From the pastoral hills, hollers, shopping malls and interstate highways of Goodlettsville — home of Bill Monroe, Bashful Brother Oswald, Stringbean, Grandpa Jones, Keith Whitley ... and some living country music performers — comes the most entertaining blast from the past since Lester Moran and the Cadillac Cowboys. They’re the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band — five guys and a scrubboard with roots like wisdom teeth.
The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band has shamelessly stolen a feature of the old Roy Acuff Show — a bit known as “Pap & the Jug Band.” This frolicking fivesome brightens up the stage with rib-tickling old time tunes. Even better, they have an utter lack of self-consciousness (and some might say any sense of decorum). The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band not only knows the music, they wear the costumes, tell corny jokes, and even do slapstick gags.
“Lonesome” Lester Armistead is a shy and retiring retired printer now raising grandchildren on his farm in middle Tennessee. He rarely speaks above a whisper until he uncorks his jug, gets a whiff of greasepaint and footlights and releases his Force Five tenor voice in song. Lester learned to sing from Bashful Brother Oswald on this all music scholars agree. When Lester sings, Oswald lives. Lester blows a jug that Os played on the Opry as long ago as 1939. Lester also picks a mean banjo. Mostly, Lester likes to laugh.
The tall, handsome young man providing most of the actual music with his fiddle is sophisticated (he was born in Pennsylvania) Dan Kelly. Even if you can’t recognize a fiddle (or real music) you can tell Dan by his snazzy clothes — Liberty size 40-Suave overalls. As a mere stripling youth, Dan won hundreds of fiddle contests and was a six-state champion. In 1983 Dan took home the big prize when he won the coveted Grand Masters Fiddle championship in Nashville. After fiddler Big Howdy Forrester’s passing, Roy Acuff hired young Dan to be the Smoky Mountain Boys’ fiddler, and Dan worked with the King of Country Music until his death in 1992. Since Acuff’s passing, Dan has fiddled his way through a number of top country bands including those of Pam Tillis, Steve Wariner, James Bonamy, Faith Hill, Alan Jackson, Jessica Simpson and SheDaisy.
In the rhythm section with the bass fiddle, you’ll often find Ernie Sykes. Ern was born and half-raised on Long Island, N.Y., and he loved it so much there that he moved to the south as soon as he learned to read a map and compass in Cub Scouts. He’s played with his family band, the Bluegrass Cardinals, the Lonesome River Band, Irish band the Aisles of Langerhanz, and notably was the final bass player in Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. Ernie sings a good country song, and he also sings bad country songs.
If the Jug Band can be said to have a brain, that would be guitar man Mike Armistead, Lester’s son and heir. Mike shares lead singing duties with Leroy, sings harmony in the trios, books the band, runs the mercantile empire of their recordings, hoss trades in knives, dogs, and guitars, and is the Jug Band’s tenuous contact with the 21st century. Like his dad, Mike has a taste for strong tenor singing and also loves the repertoire of Bashful Brother Oswald and Ira Louvin.
Mike Webb is the extraordinarily handsome young lout who plays the dobro and has also been spotted with the old time banjo and even a rhythm guitar. When but a mere lad, Mike was the awe-struck student of Bashful Brother Oswald himself. Os taught Mike all his best material — from acoustic steel guitar to his clawhammer banjo style. Mike became an authentic Grand Ole Opry performer as the last dobro picker with the late Wilma Lee Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan. He also performed with Charlie Collins.
The Jug Band provided the entertainment for the society wedding of Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie several years ago — you see how well that turned out. They played a New Year’s Eve show at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and nearly brought the house down. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., has hosted the Jug Band. They’ve been on the Grand Ole Opry stage over a dozen times, and in spite of their wild antics they get invited back.
Hot picking, powerful harmony singing, and riotous hijinks — that’s the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Get ready to laugh until your sides hurt. Be sure to bring your dancing shoes, too. For more information on the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, go to www.tennesseemafiajugband.com.
Admission to the concert is $15 for adults, $1 for children 6 to 11, under age 6 free. For more information on the Carter Fold, go to www.carterfamilyfold.org.