An Exclusive Interview with The Ruta Beggars

~Micah Nicol
Songwriter of “Papa’s Got Ahold of the Wine”
Guitarist / Vocalist
The Ruta Beggars

Could you share the story behind your latest song and what inspired its creation?

I think it’s important to mention “Papa’s Got Ahold of the Wine” is non-anecdotal. The story of a father who leans into alcohol after the death of his wife is not lived-experience for us, but it is a heart-wrenching reality that some face. Written in 2018, the song is built around a catchy chorus

How do you approach the process of songwriting, and are there any specific themes or emotions you tend to explore in your music?

The Ruta Beggars’ home genre, bluegrass, has a long tradition of dark themes set to sweet melodies, underpinned by lively instrumentals, sung in 3 part harmony. “Papa’s Got Ahold of the Wine”, along with “Red Carpet” the subsequent track on the album which is the band’s take on a murder ballad, both exemplify this aspect of the genre’s history.

As an indie musician, how do you navigate the balance between creative freedom and commercial appeal?

I love making music that people have a good time listening to and experiencing at our shows. As artists optimizing for a long-lasting career, it’s critical to make music that we love. In that sense, I never feel it necessary to compromise creative freedom when making music seeking commercial appeal. That said, we take notice when a song connects positively with audiences and make calculated decisions to include characteristics encouraging that response throughout our show and discography.

What do you find most challenging about being an independent artist in today’s music industry?

Personally, it has been most difficult maintaining stamina, setting goals, and navigating this landscape where all of us are just “making it up!” As a musician, most of your time is spent doing other work just to enable the parts of the job that one loves. After many hundreds of emails sent in the backseat of a car on the 5hr drive to the next gig, we finally get to do get in front of folks, and share our most authentic, intimate selves with a room full of mostly strangers; it’s exhilarating!

Can you talk about your experiences collaborating with other artists or musicians? How does it influence your creative process?

In the context of our 5pc bluegrass band, every moment is a collaboration; each member holds a brush and owns a corner of each song’s creative canvas. We have written songs together, reimagined arrangements and solved the logistical puzzle of what to get for dinner. Whether collaborating with other bandmates or in our work with other artists (such as Betty ft. Anh Phung of Twisted Pine & Ariel Bernstein of Cold Chocolate) the collective creativity and sheer newness is always greater than the sum of its parts.

What role does technology and social media play in promoting your music and connecting with your audience?

In 2020, The Ruta Beggars started our Song Potato series, wherein we collaborated with our bandmates remotely to write a song. Like Hot Potato, a member would start with a song seed (in the form of a riff, chords, lyrics etc.) and pass that along to another bandmate for their musical input. Without the technology enabling this, we never would have the handful of songs that came out of this process. All of this process is documented on The Ruta Beggars’ YouTube channel. I (Micah) have written songs live streamed with input from our audience and come away with favorite songs of mine. Tech and the connection it provides with our audience has been invaluable, but it all goes to serve our in-person interactions and those magic musical moments in the hearts of our listeners!

Are there any particular artists or genres that have had a significant impact on your musical style?

I (Micah) grew up playing bluegrass gospel with my Dad, Mike Nicol, and we spent our time listening to and modeling our singing after legendary vocal harmony groups, Doyle Lawson, The Louvin Brothers, Dailey & Vincent, The Isaacs et al. When The Ruta Beggars started doing vocal harmony, some of our hallmark show inclusions were swing songs with complex vocal arrangements a la Mills Brothers, Andrews Sisters. Instrumentally, we have spent countless hours analyzing the solos from Svend Asmussen to Tony Rice and the rhythm section feel of Blue Highway, Flatt & Scruggs and Bluegrass Album Band to Earth Wind & Fire.

Indie musicians often have a close relationship with their fanbase. How do you engage with your fans and build a dedicated community around your music?

Bluegrass is a uniquely communal genre where fans come together as players just as much as listeners of the music. Walking around the festival playing songs with fans is my favorite way to engage with the people who know and love us just as much as the bluegrass standards that we get to make together.

Could you describe a memorable live performance experience or tour that has had a lasting impact on you and your music?

The closing track on Ever-Changing is “I’ll Never Forget,” which touches on loss of a loved one and of memory. When we perform this song, we regularly have folks share their stories of loss with us after the show. It is affirming for musician and listener alike to experience empathy through song and it compels me to continue to tell the stories that may not have a tidy resolution at the end of them.=

In an era of streaming platforms, how do you feel about the changing landscape of music consumption and its impact on independent musicians?

The music industry is in a new infancy, difficult to navigate, a post-covid, streaming-dominated wild west. A fitting payment model and accompanying legislation has not surfaced in response to the changed landscape of music access and consumption. Live shows seem the most promising way to make money as a musician, but the toll of touring is great. I’m so thankful for fans who understand and want to support artists directly through a kickstarter, buying music on bandcamp or tips on Venmo/PayPal.