Blind Corn Liquor Pickers – The other kind of jug band
Though the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers — four Kentucky natives who play mandolin, guitar, banjo and upright bass — fleetingly give the appearance of a traditional bluegrass band, the illusion is shattered as soon as they launch into the Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime”. If the name didn’t do the trick.
The rough-hewn quartet’s loose, unorthodox playing style, verbose, offbeat narratives, and occasional rockabilly-esque detours attest to the fact that its members were not attuned to bluegrass — not even its progressive strain — during their formative years. The issue is candidly addressed in the blithe, good-natured jab “Field Cred” (on last year’s debut). A staple of the Liquor Pickers’ live performances and recordings, “Field Cred” admits to decidedly suburban affinities.
“We weren’t four guys that grew up attending bluegrass festivals,” explains banjo player Travis Young. “I don’t think any of us came out of that background, and that’s probably why we can’t pull it off to the degree that the old-timers approve.”
Though the band is a half decade into its existence, it took a couple of years before Young, Tom Fassas (guitar, vocals), mandolin player Joel Serdenis and Legendary Shack Shakers co-founder Todd Anderson (bass, vocals) cemented their current lineup, and yet another before they began writing their own material. Their self-recorded, self-titled debut caught them midway through the process of weaning themselves off an all-covers repertoire (including, inevitably, Roger Miller’s “Chug-A-Lug”), while their new disc Anywhere Else? (produced by Bil VornDick) is comprised entirely of originals. Except for that Talking Heads number.
The Liquor Pickers have mined their home state’s colorful history for lyrical inspiration, yielding such songs as “Little Enis”, the ribald tale of a strategically named real-life Elvis impersonator (“If Elvis was the Pelvis…”) and “River Of Blazing Bourbon”, which imagines quirky, small-town characters coping with a sweeping bourbon flood.
“There was a warehouse distillery fire,” Young explains. “When lightning struck, the whiskey was set on fire and it did roll down the hill. I drove past, and it looked like a big snaking river of bourbon. Of course, it never made it to town or anything, but the world actually lost two percent of its bourbon that day.”
Despite the quartet’s penchant for merriment, as also evidenced by the dispensing of moonshine at shows deemed “jug-worthy,” they don’t mean to be pegged as a novelty act. “We don’t want to be a band that makes all of its statements through comedy,” says Young. “I think we have a lot of things we want to say about life in Kentucky, bluegrass music, and life in America in general. It’s taken a little but more of a serious turn; some of the newer songs are a bit darker.”
At present, the band is still a weekend-only venture, with all four members wedged between the allure of touring beyond the immediate southeast and the reality of mortgages and mouths to feed. “That part of it is not very rock ‘n’ roll,” Young says. Even so, the venues are improving.
“We played some ridiculously grim gigs,” he recalls. “I remember one at a VFW in Irvin, Kentucky, where some guy was screaming at us, because he wanted to hear something on the jukebox, and we were interfering.”
Spirited and irreverent, the Liquor Pickers make more than a passing attempt to live up to their moniker, which itself is another vignette culled from Kentucky lore.
“The way you’d test good ‘shine was to take your batch behind the barn and pass it around amongst yourselves — in our case, the four of us, ” Young says. “Over the course of trying out the ‘shine, one of the four members would get up and leave. If the other three couldn’t figure out who it was that got up and left, then you’d know you had the good stuff.”