‘In My Tribe’ 30 years later

The 10,000 Maniacs’ breakthrough album will be celebrated at an Oct. 13 Birchmere show.

Image by Don Hill

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs garnered critical acclaim and media attention with hit songs such as “Trouble Me,” “These are Days” and the Bruce Springsteen/Patti Smith cover “Because the Night.” Though frontwoman Natalie Merchant left the Jamestown, New York-based group in 1993 to chart a successful solo career, the band soldiered on, bringing in violist and vocalist Mary Ramsey for much of its continued history. Ramsey—a Greenbelt, Maryland, native heard on the band’s cover of “More Than This”—had formed a folk duo years prior with founding 10,000 Maniacs member John Lombardo, who had left the Maniacs himself for several years. Lombardo and Ramsey will join Steven Gustafson, Jeff Erickson, Dennis Drew and Jerome Augustyniak on the Birchmere stage on Oct. 13 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the band’s pivotal 1987 album, In My Tribe.

Here’s what Ramsey had to say about the group’s upcoming performance.

On this tour, are you exclusively performing songs from In My Tribe?

We’re going to be playing songs from that album but other albums, too. A lot of it’s focused on that, but we have other songs that we have to do because we love them and the audience wants to hear them, too.

The album came out about seven years before you joined the band. Do you remember its release and what your response was before you became a member yourself?

I’d just moved to Buffalo in 1985. I remember being in a store, Pier One, and thinking, “Wow, this is an interesting sound.” We were all from the same area; I went to college at Fredonia State. I was studying viola, and the band hung around there. They actually played at Fredonia State at this little bar called BJ’s. I was in a place in my life where I’d gone to college, and then I left and just wanted to do something different, so I became a waitress in Buffalo. There was kind of a punk scene going on, so I used to go to this club, and there were a lot of artists and bohemian types, poets. And I ended up meeting a couple other musicians and started to do our own kind of music. And then I ended up meeting John Lombardo, and we formed our duo John and Mary.

How did you become a member of the band?

It’s like this family story thing. John was pretty much the founding member of the band. He’s the eldest of all of us, and he and the guys formed the band in 1981, sometime around there. And then somewhere down the line, they put out a few CDs. And then I think that there was just artistic differences, and he decided he was going to leave. I think he thought Natalie was going to leave, too, but she decided to stay. And then of course In My Tribe came out. John and I met in Buffalo, and this is probably 1988/9. We started to write music together, and we got a recording deal with this company called Rykodisc.

And 1990 was when John sort of got back into the fold with 10,000 Maniacs because Natalie asked him to help re-edit these songs that were on a record. Then they said, “Because you were so involved in this process, why don’t you come back and do a tour with us?” And Natalie said, “Why don’t you and Mary open for us on this tour?” And that’s where I started my relationship with the band. So then I met Natalie, and we became friends, and she said, “Well why don’t you play violin or viola on some of our songs?” So if you see the Unplugged [album], that’s me on the cover. That was the last CD that she did with the band. And then we got a CD deal with Geffen Records, and we put out Love Among the Ruins in 1997.

When you started in the group, was it hard to try and fill Natalie’s shoes?

I only know how to be myself. I didn’t think about it that much, honestly. Knowing her, it’s like I respected and admired her creativity and her beauty. It’s hard not to be energized by it, but I also brought an element, my own element, which is being a string player, a violin and violist. And that sort of felt like a way of differentiating me from her. But it’s interesting because I feel like she’s a good sister. It’s kind of a sisterhood anyway, like women being out in the rock scene. It was back then. And so I think it was learning from her but also learning for myself and having my own message to share and feeling as a band. I really felt like I had the mission—I wanted the band to continue, too.

I listened to In My Tribe a lot growing up, and I still go to it when I need something kind of soothing.

I know, there are albums like that. I was just reading this review of Joni Mitchell in The New Yorker and talking about these songs where she was talking about relationships and just the way things were at that time period. And when I listened to it, it was in the ’70s, but it brings me back to then and even going back to when she was writing in the ’60s. It’s just like there’s some things that really do transcend, and it’s very special. And I think that being able to have that shared experience singing the songs, interpreting them and singing them and seeing how it is kind of like a nostalgia thing. People want to go back to the places of their youth. Physically, too. [Laughs] If you can’t do it with your body, do it with your mind.

Are there bands that you’d really like to collaborate with?

R.E.M. of course would be cool. Belle and Sebastian would be really cool, the bigs like Joni Mitchell. I have worked with Goo Goo Dolls; I sang and played on a song called “Not So Different,” which was a fundraiser for autism. And then I’ve worked with Ani DeFranco way back when. Being a string player, I’ve done a lot of solo stuff on other people’s albums, solo viola, and whenever an opportunity comes to do that, I love it. I was probably a tree in another life or something because I feel like the viola’s really—feels like it hits my soul.