Great Gretsch Guitarists: Jim Rotramel
A Few Minutes With The Rockabilly Tone Master of Skinny Jim and The Number 9 Blacktops.
You gotta love the wry, playful, Midwestern way Jim Rotramel approaches life and his music career. As frontman of the hard-driving rockabilly trio, Skinny Jim and The Number 9 Blacktops, you’ll find the following paragraph in the “About” section on the band’s website:
“This is where you’re supposed to write a bunch of stuff that no one really reads. I’ll keep it brief. Jim started the band, Cody joined the band, then Kasey joined the band. We have a pretty fun time playing music together. We’ve played in eleven different countries and put a lot of miles on a Ford van. We write really good songs. We are the best lookin’ rockabilly band in all of Franklin County, Illinois.”
Short and sweet with tongue firmly in cheek.
Jim formed his Midwest rockabilly band back in 2005; naming it after an old country road near his hometown of West Frankfort, Illinois. It was Sean Hopkins, the frontman of Dallas Alice, who gave Jim his nickname. “Slim Jim was already taken,” joked Rotramel, “ So Sean started calling me Skinny Jim, after the Eddie Cochran song.”
The current Number 9 Blacktop lineup includes Jim up front handling the guitar, lead vocal, and songwriting duties, Kasey Rogers on upright bass, and Cody Beckman providing a steady backbeat on drums.
With a father that played the 5-string banjo and growing up in the heart of Bluegrass Country, Jim was heavily influenced by what he calls the “realness of the music” he experienced at countless bluegrass festivals he attended as a child. Picking up the acoustic guitar when he was eight, it didn’t take long for Jim to be playing a steady rhythm behind his dad’s banjo songs.
“That’s where I developed the upbeat stroke that rockabilly has,” explained Jim. “That accent on the two and four that came from Bill Monroe’s mandolin rhythm. And living so close to St. Louis, you can’t help but be influenced by Chuck Berry. It just seemed that those bluegrass rhythms kind of carried over into the rock ‘n’ roll stuff Chuck was doing.”
As a teenager, Jim admits he was more enamored by songwriting heavy hitters like Townes Van Zandt than the guitar shredders of the day. He gravitated to rootsy rock bands like The Black Crowes and also dabbled in punk rock, even playing in several punk rock bands in his hometown and neighboring cities.
In the mid-90s, Gretsch guitar slingers The Reverend Horton Heat and Brian Setzer heavily influenced Jim’s musical direction. He also discovered Southern Culture on the Skids, the Chapel Hill, N.C. band famous for their wild mix of rockabilly, surf rock, boogie, country, R&B, and other genres overlaid with a punk edge and large doses of outrageous humor.
“Yeah, those were the guys that got me intro rockabilly and wanting to write rockabilly music,“ said Jim. “I started liking the image of rockabilly and since I came from a motorcycle background, it was easy for me to get into the hot rod culture.”
“Horsepower! Horsepower!” was a breakthrough album for the band in 2007. Jim was fortunate to work with one of his musical heroes, Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids, at Miller’s Kudzu Ranch Studio in North Carolina. The album featured all original songs written by Jim with “Firecracker Cadillac” emerging as the band’s anthem and most popular song. Jim shared that he got a ton of valuable songwriting advice from Miller during the making of that album. “Rick taught me how to hone my songwriting and to write about things I know,” admits Jim. “My songwriting since that album has definitely matured.”
The album also opened doors for the band including an overseas tour of Europe and an endorsement deal from Gretsch in 2008. Jim also became an endorser for Bigsby recently, which is pretty cool considering a 2010 Bigsby ad featured Jim’s arm tattoo of a classic “V-cutout Gretsch by Bigsby” tailpiece.
We recently caught up with Jim over the phone from his southern Illinois home to talk about influences, songwriting, rockabilly, and Gretsch guitars. He was two days away from leaving on the band’s 13th overseas tour and a little nervous about putting his Gretsch 6120 and White Falcon through the rigors of modern day plane travel.
Jim has a reputation for being one of the nicest, most down-to-earth (and funniest) guys in the music business to interview. He didn’t disappoint. Here are a few of Jim’s gems:
“A big influence on me playing guitar was Marty McFly.”
