Mount Bonnell Breakdown
The South Austin Jug Band doesn't have a jug player, nor do they play jug band music. They do come from South Austin, where four of them live together. And they are truly a band, to which the shared residence attests.
The closest thing to what the South Austin Jug Band sounds like is bluegrass, but without a banjo and with their own eclectic approach to the music, that rubric isn't entirely accurate, either. "We attempt to play bluegrass music, but it comes out as our own sound. It's real rhythmic," explains mandolin player and singer Matt Slusher.
"I think that's what gives us our own kind of sound. And we're really into swing as well. Every time we try to play a bluegrass song, it ends up swinging," he adds.
"Or vice versa," interjects bassist Will Dupuy. "Every time we play a swing song, it ends up bluegrass. So it's this weird hybrid sound."
The name was actually a joke used by the musicians when they came together backing singer and guitarist James Hyland, who, like many young Texans these days, decided in college to take up music. Inspired by Robert Earl Keen and Steve Earle, he bought a $300 guitar and a Willie Nelson songbook and took it from there. Hyland had worked his way up to a weekly gig at a collegiate hangout in Austin when his band quit. So he hired Slusher and Dupuy to join his guitarist, Willie Pipkin, and fiddler, Warren Hood (son of recently deceased Austin legend Champ Hood), to fill in, and they did an acoustic show.
And they liked it. "It wasn't like the fist gig was that good," Hyland explains. "But everybody had a lot of fun." So the outfit started playing every week. It led all of them to delve further into bluegrass, and over the course of a year or so Austin audiences began liking what they heard -- whatever it was -- as much as the guys enjoyed playing it. Eventually everyone dropped all their other gigs to concentrate on SAJB.
A listen to SAJB's one album, a live recording aptly called Pickin' & Grinnin', proves that the act can make infectious music, drawing songs from all over the map to augment their originals. The CD includes numbers by Bob Wills, Walter Hyatt, Ernest Tubb, Jerry Garcia and Townes Van Zandt as well as traditional tunes; their own numbers stand up nicely among the classics.
The SAJB mission seems to be to have lots of fun indulging in the delights of playing acoustic music. "I'd say it's an organized campfire acoustic jam session," says Slusher. "We've knocked a few of the rough edges off, but not all of them."
The band may not pick the music as strictly prescribed by the Bill Monroe bluegrass rule book, but they're so efficient and enjoyable that they won the band competition at this year's Telluride Bluegrass Festival, earning a gig at next year's fest. The band had entered the contest with the opposite of high hopes. "We just thought it'd be a good excuse to go to the festival," explains Dupuy.
"And see Ralph Stanley," adds Hyland.
The South Austin Jug Band took its name from the Jim Henson TV Muppets movie Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas. "In that movie, they lost," explains Hyland. So when the group played the Telluride competition, "we thought we were destined to get screwed." But between the first and second rounds, the band learned they had been hired to open a few shows for Lyle Lovett, so even if they hadn't won, SAJB was feeling rather chuffed as it went into the final pick-off.
The quintet also played this year's International Bluegrass Music Association conference, where they were reminded occasionally that the purists think SAJB's grass might not really be blue. As the dreadlocked Pipkin recalls, "I was coming down out of the elevator our first night there, and this lady sees me and says, 'That's not a bluegrass haircut.' So we're like, 'Oh, boy, here we go.' "
"Sorry, we don't have a mullet," says Dupuy. But SAJB does have a hilarious tribute to the most unhip haircut known to modern man, Hyland's "The Ballad of Eddie Mullet."
In a way, SAJB resembles one of Austin's favorite swinging acoustic bands of yore, Uncle Walt's Band, the trio of Walter Hyatt, David Ball and Champ Hood that was a major influence on Lyle Lovett. They credit Champ's son Warren with the turn-on. "I owe that to him," says Pipkin. "And that is seriously one of my favorite bands now. SAJB now plays nearly 100 Uncle Walt's Band songs, thanks to the many live tapes Warren Hood had. Other influences include Willis Alan Ramsey's sole album and the Threadgill's Troubadours that Champ Hood led in the weekly picking-and-singing session at the legendary Threadgill's eatery in Austin.
Their casual attitude may make the SAJB easy to mistake for typical Austin slackers, but don't be fooled. This is a band that's ready and able to hit the road and play as many nights a week as they can find a stage. In fact, they don't see much of South Austin these days, with a busy tour schedule that has taken them from coast to coast. But in November they're coming back to their namesake neighborhood to record their first studio album with Lloyd Maines, who -- among about eight million other things -- produced the recently released bluegrass outing by his daughter's band, the Dixie Chicks.
The success story seemed like it might have hit a snag when the SAJB lost fiddle prodigy Hood to the Berklee College of Music at the end of the summer. But new fiddler Dennis Leudicker landed in Austin from Washington State just in time to be drafted. He brings with him a family tradition of fiddling, and just after joining the band won the Winfield national fiddling contest.
Even if the buzz is growing for the South Austin Jug Band, they want little more than to keep pickin' and grinnin'. "I'm just on the ride," says Pipkin. "When it ends it ends, but wherever it goes it goes."
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