Bumper Jacksons,
Too Big World
(independent, 2015)

The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band,
Lester's Loafin Lounge
(independent, 2015)

The first jug band played on the streets of Louisville, Kentucky, in the spring of 1900. By the 1920s the music was being performed throughout the South. Birmingham, Atlanta, Cincinnati and St. Louis also hosted notable jug bands that recorded commercially, but the city usually associated with the sound is Memphis, home to such famous outfits as the Memphis Jug Band, Cannon's Jug Stompers and (my personal favorite) Jack Kelly & His South Memphis Jug Band. Jug band music was a good-timey fusion of African-American folk and blues, sometimes -- depending on whether a particular band boasted a horn player -- early jazz. Such notable country-blues figures as Memphis Minnie, Furry Lewis and Sleepy John Estes plied their trade in jug bands at one time or another.

Their popularity had pretty much run its course by the 1930s. It would take three decades and the urban folk revival to resurrect the sound, which I suspect nearly everybody reading these words first heard from the Boston-based Jim Kweskin Jug Band, a marvelous ensemble whose 1960s records have not dated.

In the decades between decline and rediscovery, however, jug bands maintained a kind of shadowy existence in early comedic hillbilly acts (all white) who, whatever their racial attitudes may have been, were attuned to black vernacular music. Sometimes jug-bandish tunes were performed with an actual jug in the mix, and sometimes the musicians wore blackface. Beyond that, in his 1950s Memphis days no less than Johnny Cash was personally acquainted with Gus Cannon, who'd headed the popular and influential Jug Stompers.

Its name withstanding, the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band is not a jug band in the traditional style, but the moniker is not entirely misleading. TMJG is rooted in the Grand Ole Opry of another era when the music was rural, home-made and raucous, and the pickers looked as if they'd just wandered in from doing chores.

Fans of RFD-TV's Marty Stuart Show, on which the TMJB appears at least once a season, will know what to expect, which is good times conveyed by cheerfully downhome voices and instruments. A banjo-playing comedian in the Uncle Dave Macon mold, member Leroy Troy is part of Stuart's regular cast, thus most likely to be familiar to the casual listener. On Lester's Loafin Lounge (named after deceased original member Lonesome Lester Armistead's restaurant, bar and music venue outside Goodlettsville) the band offers up hillbilly songs and tunes in amiably loose fashion, captured in an open-air -- in other words, no control room -- studio which puts forth a vibe organic enough to feel as if it's planted in your living room.

The material consists of three originals by member Mike Webb (whose meandering, incoherent "Hillbilly Logic" is not the strongest cut), three oldtime pieces (including "One Old Shirt," a Southern folk song usually known as "Way Downtown" or "Late Last Night When Willie Came Home"), the always hilariously brain-twisting "I'm My Own Grandpa," and some tasty hard-core country songs from Hank Williams, Jeanne Pruett and others. While an exemplary song by one of the finest country-folk singer-composers around, the closer, Steve Young's "Lonesome, Onry & Mean," feels out of place as led by Marty Stuart's hard-charging electric lead. It's not bad, just sort of startlingly out of context.

I reviewed the Bumper Jacksons's previous release, Sweet Mama, Sweet Daddy, Come In in this space on 28 June 2014, and here are they are with a brand new release already. As good as they sounded the first time, they sound even better the second time around. They're no more a traditional jug band than the TMJG, but they're just as much in the broad lineage as the other. It is hard, though, to imagine that the music business being what it is, the two will ever find themselves playing to the same audience from the same stage, surely a loss to all of us. While songs with rural origins are easily found in these tracks, Too Big World is intended for an urban listenership comparable to, or at least descended from, the one Jim Kweskin and associates played and recorded for.

Like the first-generation jug bands, the D.C.-based Bumper Jacksons draw on various strains of grassroots American music, encompassing blues, hokum, jazz, 19th-century ballads, sacred tunes and well-crafted originals. The ideas were all there, if only in inchoate form, in the 1920s; this particular execution, however, is decidedly of our time. For one thing, it is inconceivable that before now, anybody could have recreated the venerable hymn "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" as jazz-blues testimonial. Jess Eliot Myhre, the band's principal vocalist, never falters. If she won't make you forget Frank Proffitt, the ultimate source of most or all revival versions, she'll definitely leave a mark in your sense of the possible.

Fiddles, trumpets, clarinets, guitars (mostly, not always, acoustic), tenor banjos, washboards and even something called a "suitcase contraption" tackle, if not necessarily at the same moment, 16 songs which, whatever their points of origin, are handled deftly. The arrangements manage to affirm tradition without being unduly pious -- sometimes in the literal sense -- about it. Keep that in mind when you get to the final number and hear band guitarist Chris Ousley's "Hell Is Hot!" That observation, it turns out, is not intended to steer you away from the joint. The original jug bands would surely have appreciated the joke.

music review by
Jerome Clark

29 August 2015

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