Blues Rangers spread the message of conservationBy BUSTER WOLFE,
When Dave Allen, James “Lil Jimmy” Mordica, Orin Sampson and Tate Thriffiley aren’t working at their day jobs as biologists, ecologists and timber management specialists for the U.S. Forest Service, they are getting the message out about protecting forests.
They are members of the Blues Rangers, a musical group celebrating its 15th year of performing nationwide and playing the blues about cogongrass, gopher tortoises and prescribed burning. Allen and Thriffiley – the two original members of the group – turned a collaboration into an educational outreach for the Forest Service.
What the pair developed – along with former Forest Service employee Wayne Stone – was what Thriffiley calls “Schoolhouse Rock for the Woods.”
Allen said, “It tells a story about conserving natural resources. That’s really our mission: To use blues music to convey messages about natural resources and choices that folks make about national forests.”
The Blues Rangers usually are a trio in smaller settings with bassist Thriffiley, guitarist Allen and drummer Mordica because they are stationed at DeSoto National Forest in Mississippi. Sampson, a guitarist, calls the Croatan National Forest in North Carolina his current assignment.
The first gig for the Forest Service band came in 2003 after Thriffiley and Allen were part of the group that won Ranger District of the Year in Region 8. Instead of usual entertainment of a womanless beauty pageant, Stone – who was the Forest Service Timber Representative at the time – suggested they play a concert at the banquet, which was held at Pine Burr Country Club in Wiggins.
“We played regular blues, like Muddy Waters,” Allen said. “We were happy with the performance and we said we should play blues. A little while went by, they had the leadership team meeting at a hotel in Hattiesburg and they wanted us to play. We showed up and did a similar thing there, except we had written ‘Cogongrass Blues’ for the performance.”
Cogongrass is one of the the forest’s most invasive species.
Allen said, “That’s what that song is, how to deal with cogongrass and the problems with it. Wayne wrote that first song. It was kind of a big deal. People were like, ‘Oh, you people can write songs?’ We started a brainstorming session and decided we can really do this. So, all of us started writing songs. Almost all of the songs on the first CD were written in about five months.
“We wrote all of those songs, we started performing and word started getting out a little bit. We started getting different gigs at professional events, schools and things like that. We started doing more and more stuff.”
Thriffiley said the group started honing the material so a CD could be pressed. When the Forest Service chief visited Jackson, Thriffiley and Allen told him about the Blues Rangers and sent him a copy of the CD.
“He was very surprised,” Allen said. “The Forest Service provides us with these awesome Stetsons, either straw or the beaver pelt. My wife said if that’s the head guy, you want him to remember you so you should wear those Stetsons. Tate and I threw the Stetsons on and walked up to the chief and told him we wanted to give him a CD and get his thoughts.”
What endeared the Forest Service chief to the Blues Rangers was their song selection for the first CD.
“The chief had put out the four biggest threats to forests in the United States, so we took those threats and wrote songs about them,” Allen said. “He was quite surprised. He wasn’t expecting knuckleheads in cowboy hats touting a new CD to show up.”
The four threats are fire, invasive species, loss of greenspace and unmanaged recreation.
From the box of CDs the band sent to the Forest Service chief, he shared one with Mark Ray, the Undersecretary of Agriculture who is also a blues fan. That led to a performance in Washington, D.C., where they opened for Chuck Leavell, a member of The Allman Brothers Band who served as the principal touring keyboardist and de facto musical director of The Rolling Stones since 1982. He has also toured and recorded with Eric Clapton, George Harrison, David Gilmour, Gov't Mule and John Mayer.
“Then we got to come out at the end and play a few songs with him,” Thriffiley said. “We played ‘Statesboro Blues’ with him, ‘Alberta,’ ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and some other ones. Automatically, we got a lot of exposure.”
While also playing for the local schoolchildren, the Blues Rangers gained a national audience.
“From time to time, we get to do things like that, so it’s kind of a mix of performing for somewhat local audiences like schools,” Thriffiley said. “Every now and then, it’s a conference or an event somewhere else.”
Allen said some performances are special because of the venue.
“We’ve been invited to play at the Smithsonian Folkways Festival,” he said. Two songs were recorded on the Festival CD.
Because the group wants to spread the message of conservation, the CDs are free. The Blues Rangers receive no royalties from the songs because they are playing pro bono.
“We make zero dollars from them,” Allen said. “We give them away. We tell people as far as copyright, burn them as many times as you want and give them to as many people as you want, just don’t make money off of them. That’s all we ask.”
The band has been through several printings of its two CDs: “Gettin’ the Message Out” and “New Century.” In 15 years, more than 10,000 CDs have been distributed by the band, which has played more than 150 gigs. All that and a day job too.
The distribution of the CDs has been made possible by funding from several sources, including The Southern Company, The Society of American Foresters, The Audubon Society, The Natural Resource and Conservation Service, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service and the Mississippi Coastal Plains Resource Conservation and Development Council.
Allen said the Blues Rangers have had to cut back on their musical appearances because of their day jobs, especially since Hurricane Katrina changed everyone’s focus in 2005. So, playing time is limited, Allen said.
“We honestly don’t have a lot of personal or professional time to go all over the country,” he said.
Mordica said the Blues Rangers have their biggest influence in the schools and events that cater to a younger crowd.
“Kids in schools are a big thing because of the conservation message through music,” he said. “It’s boring to kids today for one of us to come and lecture them about conservation. But when you have live music and the message is through music, most of those kids have never been to a concert or hear live music. They also get a little music education as well as conservation education.”
The Blue Rangers have a June 21 concert scheduled at the Saucier Elementary School.