On the third Monday of every month, the Ramblin Jug Stompers hold court in the cozy confines of the dining-room-cum-stage of Tess’ Lark Tavern, the old-school saloon in the heart of Albany’s Center Square. There, the Stompers—Wild Bill, Bowtie, Cousin Clyde, and Mr. Eck—dispense timeless old-timey songs with a remarkably fresh approach.
Who are these mysteriously nicknamed folks?
To anyone familiar with the Capital Region music scene, the Stompers’ stage names don’t do much to hide their prominence. Two of the foursome come from one of the most famous homegrown groups of the past 30 years, the renowned band of aliases, Blotto, whose infectious 1980 tune “I Wanna Be a Lifeguard” was on MTV the very first day the station aired, and went on to became a cult classic. Follow-up hit “Metal Head” scored on MTV too, and the band toured with Blue Oyster Cult. To Blotto faithful, the Stompers’ Wild Bill will always be lead singer Sarge Blotto, and Bowtie, guitarist and vocalist Bowtie Blotto.
Today, far from rock-star fame, all of the Stompers hold down day jobs. Wild Bill, when he isn’t wielding vocals, washboard, and harmonica, is Greg Haymes, longtime pop music writer for the Albany Times Union, and conceptual and installation artist G.C. Haymes. As Bowtie, Paul Jossman is the band’s banjo player, vocalist, and resident wise guy; by profession, he’s a computer programmer for MapInfo. Mr. Eck, holder of the jug (along with mandolin and dobro duties), is Michael Eck, a Times Union music and theater critic, and weekday host of “Performance Place” on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio. Eck, who started his musical life in the punk band The Plague, is a singer/songwriter with three solo albums. Finally, there’s guitar and kazoo aficionado Cousin Clyde—Steven Clyde, a computer programmer with his own long musical resume. He’s toured with Commander Cody, Richie Havens, and Eddie Angel, formed the Albany band Rumdummies, and plays bass at reunion gigs for—you guessed it—Blotto.
Haymes, Jossman, and Clyde go back more than 35 years, when they were founding members of the Star Spangled Washboard Band, an early precursor of today’s Jug Stompers. The Washboard Band, which Haymes describes as a “hippie electric comedy bluegrass jug band,” was itself an outgrowth of the 1960s jug-band revival led by Dave Van Ronk and Jim Kweskin. In the 1920s and ’30s, jug bands were rural combos that employed homemade instruments such as (besides the jug, of course) the washboard, washtub bass and gourd guitar. The Ramblin Jug Stompers (the first word of their name has no apostrophe) blend both original and revival styles into a strong cup of joe. Their website, www.jugstompers.com, describes the sound as “78 rpm music for the 21st century.”
The group performs as a true ensemble, with no designated frontman, though Bowtie does tend to introduce most of the songs. Each has his own persona: Eck is the multi-instrumentalist, Bowtie the clever quipster, Clyde the quiet one, Bill the ironic sage. All are willing and able onstage foils, depending on who’s doing the talking. Though less than two years old, the Stompers have quickly created a buzz musically. They’ve been in residency at the Lark Tavern since January 2006, and play often in the region and out. In addition to numerous small festivals, town libraries, and colleges, they’ve played Troy Music Hall, WAMC’s Linda Norris Auditorium, Tulipfest, Larkfest, and Club Helsinki, and often gig more than once in a week. Their live CD, Crooked Songs, was recorded last year at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs.
It was a brisk Monday night at the Lark Tavern when we sat on metal chairs on the sidewalk patio, watching a cop car’s flashing red lights pull someone over directly in front of us. Often the conversation strayed far from the questions, perhaps explaining why they’re called “ramblin.” The spirited exchange was punctuated by frequent interruptions, asides, and diversions, which began even before the first question was asked:
Bowtie: So the name of the band is Bowtie and the Jug Stompers.
David Malachowski (ignoring him): How did you guys get together, and why?
Wild Bill: It was Mr. Eck’s fault, actually.
Wild Bill (looking at Mr. Eck with disappointment): When I throw you the set up, you take it! It’s the folksingers’ code!
Mr. Eck: I was hired to produce a Dave Van Ronk tribute [in 2005]. I wanted to pay tribute to the Ragtime Jug Stompers album, which Van Ronk put out in ’63—it was the most punk-rock record you could imagine in jug band music. I thought “who better for a jug band than these guys,” so I called up Wild Bill and said, “Do you think Bowtie would be down with this?” and once they were on board, I said, “What about Cousin Clyde?” That [Van Ronk] show got canceled, [but] we had already booked an art carnival. We had so much fun at that gig that we proceeded.