Kentucky's Other Roots Music

Louisville's The Juggernaut Jug Band jams really old-school urban

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Punk rock fans like to think their heroes invented the self-contained, no-budget do-it-yourself tradition. But while the punk/indie scene is definitely the area of contemporary music most readily associated with the DIY methodology - what Minutemen bassist Mike Watt so aptly called "jamming econo" - there have been people using their wits and limited resources to make music on a budget for as long as, well, as long as people have been making music. And historically speaking, the thrift and creativity shown during Eastern America's Depression Era jug band craze gives today's underground all-ages community a run for its (lack of) money.

"Internationally, Kentucky's known for bluegrass music," says The Amazing Mr. Fish of Louisville's long-running Juggernaut Jug Band. "What's not as well known is, Louisville is considered the birthplace of jug band music. Bluegrass has more country roots, jug band music is more urban, more city music.

"This all goes back to the turn of the 20th Century, up to the 1940s. It essentially came in on the riverboats, with the minstrel shows. Those people would give the idea to the people here in town to perform on street corners. Times being hard, they went to whatever instruments they could find. If they could find a guitar player, they'd throw in a jug and a washboard."

And like the best modern-day punk and indie-rock combos, the jug bands of the '20s and '30s were influenced by a wide variety of current styles, cherry-picking sonic elements and filtering them through their own unschooled abilities to create a whole new genre.

"It's a big hodge-podge of musical styles," Mr. Fish confirms (All four of the multi-instrumentalists in the Juggernaut Jug Band perform under zany assumed names.) "They just used whatever was at hand, from Tin Pan Alley songs to whatever sheet music they could get their hands on. They mutated it, turned it into its own style."

For nearly 40 years, the Juggernaut Jug Band has helped keep this eccentric little musical subculture alive, performing at clubs and roots festivals across the U.S. and Canada. Mr. Fish joined the act, which was originally founded by still-active member Roscoe Goose and his brothers, in '68. But the gentlemen don't consider themselves an aural history lesson, or keepers of the jug-band flame. They're just a band, one whose acclaimed live show is far more about having a good time than educating an audience in Olde Tyme Americana.

"We do [feel some sort of responsibility], just because there's not that many jug bands around," says Mr. Fish. "So it's important to us. But that's really not our focus. Our focus is the entertainment."

The jug band scene's heyday was long gone by the time the band members' interest in it was piqued. For his part, Mr. Fish remembers being turned on to the style through the records of an outfit called The Jim Kweskin Jug Band, which appeared as part of the same '60s folk revival that spawned the likes of Peter, Paul & Mary.

"At the time, we weren't even aware of the Louisville connection, we just liked the spirit of the music," he says. "It wasn't until later that we found out all those songs we were playing had originated in Louisville and Memphis."

Over time, the group's catalog of tunes grew ever more diverse, to include original compositions and creatively retrofitted covers from every generation and genre - its latest disc, As We Like It, includes wonderfully twangy ragtime takes on both "Route 66" and the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic "Gimme Three Steps."

Naturally, the band has also seen some membership turnover during the last 30-odd years. Finding new musicians to bring into this particular fold can be much more difficult than tacking ads to the bulletin boards in Louisville's music shops, but not because one needs a Master's degree in arcane folk-music traditions of turn-of-the-century Mississippi River commerce towns to join the Juggernaut Jug Band. Mr. Fish maintains that when it comes to recruiting new players, a love and feel for the material, and the ability to spend a lot of time on the road, count for more than an encyclopedic knowledge of the jug-band tradition.

"[They have to have] an empathy for it," he says. "I'm not concerned with how much they know as much as whether they can adapt to it and learn to love it like we have."

But knowing how to play such offbeat instruments as washboard, Jew's harp, kazoo, and the fabled jug itself probably wouldn't hurt. You don't actually need to have a jug player in the band to be a jug band - the name is meant to evoke the style's origins, acoustic foundation and interesting instrumentation rather than set format criteria. The Juggernaut Jug Band, however, does include some honest-to-goodness jug-playing, partly because their fans expect it and partly because it's tradition, but mostly because it's fun.

"Oh, definitely," says The Amazing Mr. Fish. "We play the jug. Right after we empty it."

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