If Heartland Rock will make a comeback, then it might look to Rodeo Ruby Love at the vanguard. This subgenre was popular in the 1970s and 1980s and appealed to the sensibilities of blue-color audiences in small-town America. The songs were the anthems of adolescent hopefulness turned into the disappointments of the quarter-life crisis. A perfect example of these themes re-emerging in a post-Emo context is Rodeo Ruby Love’s new album, The Pits. In twelve well-produced songs, The Pits takes one through the range of emotions that one may encounter as he or she nears the late 20s.
I have a strong affinity for this album and for this band because we have a shared history and a shared homeland. While Rodeo Ruby Love now hails from Bloomington, Indiana, they originated in Marion near where I grew up. In fact, I am very close friends with vocalists Zack Melton, Annie Cheek, and Breezey Fox (we were all in the same church youth group). Songs such as “Made it Marion,” “It Was Weird,” and “Sand Pike” harken back to adolescence in rural central Indiana and the hopes and fears associated with leaving that place in search of sustainable opportunities. “Made it Marion” taps into the disappointments of coming of age in an area that never will. The recurring line in the chorus “I made it with you for as long as I could” demonstrates that leaving home is part of growing up. But movement and separation take a psychological toll on a person. As the opening and closing line of “It Was Weird” says, “One by one we let the most beautiful place on the earth fall off the map.” Our attachment to home is often illogical and affective. Again, in “It Was Weird” the line, “Falling in love with the middle of nowhere/It was weird/But it meant something to me” demonstrates that home is where the heart is, even if the heart is nowhere. “Sand Pike”—a reference to a street next to which I grew up and on which Zack, Annie, and Breezey grew up—is an anthem of homesickness and redemption. The refrain “I want to go back to Sand Pike and do it all again” cries for a “do over” of teenage years (and by extension, of one’s 20s). While I am partial to these songs because I know exactly where they are referencing, there is a universal message that many could capture: our hometowns are part of our stories.
Sonically, this album is the most advanced of any of their four. The production is impeccable. It replicates the energy of the band’s live shows exceptionally well. The listener will hear layers upon layers of guitars that sound more arena rock than punk rock. Many of the layered guitar harmonies are reminiscent of Brian May’s work on Queen’s albums. The organ and piano work is solid, which I liken at times to J. Geils Band. All the while, a solid rhythm section drive infectious beats that make toes tap. Songs are generally a conventional pop-rock format with forays into punk and folk. “Sweet Adam” is the most diverse musically. It opens with an a capella Doo-wop before swelling into Ska-influenced choruses and concluding with crescendos that blend in Gospel vocals. The interlude to this song employs a Ragtime piano that sound almost Music Hall. Listeners who like to be taken on a tour of musically stylings will relish this smorgasbord.
Aesthetically, the album flirts with the religious as songwriter and frontman Zack Melton wrestles with his own religious upbringing. The cover art is loosely a stain glass window with a little boy wearing red pumps, a juxtaposition of sacred and profane. “Where You Find It” criticizes feigned piety in providentialism. The antagonist abuses his wife and then preaches a sermon about God’s purpose in matching him with a new partner after the wife has died. The title song is saturated with religious imagery, opening with “Sing Gloria from the mountaintops” and declaring in one chorus “We built a tower up to God/We built a tower, Oh my God/It’s the pits, if we believe or not.” As I’ve mentioned above, “Sweet Adam” blends in Gospel vocals.
What makes this album so exciting to me is that it is a culmination of a working-class ethic. Rodeo Ruby Love has been around for nearly seven years, and this album is the pinnacle of their songwriting and performance. Critics may say that the album sounds like it is pandering to pop-rock fans and that it is disingenuous. But that could not be farther from the truth. The range of sounds offered in this album both appeals to and polarizes any collection of listeners. Knowing half of the band personally for almost fifteen years, I can say with certainty that they are the real deal and so is this album.