Geographically, it's a long way from Maplewood, NJ to the Midwest's grassy plains, Arizona's rugged desert and California's briny coast.
Musically it's a long way from Maplewood to Joe's Pub, a classy and revered Manhattan performance space that has showcased hundreds of renowned musicians including Pete Townsend, Elvis Costello and Bono.
Jeremiah Birnbaum, a roots-minded, guitar-slinging songwriter who grew up in Maplewood, has made both journeys.
"It's a real honor," Birnbaum said.
Birnbaum's music, painted with melodic vocals, rolling beats, chiming guitar and lush piano, recalls the sound of The Band as well as more contemporary alt. country artists like the seminal Uncle Tupelo and always-stellar Lucinda Williams.
Born in Boston to Inda Sechzer, an architect, and Moses Birnbaum, a rabbi who now lives in Queens, Birnbaum was raised in Maplewood, where his mother still works and lives. He filled his teenage mind with the works of wanderlusting American writers like Kerouac and Ginsburg. He also filled his ears with soulful, 60s craftsmen like The Byrds and the Beatles, 50s upstarts like Buddy Holly and Elvis, lonesome 40s crooners like Hank Williams, Sr. and haunted 30s bluesmen like Robert Johnson.
"You wonder how a guy from New Jersey gets into all this music? It's like Bruce Springsteen," Birnbaum said. "You take popular music and look into the roots of that, then look into the roots of that. That's where the music of The Band and Bob Dylan came from. It's the melting pot of America; English music, African music, indigenous music, the liturgic music of the Catholics and the Jews all mixing together."
Birnbaum, who is tall, affable and sports black-rimmed glasses not too dissimilar from Buddy Holly's, speaks of the history of American music like someone who learned the story from a book and hopes to write his own chapter.
After he graduated Columbia High School, Birnbaum lit out for the open road, putting images to numbers that held as much wonder for him as the favorite picks of a lotto junkie. He retraced the Joad's historic Route 66 to California, where he linked onto Highway 1, cresting seaside cliffs. Though he saw it all with new eyes, Birnbaum said, "it felt familiar to me."
On that journey he had a revelation. He visited Native American reservations in the Southwest and reflected on how privileged his upbringing had been in comparison. He thought about the Jewish phrase Tikkun olam, the concept that every soul has a duty to give back and repair the world.
"I felt that music was what I was supposed to do to give back," Birnbaum said.
In the late 1990s Birnbaum enrolled at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston where he studied recording engineering but ended up getting more of an education from a curious celebrity and stalwart fan of American roots music: Peter Wolf.
As frontman for the J. Geils band, Wolf fused rock, jazz, blues, country, and a gumbo of other American music traditions into 70s stadium swagger and early 80s pop success. For a time, Birnbaum scored a gig as Wolf 's "Guy Friday," acting as his chauffer and gofer. In return Wolf spent hours with Birnbaum spinning songs and sounds from his vast record collection culled from his days as a Beantown DJ in the 1960s.
"He took me under his wing," Birnbaum said. "He got me into deep roots music."
Upon returning to the New York metro area the die was cast for Birnbaum, who had played in many bands since he was a teen, to start a serious project. In 2004 Birnbaum's music got a great lift from two events that anybody who doesn't sing country songs might consider crippling: he lost both his girl and his gig.
"A girl broke my heart, I got fired from my job and I found myself with an unemployment check," he said. "That's when I really started developing my own style of songwriting."
With Lucinda Williams' record "World Without Tears," serving as balm for his heartbreak, Birnbaum spent many a latenight hanging at Manhattan music jams. Soon he met the core of his band, The Ramblers.
The Ramblers cut a debut album in 2007 and scored a plum gig opening for The Band's Levon Helm at one of his famous house concerts hosted in a barn on his property in Woodstock, NY. Helm appropriately calls the gig, "The Midnight Ramble."
Early last year Birnbaum and fellow Rambler Scott Stein set about writing the songs that appear on "Getting There." By the new year the band was in high gear. They earned a residency at the Manhattan BBQ joint "Hill Country," which is renowned for the quality of both its ribs and its music. In early 2010 The Ramblers served as house band for a tribute to Lucinda Williams at the East Village music nook Banjo Jim's featuring more than 25 guest singers that Birnbaum wrangled from disperate segments of New York's music scene.
Birnbaum, meanwhile, scored a job bartending at Banjo Jim's and moved into a cozy apartment with his new girlfriend a few blocks away.
The Ramblers put their gig money into a kitty but still needed more to cover the cost of cutting a record. Then an old friend of Birnbaum's named Benji Rogers approached him about a novel new venture. Rogers founded pledgemusic.com, a website that bands can use to ask their fans for donations.
"Almost the entire record was financed by our fans," Birnbaum said.
The Ramblers started recording "Getting There" on February 10th at Galuminum Foil Studios in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with Jeff Berner serving as producer and engineer. Birnbaum noted that the large studio with wooden interior was big enough for his whole band to set up in and perform like they do onstage.
"It's not unlike a barn," Birnbaum said, a nod to Levon Helm who not only rambles in his barn but drummed for The Band when they made classic records together inside a wooden house in upstate New York.
"Getting There," was finished by the end of March.
The next big step for Birnbaum is The Rambler's CD release show at Joe's Pub on April 14. From there his charge is to keep making music, hopefully to inspire others the way others inspired him.
"The whole point of making music is to help other people get through," Birnbaum said. "That's what it is to me."