There’s happiness in tradition.
Change may alter the appearance of our small town by taking away Hogan’s or glossing up Main Avenue with modern buildings and fresh concrete, but you can still rely on a certain local band every Sunday night for familiarity. For two decades, the Blue Moon Ramblers have been as reliable as they come, having played more than 1,200 Sunday shows at the Diamond Belle Saloon – and counting.
That is a lot of songs, and over the years more than 20 different members have sat in for a tune, a set or longer, including Pat Dressen, Peter Neds, Karen Mason, Robin Davis, Jeff Solon, Gary Cook and many more.
The latest lineup is George Usinowicz on banjo and vocals, Jenny Winegardner on guitar and vocals, Red Greer on fiddle and vocals, Donny Johnson on guitar and vocals and Glen Keefe on bass. Usinowicz has been a Sunday performer at the Belle going on 25 years. Greer and Winegardner are the next longest tenured, with Keefe joining five years back. Johnson was a regular player from 1999 to 2006 and rejoined the band in March.
It all began as a loose jam session. Usinowicz had been playing Sundays at the Belle since 1988 with the Marmot Mud Flaps. In 1992, a group of pickers started an informal yet structured Sunday night jam session, performing without a name. They eventually settled on “The Blue Moon Ramblers” when a bar patron asked them what they were called. The joke answer stuck.
“I still, when I walk up those back stairs every Sunday, still am very appreciative. I’ve got a lot of gratitude,” Usinowicz said Sunday as the band crowded around a small table in the Strater Hotel lobby before their most recent show. “It’s been a nice space personally for me. It’s a four-hour window every week, and it was Sunday night playing with friends and playing music.”
Their wide-ranging repertoire spans Western swing to traditional bluegrass, rock to jazz, all with an Americana twist. There is a familiarity in their song book, whether playing John Hartford or Bob Dylan covers for a small group of locals or a packed house of tourists from Texas, Italy or Australia. Twenty years has given the Ramblers the ability to feel out the audience and keep people entertained with their take on a vast number of internationally recognized songs.
“We are not restrained or advertise that we have to play one genre of music. The freedoms we’ve had here to do and perform what we want with our instruments is pretty rewarding,” Usinowicz said.
Yet it is the tradition that remains important, and the Ramblers’ ritualistic weekly show involving familiar musicians, familiar songs and friends are as much of a Durango tradition as Snowdown or a ride on the Polar Express.
“You make lifelong friends over that period of time,” Greer said. “If it weren’t for Sunday nights, I wouldn’t know who George was, much less Jenny or everybody else, the whole core. It’s a team effort.”
“We’re family,” Johnson said.
. Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager.