When Michael Ubaldini released his debut solo album, Acoustic Rumble, in 1999, he inspired countless other songwriters to embrace their inner folk singer. While the majority of Orange County was steeped in pop punk, hardcore and indie rock, Ubaldini was playing stripped-down, insightful songs on his guitar.
For fellow OC singer/songwriter Chris Cruz, Acoustic Rumble marked a turning point in his own musical endeavors. “When I saw Michael’s performance, I could see a future for myself,” Cruz says. “While Michael played solo acoustic, there was angst and power. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, you can do that with an acoustic guitar?’”
In celebration of Acoustic Rumble’s 20th anniversary, Ubaldini is rereleasing his groundbreaking album this month on online platforms, CD and eventually vinyl.
Before embarking on a solo career, he was a member of the short-lived OC punk band the Earwigs. But their distinctive sound showcased signs of Ubaldini’s skills as a songwriter. “We used to play the Cuckoo’s Nest and stuff like that,” Ubaldini recalls. “We did that, made a single, and the band broke up—typical story, you know? But the thing is, we were a little different. I always liked a lot of roots music, and I liked a lot of ’60s garage [music], so it kind of gave us our own little niche at the time.”
With his next project, Mystery Train, Ubaldini incorporated more folk and roots influences. The band, which Ubaldini says was playing Americana long before the genre had become widely popularized, landed a record deal with EMI. According to Ubaldini, Stray Cats bassist Lee Rocker produced the album, which featured a guest appearance from Rocker’s band mate, vocalist/guitarist Brian Setzer, who had attended some of Ubaldini’s shows alongside late ex-Clash front man Joe Strummer. “[Setzer] was like, ‘Let me play a song, man. Pour me a shot, and I’ll play something,’” Ubaldini recalls. “It actually struck me when I was playing a show one night when Setzer got up and played and Strummer was there. It just hit me, like, ‘God, I used to buy these guys’ records.’ It was surreal.”
Mystery Train would also soon dissolve, leading Ubaldini to dig deeper into his folk background. He started writing songs influenced by a childhood listening to the likes of Hank Williams and Ray Charles. “I was writing these songs that had more reflective lyrics,” he says. “Even though the [Mystery Train] songs were written kind of poetically, these ones were more intense, and I knew that the band wouldn’t want to do that type of stuff. So I just said, ‘Shit, I’m rooted in folk music; I’m just going to make a record like that.’”
And thus, Acoustic Rumble was born. “I wanted to do it old-school, like the way early [Bob] Dylan records were,” Ubaldini explains. “And Woody Guthrie’s stuff, or even the earlier guys—how they’d sit there with a guitar and sing and play at the same time. I wanted to keep the rawness from the roots I had grown up with.”
Consequently, the album is sonically bare bones, with minimal extra tracking—the only overdubs that can be heard are the occasional tambourine, second acoustic guitar or harmonica.
While the album is musically straightforward, Acoustic Rumble’s true depth comes from Ubaldini’s timeless, insightful lyrics. His rebellious delivery bears traces of Strummer, Guthrie and Billy Bragg, especially on the song “Badge of Freedom,” in which he inquires, “Oh, Mr. President, do you see the homeless man? Do you see the sad-eyed children digging food out of the trash can?”
“I don’t really consider myself writing political songs,” Ubaldini says. “I look at it more like a mirror held up to society. I even condemn myself in ‘The Seventh Trumpet’ because I like that Michelangelo painting The Last Judgement, where his self-portrait is him being condemned with the rest of the people.”
While part of the catalyst for a 20th-anniversary edition of Acoustic Rumble is the cult following the album has gained in the indie singer/songwriter scene over the years, Ubaldini feels its songs are relevant to our current time and place. “I think the songs kind of resonate even more now,” he says. “Like, they sound current in a weird way. . . . Cool folk music does that—it sounds old and new at the same time.”
The reissue also includes two bonus tracks. “I write a lot!” he says with a laugh. “Like, all the time.” At the beginning of the year, Ubaldini released The Song of Our Time, 12 original tracks that tackle issues such as free speech and media brainwashing.
Plus, he claims to have another album recorded and ready to be released at a future date.
When Ubaldini isn’t adding to his expansive solo catalog, he’s supporting his fellow songwriters by hosting “The Outlaws of Folk Music Series,” a decade-or-so-old series that provides an environment for like-minded musicians to congregate and perform. Though it started in Orange County, it has expanded in recent years to Long Beach and East Hollywood. “I feel like I’m giving back a little bit,” he says, “Just trying to help us all out.”
Learn more about Michael Ubaldini at www.rocknrollpoet.com.