Not even a broken wing can stop the Lazybirds

What they want to do most: Hard work and loyal fans and great music hasn’t translated into big bucks for the Lazybirds, but the band remains a tirelessly touring and influential Americana outfit. Jen Fox

“After playing together for 15 years, we’re basically brothers,” says Lazybirds bass player Mitch Johnston. And when you hear those brothers harmonize, the emotional connection between them is audible. It takes a band with this much heart to bring life to the music of America’s past.

Since the beginning, the Lazybirds have garnered critical acclaim. Roots music luminary Doc Watson said of the band, “If you want some good music, have these boys come out and play for you. I guarantee you will enjoy what they do.” With a vintage sound, the Lazybirds have helped revive the popularity of ‘20s and ‘30s styles of music now played by Asheville groups such as Woody Pines and Blind Boy Chocolate & the Milk Sheiks.

Even with these accolades, Johnston admits, “We still strive for bigger and better things in our music career.”

It’s the story of many talented groups. Hard work plus loyal fans plus great music sounds like an equation for financial success, but it doesn’t always work that way. The result for many? The music fades as “day jobs” and kids and life grow in their demands. But that’s not the Lazybirds’ story. Fifteen years and counting, now juggling jobs and families, the musicians are just as committed as when they started.

How does a band weather the challenges and disappointments of the music business, and still maintain its dream? A passion for the music, faithful fans and the bond they have with each other have built the Lazybirds’ success.

Johnston, Jay Brown (guitar, harmonica) and James Browne (drums) founded the band with tenor guitar/tenor banjo/mandolin player Andy Christopher in Boone. The group bonded over a love of the earliest recorded American music, perfecting versions of country blues, ragtime and swing classics. The quartet quickly started making a buzz in the blossoming Boone music scene, which included such bands as The Blue Rags and Snake Oil Medicine Show.

The Lazybirds also influenced another (then unknown) Boone band — the rising stars Old Crow Medicine Show. “From our earliest days bumming around Boone, the Old Crow boys knew it was the Lazybirds who were the best musicians on the scene,” says Old Crow Medicine Show fiddler Ketch Secor. “It was the Lazybirds who welcomed us in and got us our first gigs in the High Country and who taught us dozens of songs, and how to play them with finesse. Because if Old Crow was down home, Lazybirds were uptown.”

In 2009, tragedy stuck. Christopher became ill with a mysterious heart condition. “When Andy got sick, we were devastated. I didn’t see how I could continue playing with the band. I told Jay and Jamie I’d play the shows that were on the books, but that was it,” said Johnston. “But the next time we played together, even without Andy, I knew I couldn’t stop. Though we still miss Andy every time we play.” The Lazybirds eventually added virtuoso fiddler Alfred Michels to the lineup, and continue to tour.

The latest release, Broken Wing, is dedicated to Christopher, who continues to struggle with his illness. The title track is an original penned by Brown. The song’s heart-wrenching lyrics speak of the hardship of playing without Christopher. “There ain’t no way to play some of these songs, if you ain’t here to sing, but I guess we’ll keep tryin’, at the least we’ll be flyin’, like a bird with a broken wing.”

The Lazybirds are still flying, despite the setbacks they have encountered along the road. They’ve already started work on their next record. Appearances at Merle Fest, LEAF, Bristol Rhythm & Roots and Music on the Mountaintop evidence the respect they have garnered in the Americana scene.

When it comes down to it, Johnston says, “Playing music together is what we all want to do most.”

— Ami Whoa can be contacted at amiwhoa@gmail.com.

who: The Lazybirds
where: Mo Daddy’s, 77 Biltmore Ave.
when: Friday, Sept. 23 (9 p.m. $5. http://modaddysbar.com)

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