By Eric Timmons
Growing up as a Jewish kid in Portland, Oregon, with parents who liked jazz and classical music, picking up a banjo was an act of rebellion for Josh Rabie. He fell deep into the world of roots music, playing fiddle for hours and studying recordings of bluegrass and old time music.
“As soon as I heard early bluegrass, maybe because I’d never heard it before, I was just glued,” he remembers. “I would play fiddle for six, seven hours a day. I couldn’t put it down.”
Years later, sitting on the back porch of his La Crosse home, it’s clear Rabie hasn’t lost that intensity, that relentless quest to capture the sounds he hears in his head.
Playing under the name Echo Black River, Rabie has just released his first solo album, Uphill Downpour, and it’s not just a collection of eight songs. It’s a proper record, with a narrative arc that starts in a darker period of Rabie’s life, and finishes with the redemptive final track, Home at Last.
It’s a reflection of a journey that began with that kid in Portland who was crazy about roots music and would go on to become a member of Water Tower, a bluegrass and old time band that toured all over America and the UK before disintegrating.
“That band kind of dismantled and then we all kind of went our separate ways,” Rabie said.
He headed south to California, and took an apprenticeship with a guitar maker, learning how to craft ukuleles and acoustic guitars. It was there that he met his future wife, Glenna, who’s from Neillsville, Wisconsin. She wanted to move closer to home and Rabie packed up and went with her.
“It was definitely a culture change. The winters were the hardest at first but now I love it,” Rabie said. “Our family is really grounded here and settled.”
He eventually got a job at Dave’s Guitar Shop and played and continues to play in various bands, but he always wanted to complete a solo project, somewhere on the porous edges of folk, blues and rock, that would be a departure from the bluegrass and old time music for which he’s best known. Part of the sound he had in mind for his album was inspired by the deep tremolo guitar effect that was a trademark for Pops Staples.
“I have a Vox amp with tremolo going the whole album, that’s kind of my signature sound,” Rabie said.
The songs on Uphill Downpour also feature the combined talents of Ty Don on bass, Ryan Howe on keyboard, Corey Minor on drums and Mike James on pedal steel, and the album was recorded and mixed by Michael Von Muchow at his Actual Sound Studio in La Crosse. But it’s clearly a deeply personal recording for Rabie, who does all the vocal parts and plays electric and acoustic guitar, fiddle, and mandolin.
“It’s not a flashy, technical record, it’s my soul, it’s my heart,” he said. “The album kind of starts with my drug phase and then kind of moves chronologically with the track titles and the meaning of the songs to kind of finding a path outside of that, and moving on from all that stuff.”
The songs were written over a period of five years that saw Rabie’s life transformed by the birth of his two children. He started work on recording Uphill Downpour last year, fitting in sessions around his job and family, but the album was only about halfway done when COVID-19 hit. Rabie had wanted to add horns to the songs but those plans were shelved due to the pandemic. There’s a wistful look in Rabie’s eyes when he thinks of the textures brass may have added to the album, and yet there’s something in this leaner version that sounds just right.
On the song Wasted Time Rabie sings, “the tracks in the mud will always stay wet.” It’s a reference to addiction, but also speaks to the yearning in Rabie to make more music. He’s a musical explorer who can sing, play cajun accordion, old time fiddle, or blues guitar, and you can hear fragments of all those influences on the album, undergirded by that singular electric tremolo sound that guides the journey home.
Recently, Rabie and his wife have been rotating childcare duties during each of the protests in La Crosse against police brutality and racism, so one can stay home while the other joins the demonstrations. He’s pledged to donate a portion of the earnings from his album to Reclaim the Block for all sales this month. You can buy a digital copy of Uphill, Downpour at the Echo Black River bandcamp site, or from any of the major digital streaming services.
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