The Urbana Music Festival. Have you heard of it? It’s set to go down on Saturday at 9020 Amelung Street in Urbana. The fun begins at 2 p.m. The music? Fast Eddie & The Slowpokes and Bumper Jacksons. We’ll have a Q&A with Mr. Eddie later this week, but for now, we thought we’d post this exchange we recently had with Chris Ousley of Bumper Jacksons. Among the things we discuss? How the D.C.-area band got started, how they mix New Orleans with Appalachia, and, not to be outdone, a very depressing story about traveling to a job in Tennessee in the band’s early days. To learn more about the group, click here. Oh, and in case you were wondering: Yes. This would be the perfect way to get yourself ready for Hurray For The Riff Raff at Flying Dog later that night.
So, take us back to the beginning. How did Bumper Jacksons did get started? How long have you been together? When/where/how did you meet?
The Bumper Jacksons started 4 years ago with Jess and I meeting in a front yard bluegrass jam at a keg-fundraiser for a bicycle co-op in D.C. We fused our love of jazz and old time — which was scorned by the hardcore bluegrassers at that jam — into a powerhouse duo and began our DIY striving for a new American dream. Slowly but surely, we found some like-minded individuals to come with us on the journey so the band (and the van) got bigger.
I see you guys get out and tour quite a bit. Where are some of your favorite venues/places to play around the country and why?
Its probably a tie between music festivals and good-sounding rooms. Some of my favorite are right around here at home: The Birchmere, Watermelon Park Fest, The Creative Alliance, Bethesda Blues & Jazz and the Shepherdstown Opera House. Of course, perhaps my favorite place to play is still in the middle of the night at a fireside next to a pair of old-time fiddlers.
Your website says you are painting America’s story from New Orleans to Appalachia. How do you think you achieve that sound? And of all the sounds you guys incorporate, which one might be your favorite/most influential.
So, Jess and I built the original concept of the band around things we could dance to. If you are into traditional Cajun or Tennessee two-stepping and waltzes (Jess and I’s favorite style), you’d notice that 99 percent of our stuff fits the dance. Jess and I would go out two-stepping to lots of local groups and noticed how easily the styles could be melded together. I think that’s how we found that signature “bumper jacksons groove” that we talk about in the band (“Coffee Mama” a is a good example) which feels somewhere between a bluegrass and swing backbeat. It’s not totally new ground to be broken, however. While we’re doing it our own way, there’s a lot of country influence in the city and city influence in the country. In fact, if you listen to the material that Bill Monroe was sourcing from, he was pulling from the same sources as us: Appalachian fiddlers, Mississippi bluesman and old jazz soloists.
What’s your impression of the local music scene, both here in Frederick and down in D.C. Do you think Frederick is thriving and growing consistently, or is it not really on your radar?
I see some good bands coming out of Frederick (surrounding county included) but I’d like to see more. There are some good weekly and monthly series, plenty of bars with live music, and a few nice higher-end performance spaces. But as is the issue with many smaller cities, finding the spaces for the mid-level national and regional acts with room for about 100 and 200 and good production is hard. At least in my personal experience. I think when the spaces are there, the bands will thrive. I wouldn’t mind seeing a healthy busking culture along market street, either.
Downtown D.C. has the opposite problem — LOTS of music clubs but with super high rent. Most the musicians I know that come from D.C. live in the suburbs surrounding it since they can’t afford to live downtown anymore. I think this inhibits free collaboration between musicians and a truly thriving scene. If you look at places like New Orleans, it’s my opinion that the No. 1 reason the city has a thriving music scene is that musicians can live in the neighborhoods they perform in. Luckily, the D.C .Arts Commission does a lot to alleviate pressures for D.C. resident artists, but I think tapping at the source of the issue would allow for more long term results. But I don’t think you were asking me about gentrification or urban development issues.
Can you tell us a little about some of the band’s best moments? Conversely, can you tell us about some of the band’s lowest moments?
I’ll give you one of each.
High Moment: Receiving a standing ovation at a sold-out Birchmere concert this past New Year’s Eve. The first thing I did in 2015 was to sing harmonies and take a guitar solo with the Seldom Scene.
Low Moment: Jess and I were on one of our first tours ever and traveled eight hours to play a show in Tennessee because we really needed the money. The venue was closed when we got there, and when we called the owner he said, “Yeah I know I booked you, but I’m at the lake. It’s Memorial Day Weekend. Why would you want to do a show? Everyone else is at the lake and no one will show up.” So we ate our PBJs and slept in our car that night.
Who are some of your major influences and why?
The Skillet Lickers, Tom Waits, Bill Monroe because of their ability to take a multitude of sounds and ideas and create one iconic sound that was all their own. Bessie Smith, Sam Chatmon, Louis Armstrong because SOUL POWER. And our friends and picking buddies at Clifftop, Blackpot, Galax, and Watermelon Park Festivals and in our own backyards.
Can you name some local artists we should keep an eye on who we might not already know about?
Anna & Elizabeth, Ultrafaux, Charm City Junction, Letitia Van Sant and the Bonafides, Sunrise Review, Bud’s Collective, The Woodshedders, Only Lonesome and Fellow Creatures.
And finally, what can we expect from your set at the Urbana Music Festival?
Dancing people from 2 to 92 years old. Our buddy Ahren Bucheister is sitting in on electric guitar. Bad jokes, good music.