SPRING LAKE — True bluegrass fans will admit there are precious few bands these days willing to play the music as it was meant to be — high and lonesome.
But for Ron Thomason, there really is no other way to do justice to a sound that calls for maximum soul and emotion.
Devoid of the slick sweetness of their contemporary bluegrass counterparts, it's easy to see why some listeners might dismiss the Dry Branch Fire Squad's raw and unvarnished sound as hard-core hillbilly. For Thomason, who plays mandolin with the group he founded 33 years ago, that's a compliment.
"We're an acquired taste," Thomason, 64, said by phone this week from his home in southern Indiana. "We play the kind of music we like and believe in. I'm not sure we could play anything else."
Drawing from the 200-year-old musical traditions of the southern Appalachians, the Dry Branch Fire Squad sound incorporates old-time and bluegrass sounds similar to what Thomason grew up listening to in the mountain region of southwest Virginia.
"We had a battery-powered radio, and we'd listen to WCYB in Bristol all day long, " Thomason recalled. "You'd hear great fiddle and banjo tunes, old-time ballads and gospel music from people like the Stanley Brothers, Dock Boggs, and Flatt and Scruggs. I couldn't help but like it."
As an adult, Thomason never stopped learning the music. A member of Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys during the early 1970s, he remembers listening to hours of old-time recordings on his boss' tour bus and making note of obscure songs he wanted to someday learn.
Dry Branch Fire Squad, which headlines an eight-band lineup at this weekend's Sertoma Youth Ranch Spring Bluegrass Festival, continues to attract new fans to its time-honored sound. At least part of that is due to Thomason's witty stage banter, which mixes stories and tales and cultural commentary that keeps audiences in stitches.
That the band's base continues to grow after 3 1/2 decades amazes Thomason, who at one time was certain his brand of bluegrass was fading.
"I think there will always be people who relate to this music," he said. "Most of the songs are based on reality. You take a song written during the Depression and sing it today; it still means the same. Those hard times don't ever go away for good."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.
If you go
The Sertoma Youth Ranch Spring Bluegrass Festival runs today through Sunday on Myers Road, off Spring Lake Highway, south of Spring Lake. Take the Dade City/County Road 41 exit off Interstate 75. Music performances are noon to 11 p.m. today and Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Daily adult gate admission is $25 today, $30 Saturday and $12 Sunday. Admission for children 12 to 16 is $3 per day. Children under 12 are admitted free with an adult. Camping is available with weekend tickets. Adult weekend tickets are $50 at the gate. Call (352) 754-3082 or (478) 235-5504, or visit www.sertomayouthranch.com and click on "upcoming events."