It’s not always easy for independent touring musicians to find an affordable place to stay. When a friend’s couch or a fan’s guest room isn’t an option, it’s either the van or a cheap motel. So, when Daniel J. Daniel of the Deep Fried Pickle Project found affordable accommodations at Restful Haven while touring in Oregon, the wooded resort sounded like an ideal spot. Then they got out of the van.
“We needed a place to stay and the little old lady sounded nice on the phone, so we booked the hotel,” Daniel says. “We didn’t know until we got there that it was a nudist colony.”
Like any good musician, Daniel and musical partners Alan Selvidge and Charlie King, turned the experience into a song. “Restful Haven” is one of a handful of new originals that the Deep Fried Pickle Project has been recording for its as-yet-untitled album due out this summer.
“This winter we’ve been going back to our jug band roots and working on some old-timey songs,” Selvidge says. “We resurrected a couple from the 1920s. We do a version of ‘Sadie Green, the Vamp of New Orleans.’ There’s a song we’ve been obsessed with for about 10 years, but we can’t really tell you the title; but it’s definitely a bar tune.”
“It’s about the world’s oldest profession,” Daniel adds.
Selvidge and Daniel, who are both teachers in the Coloma, MI, Community School District, founded the Deep Fried Pickle Project in 2000. Daniel, who grew up playing the trumpet and singing in local choirs, was a member of the Old Mother Hubbard Jug Band when he met Selvidge at a school event.
Daniel invited Selvidge, who has a penchant for novelty tunes from the 1920s and ’30s, to see his band open for Fred Eaglesmith. Selvidge, a longtime Eaglesmith fan, already had tickets. He joined Daniel’s band the next day, and when Old Mother Hubbard’s jug player left for Japan, the Deep Fried Pickle Project was formed.
Using quirky, largely homemade instruments for a sound that pays homage to Appalachia, honky-tonk and hokum traditions, the band gained some national acclaim in 2003 when “Picklejuice,” a single off Attack Of The Pickles, their second album, was named a finalist for the John Lennon Songwriting Contest.
It’s a sound that not only has paired the band with acts such as Nickel Creek, Wilco and Umphrey’s McGee, but has made the Deep Fried Pickle Project a favorite among the preschool set. They were featured in the PBS Kids series “Postcards From Buster,” and have released the children’s albums Ditties For Kiddies (2007), a benefit for Little Kids Rock Foundation, which funds free instruments and instruction for children, and Green & Bumpy (2012). The band’s other recordings include their 2002 debut, 3 for $1.25, Live From The Trailer Trash Tour (2004), Whitewood Creek (2005), and the Hurricane Katrina benefit album, M.A.D.E.: Musicians Assisting Disaster Efforts.
Much of the band’s appeal comes from its reliance on homemade instruments, which have ranged from the “Gut Bucket,” a washtub bass made from a broom handle and single string connected to a red plastic basin, to the “Swanbone,” a hollowed-out plastic lawn ornament with a brass mouthpiece stuck in its bill. There’s also been a guitar made out of a traveling salesman’s case, a banjo out of a tin can and a cigar-box ukulele.
“We’ve gone the all-homemade route over the past couple of years,” Selvidge says. “We never really know what sound they’re going to give us. Even after it’s together for a couple days it has to mature and settle in.”
Selvidge points to his latest creation for King, a former member of Asylum Street Spankers, who joined the band two years ago.
“It’s a guitar made out of an old Schlitz beer tray,” Selvidge says. “We call it the ‘Schlitar.’ It needed to have some adjustments made. The ‘Schlitar’ is in pieces right now as we speak.”
While the names of their instruments and some of their tunes may be filled with irreverence, it hasn’t kept the tragedies of real life from working its way into the band’s act. On Feb. 8, 2014, Daniel’s wife, Lisa Marie Daniel, died of cancer. He’s spent the past year using music to work through his grief.
“Music has been a savior,” he says. “Music was something that kept me going. Even when she was sick, she would say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get out there.’ She kept encouraging me to play, and we kept functioning as a band. It was important to her, too.”
Two new songs about his wife are expected to find a spot on the group’s next album. “Thaw” details some of the objects Daniel discovered that his wife left behind outside when the snow melted. Another tune, with the working title, “Slow Motion-itus,” is about being in a funk after everything changes.
“It’s about surviving and remembering a person you loved and trying to keep everything together,” Daniel says. “I think you come through these things looking at the world a little bit different. Those are more serious in subject matter, but I think we still approach them with a bit of whimsy and humor, because that’s also the way that she was.”
The band, a frequent participant in the John Hartford Festival in Bean Blossom, Ind., is also working on compiling a Hartford tribute album, and are part of filmmaker Jack Norton’s “Jug Band Hokum” documentary.
As Selvidge works on reassembling the “Schlitar,” Daniel says he still marvels at the sounds these homemade instruments can make.
“It just keeps getting better and better,” Daniel says. “I had an old 1930s Belize and an old Queen Anne table leg and he made a two-string bass out of it. It’s just amazing the instruments he puts together and how great they sound. Every year we go to the Chicago Battle Of the Jug Bands, and everyone tries to one-up Alan now. It’s so fun.”
When asked about the appeal of these homemade instruments, Selvidge says it’s as much about spreading the joy of music to fans both old and young, as it is about the music itself.
“I could play a $7,000 guitar on stage and there may be a few people in the audience who say wow, that’s a beautiful instrument,” he says. “But I pull out the cigar box or tin can instrument and I’ll get a line of 10 people who want to touch it and talk about it because you’re never going to see anything like it.”