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Rank Strangers

Heading across the Po River Valley, the country of country in northern Italy, Jeff Biggers and his band, the Rank Strangers, recently made an unusual tour. They loaded up a 1964 Amazon Volvo with their guitars, banjos, accordions, and even strapped a string bass on the roof. When the shouting was over, they found their musical niche in the most unlikely of spots; they had become stars on the Italian mental-ward circuit. Jeff Biggers is a writer based in Illinois and Italy. The Rank Strangers will launch their World Tour next summer.

Rank Strangers
by Jeff Biggers

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Being a country band in Italy is like being a klezmer band in Mississippi. We found ourselves classified into that "other" category of ethnic music in the last tent to the left, over by the porta-potties. People would come up after a concert, pluck my banjo, and without fail ask me to play "quella song" from "quel film," which meant "Dueling Banjos" from Deliverance. Then they would walk away, chatting about violent inbred people. Ahhh!

Most of our gigs could have been scenes from Fellini's "Amarcord." Fights between Italian soldiers broke out at an "Old West" pub in Bologna; at a karaoke club, everyone had a microphone on their table (and used it, while we're playing); At a wedding near Fidenza, everyone cheered the couple as we played one peppy bluegrass dirge of betrayal and death after another. Only the punks at a squatters club danced our jigs, and they were bouncing off the walls before we arrived.

Glenn, our accordion player, said our last gig would be a benefit. We were going to be paid in local wine, Parmigiano, and slabs of bread.. As we set up at a villa surrounded by farmland, I realized that our audience was already in their seats, grinning and clapping in advance. A bear of a man sat with a boom box in his lap, recording, and replaying, every note and test of the mike. I could hear Glenn's accordion play the same polka riff over and over again.

Rank Strangers

During the first set everyone clapped on cue and howled. When I launched into a series of "yeehaws," a couple of men looked owl-faced and then yeehawed for the rest of the day. The bearish man in the front replayed every song on his boom box. At the break, while I was consuming our payment, one man - a local electrician - told me that in the 1970s, activists literally charged the gates of the insane asylums and took residents to farms like this one, where they worked at will & roamed the fields. The program was a great success. But now the local government was closing the home to save funds.

At the end of the concert we were approached by a woman who was surrounded by a grinning entourage. She said her clients wanted us to play at their home in Parma. We hesitated, and then we saw the bearish man to her side, holding up his boom box.

We could hear Chris, our guitar player, singing "Going Down the Road Feelin' Bad." I felt a lump in my throat, and it wasn't because our harmonies were off-key.

In Parma, we drove straight to the town mental institution. The bearish man was on the front row with his boom box. By the second song everyone was dancing as if we were at a hoedown.

Then a strange thing happened. A man rose and asked if he could sing. After a moment of indecision, Chris handed over his guitar. The man, haggard and shaggy, strapped it on and strummed away, singing a song from Pink Floyd. In English. Then an older woman stood up and blasted a Neapolitan folk song into the mike. By then, the line was forming on both sides of the aisles.

We were no longer the performers. It didn't matter, of course. For the first time, we felt like our music had found a home in Italy.


  • Rank Strangers first appeared unabridged in the The Atlantic Monthly Unbound - Atlantic Abroad

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