About South Austin Jug Band
Lets just get it out of the way right now: Theres no jug-playing in the South Austin Jug Band. And the bluegrass connotation that name carries should be spilled down the drain along with any other moonshine-preconceived notions. Sure, theres fiddle, mandolin, an upright bass but theres also drumming, occasional electric guitar and even digital looping. And Beck. The bands latest album, Strange Invitation, gets its title from a lyric in Mr. Hansens 1997 charmer, Jackass, the only cover on this 11-song collection.
Comparisons, if they must be made, might meander more toward a low-intensity Grateful Dead (which, it should be noted, started out as a real jug band) or something with an even more melodic and laid-back vibe. Lead singer/acoustic guitarist James Hyland, whose tenor redefines mellow, would be quite happy if youd just go with bitchin tunes.
Its the most accessible record weve made, he says of the bands third release, struggling somewhat to further clarify its style. But it still has some of that whole acoustic Im not gonna use the word newgrass; throw that out the window but that sort of progressive acoustic. He pauses, then finally admits, Its hard to come up with adjectives.
Indeed it is. But progressive acoustic will do to define the far-beyond-bluegrass instrumentals Trek of Beandip Perkins and Po Boys in the Glovebox, in which Dennis Ludikers mandolin takes a Bela-Fleck-lead-banjo role and Brian Bekens fiddle answers right back. Theyre like nectar on an already-sweet collection full of Hylands musings on subjects as diverse as tripping into love too easily (Fall So Fast), the rhythms of a Windy City sojourn (Chicago, which nostalgically references the lights at Wrigley Field) and the bonds of brotherly love as manifested by Theo van Goghs unwavering devotion to his mad-genius brother, Vincent (Wheatfield with Crows). Hardly a lyrical lightweight, Hyland also conveys his thoughts about our governments treatment of drug addicts (Avenue of the Americas) and addresses a general theme of mediocrity via allegories to Katrina, a breakup and other aspects of our cultural zeitgeist (Neutral Ground).
Regardless of how theyre played or what theyre about, the songs on Strange Invitation have one thing in common: They cant help but sound melodic. Even the occasional melancholy verse cant put gravity shackles (to quote Beck) on the uplifting sweep of that beautifully braided mandolin-fiddle combo. That may have something to do with the fact that Ludiker, a Spokane, Wash., native, and Beken, of Montgomery, Texas, are about as tight as brothers themselves; theyve been making music together since they were kids.
Though he mainly plays mandolin in the band, fourth-generation fiddler Ludiker started sawing at 3. I was getting trouble for touching a fiddle before I was ever allowed to even play one, he recalls. It was my grandfather who told my parents, Dont discourage this. He bought me my first fiddle, a 16th-size, tiny, tiny fiddle. By 5, he was strumming a guitar. It didnt take long for him to try mandolin, piano, bass, mandola and just about every instrument he could get his fingers on. He and his fiddling kid sister, Kimber, were so good, they became the nucleus of the Ludiker Family Band.
Beken, who handles fiddling in the Jug Band along with acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, piano, organ and harmony vocals and occasionally, drums started learning the Suzuki method at age 8. But he soon switched his style from violin to fiddle (the instruments the same, he says; the only difference is the soul of the person whos playing it) and met Ludiker at an Idaho fiddle contest. They befriended semi-regular bassist/guitarist Noah Jeffries on the same kid-competition circuit, and the three progressed from sharing campsites to sharing rent and stages.
Hyland, a Charlotte, N.C., native raised in Corpus Christi, started playing guitar until he was a University of Texas student. He bought one on a whim, along with a Willie Nelson chord book. Soon, he was writing songs instead of the screenplays hed planned on.
Though the South Austin Jug Band is seven years old, its lineup, and dynamic, had been rather fluid for a while when the time came to start working on Strange Invitation. Core members Hyland, Ludiker and Beken decided they needed a latitude shift (and attitude lift) and headed to New York to the fabled Chelsea Hotel where, inspired by the pulse of a place where big decisions are made, they holed up and wrote songs together. It was something theyd never done before.
(Songs on) all of our previous records (2003s South Austin Jug Band and 2005s Dark and Weary World) were basically written by their respective authors, Beken explains. This is a way more collaborative effort that felt so much better to produce, and, I feel, brought us closer. We decided to get away from everything we know and try to be creative. And I think it worked.
Hyland recalls, We got two rooms (and) turned one of em into a little recording studio. Wed just go in there every day and grind it out.”
New Yorks such a great place, he adds, because if youre stale, you just go outside. You can find inspiration anywhere in that city. If you cant, you just cut your head off.
The actual recording, done all-analog at the famed Pedernales Studios outside Austin, went just as smoothly.
We scheduled four days at first because that was all we could afford, and went in there and knocked out all the basic tracks in a day and a half, Beken says. We were kinda like, What the hell are we gonna do now? So we just embarked on prettying it up, making it what it was supposed to be. It was really laid-back just no pressure at all.
He considers the result far more polished, though much warmer-sounding, than the earlier albums. It also reflects more of the bands non-bluegrass influences. Like Beck. And Stevie Wonder. And former tourmate Todd Snider. And even (praise Johnny Cash) Nine Inch Nails.
All in all, says Hyland, I think we knocked this one out of the park.
Now, if they could just decide what to do about their intentionally confounding band name which, if you really must know, was derived from a film. Specifically Emmet Otters Jug-Band Christmas.
Hey, inspiration is where you find it.