The sound is raunchy and gritty without the “bells and whistles” of most current music and it definitely makes you want to dance. It’s a throwback to a bygone era of fast cars and rock and roll. The music is a blending of rock and roll and hillbilly music with some bits of bluegrass and country thrown in for good measure. It’s rockabilly and the quiet, rural region of southern Illinois may be the last place you would expect to find a talented rockabilly trio with an international following–but that’s exactly where you’ll find Skinny Jim and the Number 9 Blacktops. The Number Nines may not be a well-known name but you can rest assured this southern Illinois band gets around and once you hear them, you’ll be a fan. Trust me.
I had the chance to sit down with two members of Skinny Jim and the Number 9 Blacktops–guitarist and singer Jim Rotramel and drummer Taylor Sprehe–to get a feel for this band’s music and what makes these guys tick.
As part of a rockabilly band, Jim looks the part of a rebel hillbilly hot rodder, except that instead of a scowl and a sneer, he will greet you with a quick and easy smile. His multitude of tattoos complete the ensemble, but don’t ask him for a specific number on his tattoos–he’ll just tell you he has one large bit of skin ink rather than several small ones (His favorite, however, is a tattoo of a firecracker).
Taylor seems to fit well with the role of brooding quiet man for the band (Every band needs one). Each of the three band members has their own unique “look” that lends well to the meshing of personalities and styles (The Number Nines consists of Rotramel, Sprehe and Blake Bramlett on upright or slap bass) in the band.
What is interesting about this band is that among the rockabilly genre they have quite a following but in their home region they are somewhat anonymous. In southern Illinois, they can go about their daily lives without anyone guessing they are musicians that are well-loved in locations like Germany, Finland, Italy and other parts of Europe. As a matter of fact, when I sat down with Jim and Taylor, Skinny Jim and the Number 9 Blacktops were prepping for a month-long-and-then-some tour overseas during September and October 2010 that includes gigs in Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Croatia and the Netherlands.
Jim said that when it comes to fans at shows, The Number Nines seem to appeal to specific groups of people and no matter where they go, praise from fans is always appreciated. “The bikers like us,” he noted. “It’s super super humbling when people tell us they like our music–we’re just poor kids that do this for beer money,” he laughed. The bikers might like them, but they’re not the only ones. Jim observed that younger crowds seem to also enjoy the band and their music.
“There are a lot of young children that come to our shows, it seems that young children take a liking to rockabilly and they’ll be dancing along,” he said. With the kids in mind, Jim tries to keep shows that are not at bars clean and family-friendly.
Such popularity is not too shabby for some boys from small towns in the Midwest. Jim hails from West Frankfort, Illinois (population around 13,000) and Taylor is from Carterville, Illinois (population around 5,000)–both towns that are small enough that everyone in town knows everyone else.
The band’s name comes from a mashup of inspiration from Eddie Cochran’s song “Skinny Jim” and the name of a country road near Jim’s hometown–Number 9 Blacktop.
The guys of Skinny Jim play their music out of sheer enjoyment as all three have “regular” jobs and play music as more of a hobby. When I talked with Jim and Taylor, they enlightened me about their original career aspirations. When he was 10 years old Taylor wanted to be a California Raisin (As in “I heard it through the grapevine. . .”) and Jim planned to be a basketball player. By the time both graduated high school their goals had changed. Taylor had decided to pursue music after giving up his dream to become a Raisin and Jim was set to pursue science as a career.
Taylor left southern Illinois immediately after graduating high school and spent a few months in Los Angeles playing in a band. He returned home and now works recording music, hanging drywall and cooking for a local restaurant.
After graduating from a local community college, Jim took an unusual career path as a body piercer for Tuff Luck Tattoos in Carbondale, Illinois–a job he’s held for the past few years. Bramlett works as a silk screener when he’s not playing music.
The lineup for Skinny Jim and the Number 9 Blacktops has changed a few times since the band got its start in the early 2000s (The Number Nines released an album called Hickory-Smoked Rockabilly in 2003), except for Jim who has been with the band’s frontman from the beginning. When Jim and Taylor first started playing music together it was with a different style of music.
“We were in a punk band and then I started venturing into rockabilly,” Jim said. Taylor has been with The Number Nines on and off for about three years and acted as fill-in his first show when the regular drummer’s grandmother passed away.
The band members write their own songs and they piece them together “a line or two here or there” as a collaborative effort between the three. Like most rockabilly songs, Skinny Jim and the Number 9 Blacktops songs consist of common themes of booze, broads and horsepower (in the form of fast cars and motorcycles). The band’s latest album, “Daredevil Action,” is slightly faster and harder-edged than their previous album, “Horsepower! Horsepower!” but fans won’t be disappointed–the music will make you tap your toes, dance in your seat and have a good time as you listen.
Check out Skinny Jim and the Number 9 Blacktops website at skinnyjimrocks.com.
For more of a taste of Skinny Jim and the Number 9 Blacktops, check out the band performing “57 Dragstrip” from their album “Daredevil Action” HERE.