there are actually two histories here, sort of entwined
around each other: There is the history of Albany music,
but there is also the history of American music itself.
And sometimes it takes a jug band to bring you back to
that primeval place when categories didn’t matter, when
the spirit of the tunes seemed to have been carved out
of the most basic elements: earth, air, fire, water, heart
muscle and humanity.
this is also fun, you see. When the Ramblin’ Jug
Stompers play Caffé Lena, ticket buyers aren’t necessarily
out for a history lesson; they are there to plug into
the vital, basic spirit of songs that moved Americans
before terms like “bluegrass,” “country” or “folk” parsed
out territories within the music and mutated off into
distinct strains. When people banged out tales of humanity
on washboard, banjo and, yes, jug.
Jug Stompers consist of members of Albany ’80s new-wave
legends and nascent MTV stars Blotto: in this case “Wild
Bill” (aka Sarge Blotto, aka Times Union columnist-
critic Greg Haymes) and “Bowtie” (aka Bowtie Blotto).
Also on board is Steven “Cousin” Clyde—who has made his
name playing with Richie Havens, Commander Cody and with
the current Blotto incarnation, to name a few—and Michael
Eck (“Mr. Eck”), who has been somewhat of a Zelig on the
Albany scene for three decades as a punk rocker, singer-songwriter,
critic, painter and frequent supporter.
there’s that: a lot of local lore in one room and the
kind of beatific, relaxed atmosphere that comes with sitting
around in a cluttered rehearsal space with a bunch of
seasoned musicians who don’t need to prove anything.
how the hell did they all end up together, and in a jug
band, of all things? “It was very . . . unintentional,”
laughs Bowtie. Eck points more specifically to a benefit
he was putting together last year for folk legend Dave
Van Ronk, whose own Ragtime Jug Stompers in the early
’60s provided a template: “There’s a manifesto on the
back of that record that says, ‘Go start your own jug
band.’ It’s so DYI and punk rock.”
group also point to the continued appeal of old-timey
string-band music. “It’s just resonating because it’s
part of the collective bedrock of all pop music,” says
Clyde. “This is where it all came from. The [chord] progressions
are recognizable and the lyrics and stories are understandable.”
Wild Bill adds, “The music itself is such a . . . mélange
of styles. It’s country, it’s blues, it’s jazz, it’s
folk. And it all came together to become the pop music
of its day.”
real American music, in my mind. I think the lo-tech nature
of it [is appealing],” banjo man Bowtie says. Wild Bill
(resident washboard, harmonica, and kazoo player) agrees:
“Like Mike [Eck] was saying too, it’s very much got the
same DYI ethos of all the punk bands. You don’t need to
go out and buy a $2,000 guitar and amp to play this kind
of music. You go to the hardware store and buy a washboard
for 10 bucks . . . or $9.99,” he cracks.
Eck also cautions against lumping the group in with the
rest of the post-O Brother, Where Art Thou bands
who leaped that old-time bandwagon a few years back. “All
of us in one way or another—even though I come from a
very different background—have played this music before
it’s come around again. Now it’s back again with all of
the string bands: Yonder Mountain String Band, Old Crow
Medicine Show, etc., etc., etc.”
point also dredges up some local history and the very
early genesis of the Ramblin’ Jug Stompers: Back in the
early ’70s Bowtie, Clyde and Wild Bill were in the Star-Spangled
Washboard Band, a humor-oriented acoustic jug group who
gained a following on the East Coast and appeared twice
on The Michael Douglas Show before going
electric and eventually morphing into Blotto. (As if the
story doesn’t have enough quirks: Bowtie and Wild Bill
were also in a mime troupe together.)
consider that old unit a sort of version 1.0 of the current
band, who recently released a live CD (recorded at Caffe
Lena), Crooked Songs. The album pops with the room
fidelity of Lena and contains lots of Depression-era varnish,
fleshed out with vocal harmonies, banjo, washboard, mandolin,
choice to debut with a live album came together “the same
way the band came together. It was completely by accident,”
Bowtie remembers. They were planning on having the gig
recorded primarily for their own edification, but were
so pleased with the results that they decided to release
it. Claims Wild Bill, “The show that’s on the album is
only the fourth show we’ve ever played.”
such public domain as “Midnight Special” are tunes like
the reggae standard “The Harder They Come” and the Faces’
“Ooh La La.” But the emphasis is on traditional music
of earlier times.
doesn’t want to do any songs written after the ’40s .
. . the 1840s,” Wild Bill cracks. “He’s the keeper
of the tradition.”
adds, “The concept Wild Bill and I had of doing a Brian
Eno night has gone by the wayside.” In seemingly all seriousness,
Wild Bill points out, “That was an idea I actually had
for this band at one point. And I thought, well, that’s
not going to happen obviously.”
is cruel but fair,” reasons Clyde. Bowtie, who actually
radiates Buddha-like benevolence, says in his own defense,
“This is a discussion we have frequently. . . . Some bands
say they’re ‘eclectic,’ which by my measure often means
that they’re too lazy to actually to settle on a vision.”
of the Stompers’ personal vision involves what Wild Bill
terms “Stomperizing” tunes that are added to the set list.
The group also tries to slightly slow down songs that
have that bluegrassy, breakneck pace to add more of what
Clyde (the resident music theorist) calls a “ramblin’
feel. . . . If you go too fast, it sounds mechanical.
In the old Washboard band I remember feeling that this
thing was going down the road too fast and some stuff
was being lost with some of the bluegrass tunes. We’re
talking, just pull it back a tiny bit so that it fits
in a certain pocket. That’s what we call ramblin’ speed.”
adds that early (pre-’40s, obviously) country music, such
as Dock Boggs, was a bit slower before the bluegrass guys
“got a hold of it and sped it” in order to show their
chops. Clyde also explains that the title of the band’s
CD (Crooked Songs) also has a technical connotation.
The mountain term “crooked” was applied to tunes that
had irregular rather than typical cadences. “They’re songs
that don’t fit into that same basic pattern,” Wild Bill
to what keeps the veteran musicians still trying new things
such as this venture after all of these years, Bowtie
explains, “This is certainly not to prove anything. .
. . I love to play, I love to be out doing this. I’d rather
play acoustic than electric. With the Blotto thing, we’ll
still play gigs electric but I don’t think that’s a direction
I want to invest in. I want to get back to what I sort
of consider my roots.”
just fun,” Wild Bill exclaims. “For me there’s
really no other reason than it’s . . . just . . . fun.
These are guys I love, and I’ve loved playing with them
for years. I’ve known these guys for 36 years and [Eck]
for like 20 years.” (“Not steadily,” jokes Bowtie.)
remembers that Alan Chartock recently asked him, on a
WAMC radio show, if he had to choose between music and
his day job, what would he do? “There’s no choice. I’d
do it full time if I could, like that,” he says,
snapping his fingers in the air.
the end of the night, Eck kindly offers me to choose a
painting from a box of folk art he rendered on small slabs
of press board. The piece I choose is a simple, black
outline of a guitar against a bright indigo background.
Around the instrument are squiggly lines of red and yellow,
as if the instrument is resonating, as if it’s radiating
energy. It occurrs to me as I walk to the car that the
painting probably says more about the Ramblin’ Jug Stompers
than I ever could.
Ramblin’ Jug Stompers (www.jugstomp ers.com) will play
Tess’ Lark Tavern (453 Madison Ave., Albany) Monday (Jan.
15) at 7 PM and the Ale House (680 River St., Troy) on
Jan. 20 at 9 PM.