school-age boys were on the road with their dad and the legendary Monroe, who would call them out to the stage every night to play a song or two. As they grew up, Marty went on to work with Chubby Wise, Kenny Baker, and Vassar Clements, while Don has played with Rhonda Vincent and recorded with Warren Haynes and Doc Watson.
Coming back to play with their father has proven to be a wise move, as Sons of Ralph remains one of the most popular groups on the regional mountain music scene. The group entered the studio in late spring to record their sixth album, and they plan to hold court indefinitely at Jack of the Wood.