The Jug Is Up
"I think one of the scariest audiences is four-year-old kids," says Chuck Cuthill, jug player for the 32-20 Jug Band.
He should know. Last fall, Cuthill, guitarist/ kazoo player Dan Kase, washtub bassist Aaron Thomas and multi-instrumentalist John Hickham appeared at the Montessori Institute Children's House in Denver before a throng of preschoolers whose energy level proved almost too much for these twentysomethings.
"We started off with fast songs, and the kids just freaked," Cuthill recalls. His first instinct was to slow the tempo and stick to waltzes for fear that the young'uns would go insane. But instead, the four kept up a frenetic pace, and before long, Cuthill says, the children "rushed the stage--and they were climbing all over Aaron's tub."
"I didn't bring tape for my fingers that day," Thomas interjects. "I need to bring tape for my fingers or else I'll get huge blood blisters--and so they were just exploding everywhere. I was spurting blood, and the kids wanted to see my fingers. They just couldn't get enough of it."
"They thought it was really cool," Cuthill agrees, laughing.
Listeners who've outgrown Teletubbies are apt to enjoy 32-20's numbers as well. Because the jug style shares a kinship with everything from country and folk to blues, it has a wide-ranging appeal. "That's one of the things we pride ourselves in," Hickham says. "It's such good-time music that we've been able to go into totally different places. We can go up to Lyons and play for the old folkie crowd--people who listened to Dave Von Ronk and guys like that--and they like what we're doing. And we've gone into the 15th Street Tavern and just started belting out gospel songs at the top of our lungs to a cynical Generation X crowd." According to him, "Our favorite thing is to sing old religious songs like Leadbelly's 'Mumbling Words' in front of punk-rockers."
Hickham--who, like Thomas, is a graduate of Clear Creek High School in Idaho Springs--isn't trying to put down such audiences. "We grew up listening to stuff like punk-rock music," he says. "You can put on an old, scratchy blues record that would have sounded way too abrasive in the Sixties, but for us, it's not that abrasive. We can see the intensity underneath it."
That's certainly true of Kase, a previous Westword profile subject ("Just in Kase," April 24, 1997) with an encyclopedic knowledge of early-century blues. A native of Hillsdale, Michigan, who's made a name for himself as a solo act since moving to Denver, Kase wound up in the Jug Band after Hickham and Thomas saw him singing Woody Guthrie songs on the street. Thomas later asked Kase if he'd like to check out some paintings at the nearby Denver Art Museum--an invitation that made Kase a bit nervous. "I was sort of new to town, and I wasn't sure what was going on," he says. "I was like, 'Uh, I'll pass on the naked penises.'"
"And three weeks later, he's naked on my couch," Thomas notes.
True enough, Kase moved in with Thomas and Hickham and became an active participant in house jam sessions. Kase and Hickham subsequently began playing as a duo at a local restaurant, and the positive response they received convinced Thomas and Cuthill, who also plays guitar with Marty Jones and the Pork Boilin' Po' Boys (fronted by Westword contributor Marty Jones), to join the fold.
Today, a year after the lineup solidified, the band has a repertoire that consists of originals, standards from the Twenties and Thirties by the likes of the Memphis Jug Band, the Dixieland Jug Blowers and Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers, and tunes by acts such as the Carter Family that have been adapted to the jug format. Kase and Hickham are into acoustic blues acts such as Blind Boy Fuller, Cuthill is a folk fanatic, and Thomas loves the music that evolved into country and Western; as a result, the band's song list is eclectic. Their method of performing it, however, is as simple as can be. Like their jug-music forebears, they go without "fancy trumpets and clarinets" (Cuthill's words) in favor of jugs, washtubs and other items that were typical kitchen equipment in communities like Memphis during the Twenties, when folk, blues and country sounds were being embraced by a wide variety of people.
"Memphis was the first place where there was a kind of blending of black and white music--where you had that sort of mix between the races," Kase says. "And that's where rock and roll came from."
"It's a cross between almost-urban black music and very primitive white music," Hickham notes. "It's not urban black, but it's not folk black. It's just Memphis."
Lessons like this one crop up frequently during conversations with members of the Jug Band. Kase, in particular, feels that too much current music fails to acknowledge the sounds that came before it. "I think it's really a matter of knowing your history. Old school for a lot of people is, like, 1984. But there's shit that goes back to 1894."
The decision of Kase and company to resurrect this part of America's musical heritage is not driven by money. The men of the 32-20 Jug Band have no interest in making jug the swing of the new millennium; instead, they're delving into the music because there's something in it that touches them.
"I personally feel that we have a lot of integrity in this band," Kase says. "I just think it's honest. It's just four guys who honestly love to play this music. There's no speeding up for the sake of taking a slow punk-rock song and making it 50,000 times faster or taking a Black Sabbath song and making it slow. It's a traditional jug band that's doing folk, country and blues music from that time period and doing it honestly. No matter what time period you're in and no matter what color you are, if you do it honestly, it comes off good."
"Most music these days is about providing a consumer product to fit into a certain group," Hickham argues. "You can buy this and you're alternative; you can buy this and you're country or you're techno. But I think what we're doing right now is obscure enough that people from all those places can get into it." He adds, "That's why this music shines through. There is a certain amount of beauty in the way it's so understated. It's a little bit more raw and honest than something flashy, like an electric guitar thing. There seems to be less ego; it's less about how fast you can play the scales."
The lyrical content of the Jug Band's tunes are just as down-to-earth: Thomas says they mostly concern "alcohol, the mistreatment of women, and Jesus" and boast "plenty of gore." This proved to be something of a problem at the Montessori Institute performance, where ditties had to be edited on the spot because of the audience's age. For example, Hickham says that "take morphine and die," a line from the folk standard "Goodnight, Irene," was delivered as "look up in the blue, blue sky."
Things are indeed looking up for the group and for acoustic musicians in general. Cuthill says that part of the reason for this upturn is what he calls "a reaction to technology and computers. Even David Bowie, of all people, said the more you go into this Internet and computer age, the more you long to touch the wood."
To put it another way, Cuthill believes that people as a whole are hungry to find something genuine in a prefabricated world. And thanks to the 32-20 Jug Band, they can--no matter how old they are.
The 32-20 Jug Band, 7 p.m. Friday, March 19, ILK, 554 Santa Fe Drive, free, 303-615-5725; the Pork Boilin' Po' Boys, with the 32-20 Jug Band, 10 p.m. Saturday, March 27, Lion's Lair, 2022 East Colfax Avenue, $3, 303-320-9200.
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