It's been a long and winding roadhouse for Ralph Tufo

J. C. Lockwood

About three years ago, Ralph Tufo was looking over the catalog of his songs that stretches back more than two decades, and it occurred to him that it was something more than just a collection of tunes.

“There seemed to be a story there,” says Tufo, not explicitly spelled out, but lurking among the characters that populated the Big Easy roadhouses, honky tonks and dance halls that serve as home base in many of the compositions.

So Tufo, a founding member of the Boogaloo Swamis who now plays in the musically like-minded Squeezebox Stompers, decided to build the story suggested between the lines in the songs: It would be about a New Orleans roadhouse slated to be demolished to make way for a new interstate highway. On its last weekend, all the regulars would get together to tell all the old stories and sing all the old songs and drink and dance and shut down the place in style.

Then Katrina hit and shut down the whole place.

Tufo, who teaches developmental reading and writing at North Shore Community College in Lynn, put down the recording project for a little while and went down to New Orleans on several clean-up and rebuilding efforts sponsored by the college’s Katrina Relief Fund.

“It inspired me,” he says. “It seemed to me that there was a story that desperately needed to be told.”

But Katrina had battered the original concept of the piece.

Or had it?

Perhaps it had only underlined the issue which was about confrontingand getting past sudden, unalterable events. And in an irony not fully appreciated by Tufo, a four-time Boston Music Award-winner, at the time, the roadhouse slated for demolition is re-imagined. It becomes a refuge, a center of security, however temporary, at a time when the world begins spinning out of control in what appears to slow-motion apocalypse.

The roadhouse becomes a bastion, a repository of history and culture, a snapshot of life as it was. It becomes a microcosm of real, mythic New Orleans: “...crawfish farmers, voodoo charmers, shrimpers, oilers and Cajun kin — folks such as Sadie, who practices voodoo and psychic healing; Howard, a Bostonian and FEMA worker; Big Chief, bartender and owner of Rockin’ Ralph’s; Joe Pete, whose parents died in the storm; Miss Bon Vivant, a stripper from Bourbon Street; and Angie, a waitress, war widow, single parent who lost her house.

They party for five days, they refuse to die. But, if they must, if their world is going to come to an end, they’ll face if when the time comes. Until then, well, as the Stompers sing on the opening cut of “Rocking Ralph’s Roadhouse,” their sophomore release, it’s “dancing and drinking, no heavy thinking, down at the Roadhouse Inn.” 

Staging a Sound

But that’s getting ahead of the story. In 2005, all Tufo had was just a collection of philosophically like-minded songs, some of them — like “Cajun Party,” Alligator Stomp” and “Magnolia Two Step” — going backtwo decades, to the Boogaloo Days and a concept the had been washed away, then reinvigorated, by the rains of Hurricane Katrina. In the middle of all this, he formed the Squeezebox Stompers and released the band’s eponymous album just about two years ago.

One of the songs from that album,“Those People,” a stinging slap at post-Katrina racism prompted by one especially uncomfortable conversation, ended up, two years later, as part of the ongoing project or what would become“Rockin’ Ralph’s Roadhouse.” Like the other, older tunes, it was rewritten and connected thematically with the new songs and the uber-story.

Except that now, some two years after the idea first bubbled into Tufo’s mind, the project had gone way beyond a thematically linked collection of tunes — a Cajun-flavored concept album, of sorts. “Rocking Ralph’s Roadhouse,” which will be officially released next week, is now the soundtrack for a stage play of the same name.

Granted, the play’s not finished yet. Tufo, who has been given a sabbatical from North Shore Community College to write the musical, has all-but finished the first draft, “and by that I mean I have worked on 18 or 19 drafts,” he says. He’s working on the last scene and hopes to be finished by the end of the month.

In the fall, when he returns to North Shore, he plans on workshopping the play, getting in at least one staged reading with a talk-back component and then back to rewrites for, hopefully, a full staged production sometime in 2009. It’s his first play and ...

“I know, I know,“ he says. “I learned the hard way how difficult it is. It’s much more work than I ever thought it would be.” 

The Sound and the Fury

There’s not much anger on the musical side of the project.Folks at Rockin’ Ralph’s, after all, are looking for a good time. They understand, its could be their last for a while, so aside from a few poignant laments, like “New Orleans Waltz,” the musical focus is on fun. But there’s plenty of finger-pointing in the stage play - and plenty of blame to go around,” says Tufo. From the yawning response from the Oval Office and the five-day wait for FEMA to get its butt into gear, to the incompetence of local politicians, from the governor to the city council, to the money-grubbing, land-grabbing instinct of private business, there’s plenty of blame for everyone.

But, Tufo says, worse than what has happenedis what is happening now: Yeah, maybe 60 percent of the population is back. The French Quarter is back. There is a still a Mardi Gras. But lives have been shattered and scattered, and there is no longer a sense of urgency about the Big Easy.

“It’s fallen off the radar,” says Tufo. “It’s an embarrassment to go there. You think you’re in a third world country. It’s just sad.”

Of course, that’s getting ahead of the story. Right now, the focus is on the music, the ready-now soundtrack to the upcoming play.

Although “Rockin’ Ralph’s” explores the same musical territory, which is to say all the rootsy styles, from country blues to zydeco, as the2006 debut “Squeezebox Stompers,” Tufocalls the first album “more of an acoustic effort,” and an ‘underground” album.

“We made it in Larry’s cellar,” he says, referring to guitarist Larry Plitt, a veteran of the’70s San Francisco folk rock scene who also performs with Celtic trio Snowdonia. It was also a three-man show, with Ryan Thompson, a founding member of the Crawdad Wranglers, completing the band.

Thompson has moved on. Taking over fiddle duties in the current lineup is Paul Harty, who plays guitar, harmonica, fiddle, mandolin and banjo. The band has also added bassist Ron Chane anddrummer Mike Migliozzi .

The Squeezebox sound on the album is expanded by a slate of special guests, including Salem folksinger Julie Dougherty, who sings lead on”Further On,” the disc’s optimistic, penultimate number, and backup vocals on a couple other numbers. Also performing are John Donahue and fiddle,banjo and sax); John Curtis on mandolin and Thomas Eaton on organ, jaw harp, percussion, vocals.

Overall, the disc has a feel-good vibe, and hits a from rollicking tunes like “Roadhouse Inn,” the opener, to beautiful laments like “New Orleans Waltz,” to swampy blues like “Down on the Delta,” and any number of good-time dance tunes.

The Stompers will play the whole album over the course of the April 19 release party. There will be special guests, including Dougherty and Paula Morin. Half the proceeds from sales of “Rockin’ Ralph” will benefit the North Shore Community College Katrina Relief Fund.


The Squeezebox Stompers will host a release party for ‘Rockin’ Ralph’s Roadhouse,’ their new album, at 7:30 p.m. April 19 at Knights of Columbus Hall, 94 Washington Square, Salem. Tickets are $10. There will be a cash bar and free snacks. Half the proceeds from CD sales will benefit the North Shore Community College Katrina Relief Fund. For more information, please call Ralph Tufo at 617-846-1835, email or visit