Jim Stringer & The Austin Music Band – It don’t mean a thang if it ain’t got that swang
Though a seemingly endless line of talented Texans have helped Austin remain a roots-music mecca for decades, the city’s pool of talent has grown considerably deeper through the relocation of artists from other regions of the country.
A good case in point is Jim Stringer, who moved to Austin in 1994 from Lawrence, Kansas, and quickly made an impact with his rockabilly trio, Git Gone. Fronted by bassist/vocalist Sharon Ward, the group had started to acquire a following from its weekly gigs at the Carousel Lounge, a decidedly untrendy neighborhood bar, when Ward’s day job began to take her out of town on a more frequent basis, preventing them from expanding on their growing reputation.
Stringer, though, was eager to explore other musical avenues. His first such project was Travis County Pickin’, an album of country-jazz instrumentals released on HighTone in 1997 and featuring collaborations with members of the Derailers, High Noon, the LeRoi Brothers and other Austin acts, as well as noted steel player Lloyd Maines and the late drummer Donald Lindley.
Later in ’97, Stringer formed another trio with drummer Lee Potter and bassist Dave Wesselowski that veered more in the direction of country and swing. Shortly thereafter, T Jarrod Bonta, a piano player with startling chops, sat in with them on his 18th birthday and opened up the band’s sound tremendously.
“Austin logic generally has it that there are a lot of guitar players here, but it’s not the case,” says Stringer. “I mean, there are a lot of singer-songwriters who can play their own songs, but there are not a lot of real players. And the Austin Music Band is composed of real players.”
In addition to the aforementioned members, the group includes guitarist Boomer Norman, bassist Carl Keesee (who took over for Wesselowski), and singer Alan Barnet, who trades off lead vocal duties with Stringer. Between them, the members of the AM Band have collectively played with over 60 Austin acts.
“It makes me feel guilty once in awhile,” Stringer says. “Wayne [Hancock] called me today and wanted me to go out on a three-week tour with him. I can’t do it because I have things I have to attend to at home. My calendar is full for the next two months.”
Bonta takes a sip of his iced tea and adds with a grin, “I’ve had four days off this month and I’m scheduled for just two next month.”
When they’re not supporting other musicians, they can be found playing their brand of twang and swing that comes out as Swang, the title of their self-released debut disc. “The mission statement for the band is, ‘anything I like’,” Stringer explains. “But there is a criteria here, and I feel like we stay within it most of the time. We tried to take everything and put it through our filter and see what comes out. As long as it’s in a certain range.”
Bonta interrupts: “He’s a dictator.”
Stringer doesn’t miss a beat: “This is a dictatorship. One of the reasons T and I get along so well is because we have a common outlook. When it’s my band, we play it my way; the rest of the band understands that. They’ve been in the position of bandleader and sideman. Each is different and they understand how it works….With anyone that I play with, if I don’t feel like someone’s in control, I’m running for the door.”
Regardless of how it’s run, the Austin Music Band puts on a fabulous show and has recorded a remarkably diverse set of music on Swang. Stringer’s originals range from the cowboy-jazz instrumental “Onward, Charlie Christian’s Soldiers” to the swamp-rocking “Bye-Bye, Bayou”, while the band covers material from the likes of Louis Jordan, Wynn Stewart, Chuck Berry, Hank Snow, Bobby Bland, Mel Tillis and Artie Shaw.
The group has taken up residence at the Carousel Lounge every Thursday night, while taking occasional weekend trips out of town. “I can’t ask top-flight musicians to come out and play for nothing,” Stringer says. “I’ve made more money doing various kinds of music for commercials than I did in clubs. It’s rare that I can get together a band and promise them $100 a night; $50 a night is good. The amount of work and the quality of work is good, but the economics of the whole thing aren’t.”