Published in the October, 2013 Issue of The Leaf.
This year at Birmingham’s Artwalk, I caught a killer set by The Steel City Jug Slammers, a band of six young Birmingham locals ripping it up in the street the way they like to perform, live, in your face, and raw. About five years ago before they were The Steel City Jug Slammers, their love of Jug Bands and the tradition of busking on the streets came from trips to New Orleans where they learned the rules of survival among street performers first hand from other musicians working the busy New Orleans music scene. Their first few trips were tough and didn’t go so well, but persistence paid off for them and with more hard work on the streets, they amassed a circle of incredible musician friends who also play what lead singer Jerrod Atkins calls, “amazing old tunes, Jug Band, Jazz, Bluegrass, and all the good stuff.” Paying their dues on the streets has started to pay off for these hard working guys and they are scheduled to make a guest appearance on national TV in late November or early December. They asked me not to reveal the specifics until all of the legalities are ironed out, but this exposure, along with a high-profile November 9 gig at Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans may be the kick these guys need to get their fledgling music careers in high gear. In the past month, they have generated enough buzz online to triple their Facebook followers. They all love playing what jug player, Derek Stack calls, “The New Punk Rock.” This band of millennials is part of the evolving trend of young musicians reaching deep and way back to reinvent classic music from their past, a musical devolution if you will that seems to cycle and changes with almost every generation, and often predates their parents and sometimes grandparents generation and goes way back to bygone eras that are so different in contemporary settings as to be almost foreign, but American audiences seem to love nostalgia of any form or fashion. Mainly because nostalgia done accurately or with a unique spin is generally so much better than a lot of contemporary music that is pure assembly line, overproduced garbage pushed, promoted, and hyped using trends and gimmicks to appeal to audiences that need something trendy to make them fit in. Maybe one reason this retro path is considered New Punk is the defiant attitudes and outside the box rejection of generational fashion or styles, preferring instead to honor the original craft right down to the historically accurate outfits and acoustic and homemade instruments. Along with accompanying attitudes of thumbing their noses at contemporary trends and rejecting what is considered contemporary among their peers, the New Punk rockers have learned to perfect retro musical styles that can approach what their generation’s music is almost impossible to be, ground breaking, or at least music that was ground breaking in a previous century.
Even though Atkins is the oldest member at 27, The Steel City Jug Slammers are all seasoned musicians with previous stage and recording experience in other bands where they played everything from metal and hardcore to indie, rock, and blue grass. All of them started learning music when they were kids and all of them play multiple instruments. Lead singer and guitarist, Atkins started on bass when he was 12, moved on to guitar at 13, and can now be seen with a Kazoo in a holder around his neck that he plays simultaneously while playing the guitar. Brothers Nick and Steve Bate both started playing music at seven with Nick learning drums and Steve guitar. By age 13, Nick was on guitar and at 16, Steve was wailing on the banjo. Somewhere along the way, they both added Mandolin to their arsenal of stringed instruments and both sing backup to Atkins lead vocals. Not surprisingly, the Bate brothers’ Dad, Steve played bass in local rock bands for years. Jug player, Stack started on the tuba in middle school and when the band needed to complete the line up a few months ago, convinced him to play jug, which he describes as a “dumbed down tuba.” Corey Medders took up guitar at 14 and switched to banjo and sings backup. Bucket (or washtub) bass player, Jacob Mathews was originally a guitarist in his previous bands. The various members of this band have logged thousands of miles traveling around the country from coast to coast, sometimes hopping trains from town to town playing on the streets with each other and solo or with other bands before they settled in with this band about a year ago.
Still working on getting a firm grip in the world-famous music scene in New Orleans, The Steel City Jug Slammers are affectionately known as the Bamas among their fellow street musicians and friends in the Crescent City, and they now consider themselves equals with some of the more popular traveling street bands including a band Nick Bate describes as “straight up Punk Bluegrass,” The Black Death Allstars. Other influential bands include Slick Skillet Serenaders, and Black Bird Raum, a West Coast band that makes stops in New Orleans on their travels and plays pure “Pirate Music.” One thing all of these bands have in common is their traveling spirit. A typical tour for them starts out on the road in a van without a real game plan, booked gigs, or financial backing. Instead they are overflowing with wild-eyed enthusiasm and a sense of adventure that comes with roaming from town to town playing their music to new crowds and making new friends and fans everywhere they go. Their primary target audience in the bigger cities are tourists with money to spend and these bands can do quite well working as street corner minstrels.
The band’s first release Save Your Soul is a homemade CD recorded and mixed in Nick Bate’s home studio setup in his bedroom and is a mix of originals and cover songs. In keeping with their low-tech approach to playing live, the CD is packaged in a plain brown cardboard sleeve and the title is written across a CDR with a Sharpie. As these guys proclaim, people who dig this kind of music prefer it live and no recordings professional or otherwise can capture what you get with their live shows, which changes and evolves with every performance and according to Atkins is “ten times better than hearing a recording.” While the CD struggles to capture the energy this band has live, it is a fine representation of their music and reminds me of recordings you might hear from the depression era or in the Library of Congress archives without all the noise and scratches, you would hear on primitive recordings. Bate calls the CD “the highest low quality it can be,” and one they put together six months ago to help get gigs. Atkins says “they have a whole new group of songs and are taking it all much more serious now.” During the sessions for Save Your Soul, Atkins and Bate recruited guitarist, Jacob Mathews to play bucket bass. According to Bate, “he basically jumped into the recording studio learning how to play the instrument, from scratch, like never played a bucket bass before and picked it up one night while we were hanging out and started recording the next day. It was one of those processes where you play guitar and play stuff that sounds like 90s grunge, and we’re gonna put you on a bucket and basically play double bass patterns, on a bucket!” Six months later, Mathews sounds like he has been playing the bucket bass all his life in a shack in the hills of West Virginia somewhere.
Although some of the guys have regular jobs, the band has been having serious discussions about taking up the life as traveling musicians on a full-time basis, and even though they all call Birmingham home and have friends and family here, they would much rather be on the road and maybe settle down in a semi-regular home base in a larger city with a more thriving music scene. Like many other working musicians, The Steel City Jug Slammers have a hard time finding worthwhile gigs in Birmingham, a town long known as a place with plenty of good players but a limited supply of decent venues. Atkins handles all of the bands management and has learned to deal with the “run around” he gets trying to book his band in places where you are required to bring your crowd and prove yourself to club owners that do not understand good music or how to promote a music club and see the musicians as a way to increase their bar sales playing worn out covers. The band was featured in a video segment of “The Birmingham Sessions,” a video spotlight series from Al.com that features local artists unplugged playing in a travel trailer parked behind the Bottletree. The guys got some great exposure from this video but are baffled why they cannot seem to get a gig at the Bottletree after repeated efforts to get their foot in the door. Bate claims the club has overlooked them in favor of promoting bands doing similar shows because the other bands are from out of town. “We’ll work with what we have in Birmingham, but our sites are set a lot further,” says Atkins. The Steel City Jug Slammers combine a lot of collective experiences, talents, and influences into a tight band that performs high energy shows that are both spontaneous and engaging, much like one of the earliest jug bands ever recorded, The Birmingham Jug Band who made their recording debut in an Atlanta studio in 1930.