Formed in 1958 by the trio of John Cohen, Mike Seeger and Tom Paley, The New Lost City Ramblers played a vital role during the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Primarily responsible for popularizing the traditional southern string band music of the 1920s and 1930s, the New Lost City Ramblers were far more than imitators and were not content merely recycling the vintage recordings that inspired them. Unlike other far more popular folk groups of the era like The Weavers and The Kingston Trio (and later Peter, Paul & Mary) that attempted to commercialize, and in the process sanitize, rural southern music, The Ramblers brought a fresh, aggressive authenticity to the songs they played. At a time when folk music was generally relegated to bland renditions of "Waltzing Matilda" and the like, The Ramblers introduced an entire generation to a wide variety of high spirited instrumental techniques and master picking that few had bothered to investigate. In the process, they had a profound influence on countless musicians to follow, including a young Bob Dylan, who in the first installment of his "Chronicles" autobiography stated, "All their songs vibrated with some dizzy, portentous truth. At the time, I didn't know that they were replicating everything they did off old 78 records, but what would it have mattered anyway? It wouldn't have mattered at all. For me, they had originality in spades, were men of mystery on all counts. I couldn't listen to them enough."
Just as important as their raising awareness of music from a long forgotten era, The Ramblers made it possible for young city musicians to become successful by veering away from the demands of the music industry. In retrospect, this may be The Ramblers greatest contribution as they were on a conscious mission to seek out and replicate the genuine energy, spirit and humor of a music that existed outside the commercial music industry. It was this mindset, as well as their musicianship, that gave them validity and paved the way for a wide variety of young musicians interested in traditional country, blues, bluegrass and even rock 'n' roll, to follow. The Ramblers were also largely responsible for introducing many of the original performers to urban audiences. Indeed, it was their crusading of these long forgotten and often obscure artists that would become the basic ingredient for the folk festivals of the 1960s and beyond.
Cohen and Seeger continued playing music full-time while they sought out a replacement for Paley. After pursuing traditional musician Doc Watson, who respectfully declined their invitation, Seeger turned to his friend Tracy Schwarz, a gifted bluegrass musician who was an avid fan of the group. Schwarz was primarily a fiddle player, but was also an accomplished guitarist, bassist and five-string banjo picker who could sing lead and tenor vocals. This personnel change served to broaden the group's sound and repertoire, adding unaccompanied ballads and modern bluegrass to the mix and began a deeper immersion into country music. The Ramblers' sense of humor combined with their obvious reverence for this music would have a profound influence on generations of string band musicians to come. Amazingly this lineup would achieve even greater career longevity than many of them, as Seeger, Cohen and Schwarz would continue recording and performing together through the millennium, a testament to both their commitment and popularity.