Hurray for the Riff Raff's Folk Music Celebrates the Downtrodden

Do it on your own. Get uncomfortable. Learn, create something, be a voice for those without one, tell a tale in the hopes that it might inspire the listener.

Alynda Lee Segarra will not tell you these things outright, but give a listen to Hurray for the Riff Raff, her genre-warping Americana folk band, and take note of her background and you will find that these are the lessons that she learned for herself. She crafts songs that can be both emotive and exposing, sometimes taking the role of those served undue justice and singing their story.

Raised in the Bronx, Segarra struck out on her own at 17, riding the railroads in the vein of Mike Brodie or Jack Kerouac, sans the literary embellishments, and faced with the jarring reality of life on the streets. It was necessary to Segarra's ethos to challenge herself, a common thread that runs through her music today, defying convention and bending rules to suit her need. Before the musical success, however, she wished to experience the tribulation that would shape her adulthood. Adapting to New Orleans after a stint on the rail lines, and ultimately surviving the city, would prove to be her first hurdle to overcome.

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"It taught me that I was stronger than I thought I was, but it also taught me about the importance of home and the importance of being grateful for what you have," she says. "Looking back, it was good for me to get to this place where, 'Whoa, I'm really hungry, I'm really cold.' I needed to experience that because hopefully I won't ever let go of remembering that. I won't ever let go of knowing what that's like. [It was] also just meeting people and just thinking that everyone has a story, being on the street."

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Street performing, which she took up as a means of support while developing her musical skills and satisfying her intrigue, became both her savior and her compass, guiding her in her next direction. By 2008, she had released It Don't Mean I Don't Love You, her first full-length record and a harbinger of the musicality she would grow into years down the line. If anything, aside from her dusky timbre and slightly affected vocal approach, which would sit as well on a Paramount Records release as it does on any current record, Segarra aptly tells stories of the common, disaffected man without ever seeming contrived or dishonest.

And now Segarra sits in her new Nashville home, iced in and having just moved from her beloved New Orleans a matter of weeks earlier. New Orleans is responsible for so much of Hurray for the Riff Raff's launch, and Segarra will always consider it the band's "spiritual home," but she needed a place to collect herself between long tour slogs, a fresh place that could engage her. Segarra is the grand wanderer, presented with the binary conflict of life on the road and the pull for something more sedentary, a life she could watch slowly pass by from her front porch rather than out of a van's window at 70 miles per hour.

"You never get to feel as you truly belong somewhere, or that you are truly giving back to the community," she says. "Sometimes being on the road so much, you end up back where you 'live,' and it feels like you're just taking. At the same time, I've also started to just accept that this is the way I live my life. I think it is a lot more challenging to figure out how you can give back when you're always moving. This is something that I struggle with for sure."

Yet those hours spent behind the wheel come with much more than a name on a marquee, a door deal, and the occasional dressing room. Segarra has translated her teenage need to simply see the country into an appreciation for the United States. Crisscrossing it on countless tours, learning the stories of the blue-collar residents that inhabit the middle of the country, and being privy to injustices that abound, regardless of locale, have tempered her national pride while providing stories that listeners can relate to.

"I definitely feel like I have experienced America, which is a really great feeling because it's such a huge, confusing place with so many different types of people all trying to live together and all trying to agree when it seems so impossible," Segarra says. "I do think that it's made me patriotic in a different way: It's made me believe in the spirit of American people. It's made me really passionate about keeping certain ideals in our country alive and really honoring the hardworking people of America and just kind of believing in that idea of everybody being allowed to live their version of personal freedom."

It's on the road that Hurray for the Riff Raff does something that surprises most listeners who've discovered the band by way of its NPR darling status or blog-friendly word-of-mouth appeal. Hurray for the Riff Raff instills faith in older listeners that the art of storytelling -- the epicenter of folk and blues and country and Americana, all genres ascribed to Hurray for the Riff Raff in some fashion -- is alive and well and kicking down the door.

"What I really feel is important about it is people being honest in their music, and not even so much honesty but just telling their story and making it be an oral tradition, as opposed to a product," Segrarra says. "I think folk music is kind of like this conversation throughout the ages and our generations, just telling the narration of a history of America. [It's] a history of our country, and it involves so many different people coming in and so many different places. That's what people have worried about. They think that conversation stopped, and that all music [today] is just background music."

The maintenance and progression of time-honored tradition is Hurray for the Riff Raff's approach. The effect of the music, however? For Segarra, it hopefully would act as the rally cry for younger listeners to go out and explore, get lost, get confused, and ultimately find themselves in the process, just as she did herself.

"That's always been my dream, to just try to make even a little bit of difference, even if it makes some young girl or some young boy feel that there's a little bit of mystery to the world," she says. "I think that's what I always wanted: to give people feeling trapped in this box that society hands us, like 'This is life, you do this and you do this and you do this and then you die.' I think that's the real great thing about art, that you're in the box and suddenly you're in this window, and you're like, 'Wait, there's something out there. I can go do that. It won't be easy, but I can do it.'"

Hurray for the Riff Raff is scheduled to perform Tuesday, March 10, at the Rhythm Room.

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