Chris Rattie’s musical journey is a tale of redemption.
Rattie, a Pennsylvania native, earned his stripes in cover bands before joining the Rustlanders around 2004. The roots-rock band self-produced its own record, which caught the ear of Don Was, the esteemed producer and record executive who has worked with the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan.
“The Rustlanders is really the first attempt at writing our own music,” Rattie says. “So, for us to have that kind of success at a first crack, I was like, of course, this is supposed to happen; this is how it is.”
The band recorded an album with Was, but the album was shelved and the band broke up.
After such a monumental disappointment, it would be easy to understand if Rattie wanted to take some time off from music. Instead, he joined Philadelphia band Marah as a drummer. He toured Spain with the group and appears on its album “Mountain Minstrelsy.”
“I didn’t really stop,” Rattie says. “I’m actually glad I didn’t because I think sometimes in those situations, if you stop, it might be hard to get back on the bike again.”
These days, Rattie is pedaling harder than ever. He’s formed a dynamic three-piece, the New Rebels, with Jeff Downing on bass and Nate Cutshall on guitar and harmonica. The band will play its blend of rock, blues, country and folk at Tellus360 on Saturday with Brooks Hubbard.
Cutshall is from Hazle Township, Luzerne County, but has called the State College area home for nearly 20 years. He now lives in Spring Mills, Centre County.
“It’s actually a solid place where you can actually make a little bit of money, you can get some gigs, and it can kind of keep you afloat,” Rattie says.
His initial musical education came from mining his dad’s record collection, pulling albums from artists like Grand Funk Railroad, Led Zeppelin and Crosby, Stills and Nash. He played his first gig at 17, and learned about what a life of live music entails through playing in a classic rock cover band with his dad and brother.
“When you’re still tearing down a PA system at 2 o’clock in the morning and you have a two-hour drive ahead of you, that’s pretty hardcore,” Rattie says. “You learn that stuff pretty quick.”
He drummed for Vince Welnick of the Grateful Dead and the Tubes. Then, the Rustlanders approached him as he was experimenting with playing folk as a solo artist. After their first album perked some prominent ears, they connected with Was and recorded the eventually shelved album in Los Angeles.
“What I wish I had done was sort of paid attention a little more to the people I was meeting,” Rattie says. “You don’t think that way when you’re in a band. You try not to think about yourself as you’re in a band, but it would have been wise to sort of make some personal connections and understand that it is a roller coaster, and that at some point you’re going to go down the hill, maybe quicker than you think.”
After the shock wore off, Rattie chose to see the situation as an opportunity for a fresh start.
“You’re back at square one, but how do you do this the right way?” Rattie says. “How do you treat the people around you the right way and make sure they’re treating each other the right way and all that kind of stuff? It’s been a good experience though, overall. I wouldn’t trade any of it away. I’d still go do it again.”
When he formed the New Rebels, he gave himself a change of scenery. He didn’t want to be behind the drums as he was in so many past bands, so he made a commitment to being the front man. While he played acoustic guitar on his own folk music, the New Rebels offered him an opportunity to plug in and explore the electric guitar. He was in his mid-30s when he got his first electric, a Harmony H77 he purchased from the bassist of the Rustlanders.
Rattie and the New Rebels recorded a few song in Pittsburgh in June, choosing to track it live to capture the raw energy of its concerts. The first single from those sessions, “Culture War Casualty,” is out now.
The song is a rowdy rocker, tackling the divisive political climate of 2019. In it, he criticizes President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.
“I feel like I needed an outlet and I needed space, and we as a band, we needed to say something about it,” Rattie says.
He’s familiar with the risk taking a political stance can have as an artist, and has received a few dirty looks and at least one angry Facebook message about the song.
“It’s not easy to play that song in some rooms,” Rattie says.
Not all of Rattie’s work is so distinctly political, though. He says the band’s live show is high energy, but focused on great songwriting and quality arrangements.
“If you like honest rock, this is good stuff,” Rattie says.