The Hudson Valley has long been home to world-class artists and musicians; some of them are wildly famous, while many more are still under the boldface-name radar. That’s where you will probably find Mike + Ruthy. Although you may not know them, the music world does. They have been hailed for crafting “some of the best songwriting of their generation” and recording songs that are “destined to become a classic.”
Michael Merenda and Ruth Ungar, both 37 and married since 2006, met in New York City after college. She is a musical scion, the daughter of fiddle master Jay Ungar and country songwriter Lyn Hardy. He has been playing in bands since middle school. But both were pursuing acting careers.
“Music was just something my family did,” says Ungar. “I grew up playing, but it was not a career interest — like any kid who grows up in a family business.” Nevertheless, Merenda says that Ungar “had all these great instruments that she’d lug from one small New York apartment to another small New York apartment.” They started playing music together, and “suddenly I found myself having fun with music,” Ungar explains.
They formed bands in the city, then moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, where they started a successful folk rock band called the Mammals. When that act ran its course, around 2006, the two moved into Ungar’s childhood home in West Hurley, and started Mike + Ruthy. “Our music was described by a friend as ‘present,’ which I like,” says Merenda. “We are songwriters and performers from a theater background, so we try to stay connected to the present moment. For more obvious classifications, we are in the folk-Americana-singer-songwriter tradition. We are in that sound palette. But I find all those genres paint a picture that doesn’t quite capture what the live experience creates. It’s alchemy.”
Although they spend up to 200 days a year on the road, Mike + Ruthy have become a centerpiece of the burgeoning mid-Hudson Valley music scene. They are members of Amy Helm’s Woodstock Music Collective and, when they’re in town, sit in at weekly jams at the late Levon Helm’s “ramble” barn. They also produce their own summer and winter “Hoot” festivals — featuring regional musicians like Amy Helm, Elizabeth Mitchell, Natalie Merchant, Jeffrey Lewis, Jay Ungar & Molly Mason, and others — at the Ashokan Center, which just happens to be run by Ruthy’s dad.
“I feel like the music community is having another renaissance right now,” Ungar says. “So many cool people have recently moved here, there’s a burgeoning scene both musical and otherwise, a certain magnetism that is difficult to name. But people tend to tour, then sit in their recording studios. We are trying to get them out of the hermit mentality and get together and have a scene. We want everybody to meet their cool neighbors.”