Steel City Jug Slammers to play "Live at the Plaza" and Green Bar on FridayBy Laura Testino | 07/17/2015 5:33pm
(From left) Jacob Mathews, Steven Bate, Jerrod Atkins, Corey Medders and Nick Bate along with Zac Peoples (not pictured) form the Steel City Jug Slammers and will be performing at two Tuscaloosa venues this weekend. CW | Danielle Parker
Laura Testino | Culture Editor
Although their old and gold Chevy van — mustache-clad and also nick-named Ron Burgundy — can’t quite make a trek to the moon, Mars or Pluto, the Steel City Jug Slammers wouldn’t turn down those venue locations for a concert. The band, created in late 2012, plays some foreign tunes, but different from today’s by about 93 years rather than the astronomical unit of 93 million miles.
The Birmingham-based band of six claims to have “larger-than-life” ideas, nothing short of performing tours on steamboats or freight trains, or heading out of town with a giant tour bus wallpapered with their faces. And maybe win a Grammy.
“Japan, though, that’s kind of the dream,” said Jerrod Atkins, also known in the band as “The Zookeeper.” “There’s this jug band that was around maybe 5 or 6 years ago. The best jug band you can find.”
Atkins was referring to the Old Southern Jug Blowers, the first international jug band to attend the National Jug Band Jubilee in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2009. The Jug Slammers cite their own experience at the jubilee a few years later as a favorite performance.
And although the Jug Slammers won’t be traveling internationally this weekend, they will be making their first official appearance in Tuscaloosa for the city’s “Live at the Plaza” series, which has been continued to July. They will then play at Green Bar Friday evening. The Jug Slammers hope to see audience members of all ages who are ready to enjoy music and maybe dance.
“Kids like our music and old people like our music. And everyone in between,” Jacob “Washtub Jay” Mathews said of the band’s demographic. “It’s just music you can tap your foot to and dance.”
Atkins, Mathews, and their four other band members — Nick “Ramblin’ Ricky Tate” Bate, Corey “The Mechanic” Medders, Steven “Byron Berry Tate” Bate, and Zac Peoples — take inspiration from the jug bands of the 1920s and 1930s, such as the Mississippi Sheiks, Memphis Jug Band, Louisville Jug Band, and Birmingham Jug Band. The band will be playing covers from these bands, as well as their demo album “Save My Soul” and their most recent self-titled album at their shows on Friday.
“When they [jug bands] came in, you may have heard Louisville Jug Band, and some of the bands may have had a particular style, but there came a phase where everyone was hiring a jug player to be in their band, and calling it a jug band,” Nick Bate said. “So you had swing bands, jazz bands, blues bands, country bands, all those genres.”
The Jug Slammers’ sound — as well as the melodies of other jug bands — were coined almost 20 years before their oft-confused cousin genre, bluegrass, lionized the quick-plucking sounds of the banjo; slower tempos are used by jug bands.
During the time of jug bands, recreated by the Jug Slammers in both sound and appearance — no matter the temperature, the band can be found in dress pants and shirts, sometimes vests, suspenders and hats, also reminiscent of the early 20th century era — the music “was all just ‘blue,’” Medders said. The “grass” wasn’t added until the 1940s and 1950s, when artists such as Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs created the style.
Medders is dedicated to playing jug music and keeping it distinct. While keeping Ron up and running (the air-condition-less vehicle was purchased in New York for a total of $780 and a Steel City Jug Slammers CD) and attending to its plethora of “mechanical gremlins,” Medders has had to subsequently attend to his own plethora of injuries.
“I’ve bled a lot for that van. I’ve got a boot mark, a fist mark and a head mark,” Medders said. Steven Bate reminded him of another experience. “Yeah, I actually broke my hand on it. I can’t close my pinky all the way… I wasn’t supposed [to play music], but I cut the cast in half so I could,” Medders said. “And the doctor got really angry at me. They were just starting to heal… Now I’ve just been working my fingers out.”
Last February, the band made a trip to Minnesota to attend the Minneapolis Battle of the Jug Bands. The 2015 national title and waffle iron was awarded to the Jug Slammers, and just upon returning to Alabama, the band got ready to take a plane back to the Midwest to appear on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” a live radio variety show. Atkins was contacted about the opportunity, and while it wasn’t an immediate goal of the Jug Slammers to appear on the show, they have since been grateful and appreciative to have received the opportunity, they said.
“My girlfriend has been into NPR for as long as I’ve known her. She listens to it all the time. Any time the radio’s on, that’s what she listens to,” Atkins said. “So, I’d never heard of it [‘Prairie Home Companion’], but one day she was like — we were having a little bit of an argument — and she says, ‘If you ever get on this show, then I’ll know that you actually mean business.’ And then she ate her own words.”
The plane trip was a first for the band, and a first for some of its members as well.
“Yeah, Jerrod [Atkins] said that we were flying out the next Friday, and I was freaking out,” Medders said. “I had never flown before, and I’m a mechanic, and see cars break down all day every day, and I was like, well, what if we’re up there and something happens.”
The band just made it to Minnesota and back, and recommend locating the airport security camera footage for a good laugh.
“At one point I had my luggage bag, I had the merger box, I had the washtub, I had all kinds of stuff, and we had 15 bags, and I was having to push the washtub with the baggage in it with my stick, and I was sweating in the line trying to get through baggage claim,” Mathews said.
Currently, the Jug Slammers are hoping to solidify a trusting agent, so that all of the band members can work full time for the band, they said. They play both venues and street performances (split about 70-30), and have 23 shows lined up for the upcoming three months: the most they’ve had lined up in 90 days thus far. They’ve yet to miss a performance from a van malfunction (they have been late to a recording session), but the ritual is to break down before leaving Alabama if they’re on tour. So, a new van to replace Ron is also a goal.
“We’re gonna start a Kickstarter to get a new van,” Steven Bate said. “And hopefully we’ll make a video for the Kickstarter, but we’re all debating actually blowing that van up.”
The donor with the largest contribution will have the opportunity to keep the van, or as Steven Bate said, detonate it. The only stipulations for the Ron-replacer are air conditioning and enough room to sleep and store belongings and instruments. The band is still debating whether or not they’ll need accommodations for a Play Station console.
The Steel City Jug Slammers can be found online at steelcityjugslammers.com. They’ll be at the Government Plaza for “Live at the Plaza” starting at 6p.m. on Friday and will play until 8p.m. Patrons are invited to bring their own food and alcohol, per the rules delineated by the city for this event. Green Bar will host the Jug Slammers after the band finishes their outdoor performance.