When Back To The Future came out in ’85, it was a big movie and inspired me to pick up the guitar. I’m not kidding you. And living close to St. Louis, I also liked the Chuck Berry tie-in, especially when Marty played “Johnny B. Goode” and got all wild and stuff onstage. About 20 years later, we played our first of four gigs with Chuck in St. Louis, and we’re good friends with Charles Berry, Chuck’s son.
“I have a John Hartford tattoo and one of his fiddles.”
Besides Chuck Berry, John Hartford was another St. Louis musician who heavily influenced me. I saw him a number of times at Bluegrass Festivals growing up and was just amazed at his talent. I really enjoyed his style and the entertainment aspect of him performing solo onstage with a banjo or a fiddle, up there telling stories and making people laugh. I was able to acquire one of his fiddles after he passed. I can’t play a lick but my friends who play says it’s great; it’s awesome. I just loaned it to the International Bluegrass Museum they’re building in Owensboro. They were blown away. It’ll be one of the centerpieces of the new museum.
“I hung up on Gretsch when they called about an endorsement deal.”
Back in 2008 my wife and I were eating at a little Chinese restaurant here in town and I get a phone call. “Hey man, is this Jim?” I said, “Yeah.” “Hey man, this is Gretsch, we want to work with you.” And I said, “That’s really funny, Randy.” and I hung up. And they called back and they were like, “Hey man, I don’t know who Randy is but this is real; we’re telling the truth. We like you guys, you’ve got good tour dates, you’re marketable, you’ve got pretty good songs and we’d like to work with you.” And I’ve been with Gretsch ever since, ten years and counting.
“My White Falcon looks like Liberace or something.”
Shortly after getting the Gretsch endorsement deal, I got a new White Falcon with TV Jones pickups that I’ve been playing mostly. There is something about the tone that draws folks to it, but it also has this hypnotic beauty. There’s just something about the shape of a single-cutaway 6120 or White Falcon that draws your eye to it.
“Gretsch guitars have a snarl to them; they just bite right through.”
Being in a three-piece band, I have to elaborate my solos a little bit more to get them to cut through because I’m the only lead instrument in the band besides my vocal melody. I always look for a tone that’s just gravelly enough and gritty enough to add rhythm, to add the punch to the band. But I’ve still gotta have that snarl so the notes all cut through. My Gretsch through a Fender tube amp gives me that.
“With rockabilly, I’m not up there singing my diary. I’m trying to find a word that rhymes with carburetor.”
I’m not exactly splitting the atom when I write a rockabilly song but I try to make it have pretty good lyrical content. Most of that comes from my Chuck Berry influence. He honed lyrics in almost a witty, comedic way. I really enjoy a good rockabilly songwriter that writes witty lyrics; I get a kick out of that.
“My biggest advice to songwriters: always get the name of the dog.”
A newspaper editor buddy of mine shared his “always get the name of the dog” advice years ago for how to make an average article a great one. I apply that to songwriting too. Make your lyrics as vivid as you can. Paint a picture. Use as many colors as you can. Get the details, get the textures. I go for lyrical textures. It’s kind of an ongoing battle in my mind to make these rockabilly songs detailed but still respect the fact that they’re simple rock and roll songs.
“99% of being in a band is not wanting to kill each other after day three in the van.”
I’m so lucky to have two super-talented guys with me. We get along good because we like the same stuff and seem to hate the same stuff. Being in a working band like ours is the equivalent of three grown men being boys again in a treehouse full of beef jerky and sodas and gas station snacks and Hot Rod magazines.
“It’s not about tattoos and hot rods; it’s about the trueness of the music.”
Early on, I was more into being rowdy and having an image. You know, tattoos and hot rods and stuff. Today, my mind is more focused on the innocence of the music. I want people to enjoy rockabilly music for what it is. It’s a fun genre that ties into a simpler time. We can play to all ages and have children get up and dance to it. It just makes folks feel good and as long as they enjoy it, I’m gonna keep doing it.
Skinny Jim wanted more of a “raunchy rock feel” from his White Falcon on “Rock ‘N’ Roll Band,” a song produced by Supersuckers frontman Eddie Spaghetti. Mission Accomplished! See for yourself . . .