Message in a bottle

A variety of unlikely scenes popped into my head the first time I listened to The Juggernaut Jug Band. My first vision landed me in a gorgeously ornate, 1920s-era theater. I was a child, mesmerized by the kooky, rink-a-tink sounds that filled the movie house, forming the backdrop for a dancing man named Chaplin. The second daydream featured a band of Gypsy musicians, coaxing sweet and haunting melodies from an assortment of violins, improvised percussion instruments, and an accordion or two.

Lastly — and in a much more contemporary vein — I saw (or rather, heard) The Barenaked Ladies — a band whose white-boy-rap zaniness is somehow echoed in Juggernaut’s self-released 1996 debut disc Perhaps You Don’t Recognize Us … That’s despite the considerable age gap between the two groups’ members (the Juggernaut Jug Band has been together since the mid-’60s).

In a recent phone interview, I asked band spokesman Gil Fish for the lowdown on the group’s name.

“Juggernaut, with the word “jug” in it, is a neat alliteration. It means ‘a massive, inexorable force that crushes whatever is in its path.’ We felt that pretty much described our music,” he explained with a chuckle.

And with names like Roscoe Goose, Jim Balaya and Tin Pan Alan (the monikers adopted by the other three band members), how could one not be amused by the group? The band’s genesis came at a time when founding members Goose and Fish were teenage musicians exploring the mid-’60s’ exploding folk scene.

“Our first gig was a senior-class vaudeville production, back in high school,” reminisces Fish. It was then that he was first exposed to jug music, an art form that — serendipitously enough — originated in the group’s hometown of Louisville, Ky.

“[Jug-band music] just knocked me out the first time I heard it,” he relates with contagious enthusiasm. “I thought to myself, let’s try some of this” — and he and Goose began to incorporate various jug instrumentations and styles into their music. Early influences included other contemporary musicians rooted in the “old stuff,” such as Jim Kweskin of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. As the young men blossomed creatively, they also stumbled upon opportunities to play with veteran jug performers from the ’30s and ’40s. One such musician/mentor — who served as a liaison between the two eras — was a man named Henry Miles, who invited the two young men to play jug music with him at local fairs.

Jug music gets its name from the stoneware jug that’s used to blow the bass line. This pivotal piece unites a wide and innovative array of instruments — including washboard, fiddle, harmonica, trumpet, kazoo, guitar, washtub bass, mandolin, dobro and banjo — all of which have figured in the Juggernaut Jug Band’s lineup at one time or another. Note the equipment’s portability — an essential aspect, back in the days when a band had to move from street corner to casino to private hotel room (if an intimate evening performance was called for) in double time.

But Juggernaut’s music keeps its hands in the cookie jars of multiple styles. Fish notes that the band’s “roots are in blues, but [our] influences are an entire hodgepodge — including minstrel shows and showboat tunes from traveling riverboats, as well as the popular music of the time, like Tin Pan Alley [tunes].” Dozens of other influences are readily apparent, too. “The musicians drew from what they heard around them,” Fish explains. Consequently, the band’s repertoire can reference anything from Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington to Led Zeppelin, The Doors — and even The Barenaked Ladies.

All four Juggernaut members boast considerable formal musical training; this becomes apparent as the instrumentation and layout of each number unfolds. Much love and attention are also bestowed upon the vocal harmonies: “The development of a good ear is essential,” Fish remarks. “It’s so much a part of our blending. Although we all love the music, it’s the vocals which are our calling card.” The band’s work bespeaks a literal fusion of two worlds — a folky, organic vibe tempered by the delicacy of academically trained musicianship.

Fish radiates a genuine contentment while discussing his band: “After 30 years of playing, I can finally call this my day job. This is all we do.” The group’s one clear mission is to have a good time — and to give one to audience members, too.

“I love bringing back a memory for someone,” the musician declares — which, unfortunately, happens less and less, due to the inevitable aging of original fans. But these days, jug music is tickling new ears, judging by the diverse crowds at the band’s current shows, which regularly number children, young families and adults of all ages.

Friends joke that, every time the group sets up its equipment somewhere, the place looks more like a hardware store than a musical venue. Band members’ suspenders, old-school hats and funny ties complete the lighthearted mood: “Sometimes, I actually feel like a hardware salesman up there,” Fish admits. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it must be a reference to a past life of mine.”

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