Frog Holler – In the heart of Dutch country
State law in Pennsylvania requires beer tap lines to be cleaned every week, which is no doubt why a freshly poured Yuengling tastes so good. Four days a week, Darren Schlappich gets up at 5 a.m. to clean the beer lines at bars around Shoemakersville, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, where he has lived his whole life. He got the job through his father, who has a similar route sharpening knives at local restaurants.
Bars are not the most enticing places to be in the cold light of day, their floors and walls reeking of stale beer, smoke and sweat from countless nights before, but Schlappich wanted to spend even more time on his route. He asked the tavern owners if his bluegrass trio could play at their bars. People began to come out in droves to hear the band, and before long Schlappich, 33, had built a live music scene in an area that had once been “lucky” to get David Lee Roth.
His band, Frog Holler, isn’t really a bluegrass band anymore, having evolved into a sextet that’s as likely to delve into Crazy Horse stomp as they are into spells of frenzied picking where banjo duels with fiddle. Their albums, Couldn’t Get Along (1998) and Adams Hotel Road (1999), contain finely wrought rockers nestled between laid-back, front-porch songs, including some of the first Schlappich ever wrote. “I’ve always had a guitar around and been an obsessive record collector, but I didn’t start writing songs until about four years ago,” he says. “I’d gotten into bluegrass, and when I picked up my guitar, songs just started to come out.”
The rest of Frog Holler — John Kilgore (electric and acoustic guitar, vocals, some songwriting), Josh Sceurman (bass), Ted Fenstermacher (fiddle), Toby Martin (drums) and Mike Lavdanski (banjo, vocals) — provide the picking that extends their dynamic live shows for up to four hours. The younger audience members clamor for lengthy jams, and the older folks, who initially came to hear bluegrass, love the band for the high caliber of their musicianship, but also for the slang-German Pennsylvania Dutch references Schlappich invokes. “It’s the heritage of half the band,” he says. “We’re going to put the Pennsylvania Dutch on the musical map.”
It’s Schlappich’s songwriting, though, that ultimately gives Frog Holler its charm. He sketches vivid pictures of the beauty and ugliness of rural life, from apologizing to the wife of a possum he ran over to reveling in the joys (and sorrows) of moonshine. His insightful narratives and sleepy-eyed delivery, along with Kilgore and Lavdansky’s mix of guitar crunch and banjo, have earned the band comparisons to Son Volt and Marah, but Schlappich shrugs off such accolades. “I just write about what’s going on,” he says modestly.