In September of this year, San Diego’s very own folk group G Burns Jug Band was invited to Louisville, Kentucky to perform at the National Jug Band Jubilee (yes, it’s a real thing). The Festival was founded in 2005 to celebrate the southern tradition of jug blowing, which dates back at least a century to when black musicians transformed ceramic whiskey jugs into musical instrument. The trip was something of a musical homecoming for the band: Louisville was home to the first jug bands to make commercial recordings, and their work inspired scores of jug bands across the South whose music we now play in San Diego. It was also a personal homecoming for their bandleader: me. I am a fifth generation Kentuckian born and raised in a small town far enough outside of Louisville to be distinctly rural, yet close enough that the city played a formative role in my early musical life.
I moved to San Diego in 2009 and formed G Burns in 2012 partly out of my affinity for old American music, partly out of nostalgia for music I heard in my childhood, and partly as an effort to feel more at home in San Diego. It was difficult adjusting to a city five times as populous as Kentucky’s largest city and 325 times larger than my hometown. To be invited back home was a great honor, and we seized the opportunity to travel through many southern states that birthed the music we play. The experience was so moving that I felt compelled to compose a travelogue that first appeared in our band newsletter, which I’ve now revised for the San Diego Troubadour readership.
JOURNEY TO THE MOTHERLAND
We returned from our journey through the South, and it was revelatory. On a personal level, and in terms of the band’s career, the trip felt transformative, refreshing, and emboldening. It’s not something I could measure or describe so much in terms of fees commanded or CDs sold. It was something I sensed in the the people around us, in addition to the experience of moving through the landscapes that created the music we play: swamps, piney forests, rolling hills, the endless panoramas of lush green, but also those storied man-made places, the legendary rows of dive bar venues, the meandering country roads tracing the contours of creeks to the top of a ridge, the bridges and barges whose routes have moved people and music around the country for generations. Everywhere we went, there was some vivid quality of connectedness. The music we play was connected to those landscapes and those places, it was connected to the weather, it was connected to the food, it was connected to the language and the accents. The music connected families, it connected friends. That’s what the transformation was about: connection.
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
Meghann Welsh, our tenor banjoist, vocalist, and I began our journey by flying to New Orleans, one of the greatest music cities in the country. Our final descent was briefly delayed, and, as the plane circled coast, I simply could not take my eyes off of the maze of bayou waterways. After years of living in the exceedingly dry San Diego, the abundance of water in Louisiana seemed nothing short of miraculous.
New Orleans is, of course, one of the great cities of American music and American music history. In the early 20th century, it was a crucible of African-American musical innovation and, equally important, it was a river town. At the end of the Mississippi River, New Orleans music and musicians had access to relatively rapid travel throughout the country. Most of the historic jug bands that recorded were formed near the shores of the Mississippi River or the Ohio River, which feeds into it: the Memphis Jug Band, Clifford’s Louisville Jug Band, the Cincinnati Jug Band. The influence of New Orleans jazz and ragtime music in many of them, particularly the Louisville bands, and the role of those rivers is undeniable.
The spirit of those old bands is very much alive today. Of course, it is incentivized by the tourism industry, but it is also lovingly cared for by a dedicated cadre of musicians who take great pride in their city’s heritage. Meghann and I solicited advice about venues and bands from our well-traveled friends, who steered us in the right direction. The city is so densely packed with quality music that, over and over again, we found ourselves stumbling upon their highly-recommended spots without even trying. Several times we wandered past the Spotted Cat on Frenchman Street, where small jazz ensembles dazzled a packed house at all hours of the day. In the evening we headed into the Marigny neighborhood on a tip from a San Diego expat. Outside of the jazz-tourism complex of of the French Quarter, we found a wonderful country band blending the twin Telecaster sounds of 1970s’ Bakersfield with insane rockabilly bass. The whole day through, every band we saw was saturated with talent and calling back through decades, sometimes even centuries, of history.
After all the etouffee and sazeracs, we drove to Birmingham, Alabama and picked up our bandmates Jonathan Piper (jug), Batya MacAdam-Somer (fiddle), and Tim McNalley (guitar) for our first gig—a house concert at the home of the Stout family. Regular attendees of our monthly San Diego shows at the Black Cat Bar might remember Rebecca Stout, the amazing flatfoot dancer who performed at our April 2016 show. Rebecca calls Los Angeles home now but she grew up in Birmingham and has devoted her life to studying and sharing the folk culture of the South and supporting others who do the same. When we asked her for advice about places to play in Birmingham, she quickly enlisted the help of her siblings there to set up a house concert.
Rebecca was even able to join us in Birmingham for the show, which then became something of a minor Stout family reunion, and danced with us once more. After her family put us up for the evening, we were treated to a favorite Stout family breakfast of grits (no sugar, thank you!), eggs, and bacon, complete with chicory coffee from New Orleans. In case you ever doubted: southern hospitality is real, y’all! We slept in the basement and left in the morning for Tennessee.
Our Tennessee show took place at Kimbro’s Legendary Pickin’ Parlor in the town of Franklin, just far enough outside Nashville to avoid the calamity of Music Row while still drawing on its immense reserve of talent. There’s a sign out front, sadly dated now, that says “Haggard Plays Here.” Inside, the walls were papered with old Kimbro’s showbills from modern troubadours like Pokey LaFarge who still come to play in a place that feels refreshingly casual—neither a dive bar nor a craft gastropub.
The show was lightly attended, as shows sometimes are, yet it brought out just the right people. We were delighted to be reunited with San Diegan friends who had moved to Nashville last year and make new friends in the group Route 40, a progressive bluegrass trio that was as indebted to Yes or King Crimson as it was Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. We even managed to sneak ourselves into an article of The Tennessean newspaper. Our stay was all too short, and the next morning we left for my home, the Bluegrass State.
Part two of “A Jug Band Pilgrimage” will appear in next month’s issue.
Clinton Davis, Ph.D., is a freelance musician and educator based in San Diego. He performs music from a variety of American traditions on guitar, banjo, piano, mandolin, fiddle, and harmonica—most visibly with the award-winning G Burns Jug Band. For information about his music or lessons, visit http://clintonrossdavis.com