Six years ago, I met Jerrod Atkins and Corey Medders, two of the founding members of the Steel City Jug Slammers, and did an article about them for The Leaf magazine. After several years of blood sweat and tears living life on the road, traveling the country, busking towns, and playing club gigs, the original Jug Slammers captured a significant following in roots music circles around the southeast and beyond, released a couple of albums, and garnered a bit of national attention for appearances on the TV show, Pit-Bulls and Parolees, and A Prairie Home Companion. The first thing struck me when I heard the Slammers at Birmingham’s Art Walk was lead singer Atkins’ powerful baritone ringing through the festival air delivered with an old soul way beyond his 27 years. My memory evades me but I’m pretty sure they were singing without a PA that day. After trading in their electric guitars for banjos and mandolins, this talented bunch of young Punk-Rocker skateboard rebels piled in a van together and hit the road with only their instruments and maybe a change of clothes to experience life on the road as traveling musicians. Medders even quit his full time job to take this ride. Four and a half years down the road, Medders and Atkins politely bowed out and formed the Red Mountain Jug Band in 2017, recording their first album in New Orleans with studio and roots-music wizard, Joseph Faison and his partner Wilton J. Wall. With Faison’s guidance and help from some stellar A-list musicians, including Minnie Heart on fiddle and vocals, Bill Howard on vocals and washboard, Aaron Gunn on Fiddle, Corey McGillivary on upright bass, and Faison on Guitar and banjo, Tell Me Something New was wrapped up this summer, and will be released September 13th with an official release party at Trim Tab Brewing Company.
Faison, once a member and banjo player for The Hokum High Rollers and Folk-Punk band Black Death Allstars is a seasoned, well-respected and seriously in demand musician, producer, and engineer working out of his Long Gone studio in New Orleans for a wide array of artists of varying genres, but his heart is in the old time stuff. His virtuoso handling of this unique hybrid style of banjo playing, a mixture of plectrum picking and strumming in rapid time is legendary in roots music circles. Medders and Atkins were deeply influenced by their connection with Faison after recording a Slammers album with him, and he was the right choice for recording this album. Medders cites Faison as his number one influence on the banjo, and it shows, Medders can play. The cleanness and clarity of the mix on these sessions cannot be understated. Just listen, and you will see what I mean. The music sounds like they’re sitting in your living room, or even a dusty parlor on a freight train somewhere in 1926 before the great depression, but wherever it takes you it’s moving right along.
The album includes eight covers of timeless songs from the early 20th century and two originals, “Reverend Gates Blues” and their first single “Tell Me Something New.” Atkins and Medders not only strive to do this uniquely American music justice, but they are passionate about preserving the culture of the bygone years. Medders has an impressive antique collection of 78 RPM shellac records, some old Victrolas, and an antique player piano that he’s refurbishing.
Both of these accomplished musicians play multiple instruments, including guitar, banjo, mandolin, banjo-mandolin, jug, washtub bass, kazoo, and piano, and they sing and harmonize in a style that is aged and tuned to the feel of each song. Medders’ song, “Reverend Gates Blues” is based on sermons from Georgia preacher and recording artist from the 20s, J.M. Gates, who recorded over 200 of his sermons and monologues from 1926 through 1941 on albums for Columbia, Victor, Bluebird, and Paramount Records where he chanted and sang the lines to his prayers with the amen corner piping in at each refrain. These records captivated a vast African American audience, and his sermons “Death’s Black Train Is Coming” and “I’m Gonna Die with the Staff in My Hand” were commercial successes and sold over 50,000 copies, a lot for records sales in the early days of recording. Medders’ song leads each verse with a title from one of Gates’ sermons, starting with the preacher predicting a ride on the funeral train and refrains on the gambler’s Christmas Day Lament spent in jail. On the third verse, the gambler meets up with the judge on Monday morning, right before a tasty little bridge-like fiddle break from Aaron Gunn then the preacher warns the women and ends with the devil wearing a suit and a warning to be reborn. This is finely crafted original material based on historical events, creating an ancient sounding groove and call and response-like blues that resonates through the past, present, and future, keeping the blues alive.
“Tell Me Something New,” co-written by Medders and Atkins, starts off with some hot melody picking and falls into a groove that could have easily passed on a blues-inspired, Hank Williams record. Williams’ blues also had deep roots, taking lessons from street singer and blues man, Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne as a child. Atkins takes the lead vocal on this piece and wails, Hey Baby tell me something new, I know you know what I want to do, tell me Momma what you doing tonight, I say we could go dancing in till the morning light, I said Hey, Hey, Give me a chance, I’ll get me a pair of brand new pants, I said baby, honey, be my gal, you know you want to give it a shot. Another example of good song smith held tightly together on a bouncing catchy melody played in unison by Atkins on Mandolin-banjo, and Minnie Heart on fiddle. The extended break features some hot ensemble playing and gives all of these pickers a chance to play some tasty licks, including Medders on guitar, Bill Howard on washboard, and Corey McGillivary on Upright Bass. Heart and Howard are both Canadian and tour there frequently with their band, Ever-Lovin’ Jug Band.
Heart and Howard are also in huge demand as well-respected session and performing artists and they bring their A-game to these sessions. Heart’s solo on my favorite track, “Good Old Turnip Greens” burns and sails all at once. This may be the finest fiddle playing you’ll hear anytime soon. Medders’ primary influence for playing this song comes from Jug Band Hall of Famer, Stalebred Scottie. On their second trip to New Orleans with the Slammers, Medders and Atkins met Stalebred Scottie and the Kitchen Men after a scorching performance, which became a defining moment of affirmation when they sealed their growing love of playing old-time jug band music. Medders does this song justice with some fine vocals inflected for emphasis on the last syllable in the words. Penned and recorded by Bo Carter in 1928, son of a slave and member of the Mississippi Sheiks, this tune spins a tale as old as humankind about the poor man who lives on turnip greens while the rich man sits in his parlor eating cake and cream. The timeless place where a rich man goes to college, a poor man works the field, and instead of learning to read and write, the poor man learns to steal. These old jug band singers and their tunes were closely-related to the delta and country blues singers of the day, and most of their material is based on direct experience passed on from their forefathers and mothers from the harsh reality of slavery, and influenced by their lives as travelling musicians living in the reality of Jim Crow where music was an escape out of the cruel world of cotton fields and prison farms. This music is important and even though it’s not considered as vital as some of the country delta blues singers in popular lore, the jug band singers’ influence and relative popularity in this era is a vital part of our history as a nation and the development of our popular cultures defining music that eventually covered the world and back. Other standout tracks include, “Feed your Friends with a Long Handled Spoon,” a common sense tale told with the wary eye of an oft taken advantage of musician, and the closing track, Wild Man Stomp, a jumping dixieland groove first recorded by the State Street Ramblers in 1931.
Atkins and Medders do this style of music great justice and their work on this album is outstanding and pure. The Red Mountain Jug Band’s first album is a not just a trip to a bygone era on a freight train, it’s also bound for the future with the soul of the music intact, keeping this slice of time alive and vibrant without any pretense. Pure musicality and tight ensemble playing, combined with emotion and energy make this a cohesive and pleasing effort and a fine choice for your music collection.
In addition to the Release Party at Trim Tab on September 13th, you can catch Red Mountain Jug band at Cahaba Brewing Company on September 6th, and the Artwalk Showcase September 7th at Avondale Brewing Company.