Tell someone that a 55-year-old man named Tamás Erdélyi has a new bluegrass duo based in upstate New York with his girlfriend, and you likely won't earn much interest. But tell the same person that Tamás Erdélyi is the birth name of one Tommy Ramone—you know, the New York drummer that wrote most of "Blitzkrieg Bop" as a Ramone—and you'll find what you were looking for.
"When I was a kid, my older brother brought home some records from the library—string-band music and folk music and music in that area," says Ramone, at home in New York. "He would make tape copies of it, and I would listen to this music all the time. I grew up with it, and it's always been some of my favorite music."
Of course, other interests got in the way of acoustics. For a decade following their 1974 formation, The Ramones were one of the defining bands in the world. Uncle Monk started in the late '80s as a side project for Ramone. Peculiarly, he terms it "a jam band, kind of." He was hoping to bring his roots music influences back into a rock context, but he grew tired of that. He had purchased a banjo and a mandolin, and he loved the way the acoustic instruments sounded unadorned.
Instruments kept falling from the band until only he and Claudia Tienan—a former Minneapolis music fixture and later a member of The Simplistics—remained. They've been playing in the Northeast as a duo for decades, Tienan strumming the chords and singing in her stark Maybelle Carter-meets-Nico honey tone. Now they're finally ready for their first tour of the South, and Ramone admits they're kind of nervous. This is, after all, a pilgrimage of sorts.
"Hopefully, people down there will like it. To us, it's especially exciting because that's where the music we love comes from," he says. His excitement only increases when he hears that two of his current favorite roots music staples—The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Raleigh's Old Hat Records—are located less than half an hour from his Raleigh tour stop. "Old Hat puts out so many great records. I've been listening to those things a lot, like The Medicine Shows one," he says. "It's not the easiest stuff to listen to the first time you hear it. The records are old and scratchy, and it's strange the first time you hear. Then, when you really listen to it, you realize there's some great stuff there."
Wait, is he talking about Uncle Monk?
Uncle Monk plays Hideaway BBQ with Kickin' Grass on Friday, May 4, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 day of show.