Hillbilly Hardcore

A new promo video for The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band begins with a clip of Roy Acuff singing the train song “Sunshine Special” on TV in the early 70s. And that’s deeply cool, because while Acuff is an icon in serious country music circles in Nashville, out in the world at large, he’s not nearly as well known as say Johnny Cash or Hank Williams. And that’s a pity, because Acuff’s open-throat, open-heart style was so unique and tied to the very origins of the music we call country.

The Jug Band is brazenly and joyfully indebted to the sound pioneered by Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys. They’re happy throwbacks who capture the sound of Middle Tennessee hillbilly music more authentically and enthusiastically than anybody else I can think of. We at Roots feature our share of revisionists, re-mixers, eclecticizers and style benders. But when the Jug Band shows up, we get ready to sip the straight, strong stuff.

“It’s straight-up, hard-core country,” says founding member Mike Armistead, noting that the ethos of the band is about more than getting it right musically (which they do). “Back in Acuff’s day, he was the most powerful show on the road. He had everything. And the priority was entertainment. You couldn’t follow Roy Acuff. So we’re carrying on that tradition.”

The TMJB grew so naturally out of Nashville area picking circles and old family relationships that you probably couldn’t pin down a year of origin if you tried. For the past decade, they’ve increasingly visible and busy, in part thanks to turns on the Grand Ole Opry and regular spots on RFD-TV’s Marty Stuart Show. Armistead says that in the past year or two, things have accelerated. The band added two new full-time members in Ernie Sykes on bass and Mike Webb on dobro. Webb signifies a very direct line to Roy Acuff’s world, in that he studied at the knee, quite literally, of Smoky Mountain Boy Brother Oswald, one of the pioneers of dobro in country music. Mike’s also adding songs, including “Open Up Your Mouth And Let The Moon Shine In.” That’s not only the opening song on the band’s new Tales From Short Mountain CD, it’s a music video with so much murder and double crossing it could have been made by Quentin Tarantino. Besides the original songs, you’re bound to hear Tennessee classics like “Wabash Cannonball” and “Mountain Dew” when the Jug Band plays Roots this week.

And when we take to the Loveless this Wednesday evening, it’s going to be a hard core hillbilly scene, as the Jug Band shares the bill with returning guests The Cleverlys. Where the Jug Band is an authentic heir to the Middle Tennessee string band tradition, The Cleverlys are an authentic heir to the hillbilly comic tradition that used to be part of Hee-Haw and old radio shows. The parody grew out of the comedy stylings of Paul Harris, a regular in Branson and elsewhere. He is Digger Cleverly, leading his polyester-clad family band out of Cane Spur, Arkansas featuring Miles, Vernon Dean (VD), Harvey D and Otto Cleverly. Give in to their weirdness and you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and then blow your nose and then you’ll be astonished by their musicianship and sharp ear for songs that need to be infested with bluegrass and classic country feel. Their cover of “Single Ladies” is one for the ages.

And there’s nothing made up about their fans or their believers in the media. The LA Times, of all places, opined that The Cleverlys “have something subtly, but constructively, subversive at work. The down-home drawl helps yank the pop stars’ inflated yearnings for material bling back to earth, while their instrumental support emphasizes the melodic hooks at the heart of their hits.” My understanding is that the band was quite pleased with this write-up once they had somebody read it aloud and explain it.

Also from the world of country music, though with more mod overtones, is Sarah Potenza & The Tall Boys. I’m really excited about this Roots debut because of the rep the band has from live shows at venerable festivals like Grey Fox and Strawberry. Sarah’s voice is regularly praised as a wondrous layered instrument, so we anticipate a brilliant set in the second, Vietti artist slot. Then we’ll hear from guitar wonder Trace Bundy, who razzle dazzled us in his first Roots appearance a couple years ago. We haven’t had a real virtuoso fingerpicker in a while, so this will scratch my ever-present itch for six strings and a cloud of dust kind of music. And lending a songwriter’s artistry to the night will be Ernie Hendrickson, an Americana standout who blends the spirits of his base near Chicago with his frequent stomping ground of Nashville. He’s got some new music to share with us.

That’s the hardcore hillbilly truth. So open up your mouths and let the moon shine in. We keep it on hand you know.

Craig H.

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