John Allin was first cautioned about the shadowy beast long ago.
Whatever it was, it was whispered to roam the black forests and creek beds of the Amarugia Highlands, rugged prairie ground approximately 50 miles south of Kansas City, Missouri.
“There was this old black man named Otis, and he told us about something like a Bigfoot character,” said Allin of the Amarugia Ridge Runners. “As a kid out fishing, we’d be packing up, and he would say, 'You don’t want to be out in these parts after dark.' Then there were the stories back in high school. You’d be at the party spot, and that’s what you would hear about, the Amarugia Highlands Ghost or the Amarugia Ridge Runner.”
While the Amarugia Ridge Runner is most likely apocryphal (but who could rule it out with absolute certainty, right?), the “The Kingdom of Amarugia,” was in fact a real entity, a clannish locale of inhabitants who once formed their own government and operated within the boundaries of their own closed society.
“The Amarugia was a kingdom back in the 19th century,” said Allin. “They did their politics as a kingdom, with a king, a queen, and princesses, and I went to school with some of the grandchildren of the prince and the princesses of the kingdom. It’s pretty wild. So we took the name of the band after that weird, enchanting and different place.”
While he wasn’t born or raised there, Allin presently dwells in what he designates as “the heartland” of the Amarugias. There is a town nearby called Everett, he said, with a spine-tingling cemetery, the gathering place of the earliest residents who in the past occupied the region. It’s a territory, Allin said, once purportedly divided by feudalism and tight, tribal bloodlines.
“There was this weird commune of folks who didn’t want to live on the grid and they were called the Highlanders, and there were the other people who were called the Flatlanders, and they didn’t get along very well. Harry S. Truman’s sister lived down in the Amarugias for a year and she left because it was too brutal and too hard." (Oral histories at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library confirm that Mary Jane Truman rented a farm in the Amarugia.)
While John calls the Amarugia Highlands home, the rest of his bandmates live nearby. All of them have been charmed by its eccentric past. Defined by a series of wavy mounds, cliffs and manmade lakes, its scenery is perhaps only eclipsed in prominence by the word-of-mouth folklore that forever keeps its residents chattering. From tales of spooky ghosts and haunted Indian burial grounds to yarns of modern-day moonshiners holed up in creaky wooden shacks, the people of the Amarugias spend hours on end rigorously rattling them off. While the Amarugia Ridge Runners have yet to record a song based on one of these many parables, the band has stayed loyal to the bluegrass-honky-tonk-Western music endemic to the region. (A little tavern in Drexel called Annie’s Main City Hideout still hosts monthly old-time country jamborees.)
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The original three members of the Amarugia Ridge Runners (it’s currently a band of five), initially converged in high school in 2013 as a rock n’ roll cover band. Allin liked to deliver the hard stuff, like Metallica and Ozzy Osbourne. After the guys graduated from high school, they went off in their own separate directions. Two years ago, however, John, Clay Dahman and Jessie Bauerle regrouped and bonded around that “old-school, old country sound” of singers such as Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Ernest Tubbs.
The level of receptivity to the band has been favorable, and the Amarugia Ridge Runners (who’ve added members Michael Turnbo and Alan Voss) have zigzagged a number of bars and honky-tonks in several states, including Arkansas, Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas.
“Our mentality is that we are doing this as a family and we want to make it last as long as possible. Some bands go for two, three years and are done.”
The Amarugia Ridge Runners have packaged the sound that’s intended to get your heart beating fast, a better embodiment of the old version of country, not the cooler version of its most modern iteration. It’s a sound that’s decades old and unavoidably accurate. Since the band’s music is intimately tied to folklore and storytelling, it’s naturally bound to musical heritage, too. Though, it’s surprising for some to see a wild bunch of youths who could ape the croons and melodies of the rustic backwater old-timers this well.
“What we are bringing back is something that older folks find refreshing,” said Allin. “It’s that older sound coming out of a bunch of mostly younger folks, and it’s weird for them to hear 20-year-olds playing the old country. We play the country that is not on the radio. The country that’s on the radio now has turned into pop music, and a lot of people don’t like that. Our style of writing and creating music is super old-school. Anywhere we go we could play a bluegrass or honky-tonk tune, and we could look out, and we see old people and young people dancing.”
The Amarugia Ridge Runners serve up the staples of the genre with a gummy, hillbilly grin. And in the true custom of rural country, the guys provide an outlet for reverie and mirth and even the justification for a bit of familiar mischief.
“We’ve got the love songs, the drinking songs, of course, and we like to indulge in our whiskey."