Reverence for the Irreverent
See them at George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville on October 29.
By Blair Jackson
Mountain Sprout lives up to its claim as a “hillbilly music machine,” churning out tunes that portray the backwoods adventures of illegal drugs, lots o’ beer, kissin’ cousins, and redneck hippies. With a banjo, a fiddle, an upright bass, a guitar, and four fine sets of facial hair, Mountain Sprout is everything an Ozark Mountain band should be.
After listening to their recordings, I had the overwhelming impulse to see the band live. Whether urged by subliminal messaging or good music, I braved the winding highways, fought motion sickness and paid five bucks for three hours of parking to see Mountain Sprout in all their bearded glory.
“Welcome to our hangover,” frontman Grayson Van Sickle quipped through the mike, holding a beer and cigarette in either hand while his banjo rested in his lap. Around him, the rest of the band was busy, plugging in wires and tuning their strings. The stage of the New Delhi Cafe is made of stone slabs like those found in cabin fireplaces, and church pews with red cushions fill half the room. Behind the pews, the room opens up to the street, allowing passersby and those sitting at the sidewalk tables to watch the show.
As soon as everything is ready, one of the band members says over the mic, “OK, that was exhausting. Let’s take a short break.”The interruption earns the band just enough time to grab fresh alcoholic beverages before starting the show. Daniel Redmond (who bears a striking resemblance to Zac Galifankus when he dons his aviator sunglasses), lays down a solid layer of percussion with his bass slapping, but foot stompin’ is the most predominant form of beat keeping.
Though it’s not necessarily a part of the music, the foot stomp technique is an essential part of Mountain Sprout’s live experience. On stage, VanSickle stomps his heavy work boot and fiddler Blayne Thiebaud stomps-shuffles in his flip-flops. Sitting in the front row pew, I tap my knee-high boots, and it seems like the entire audience is keeping time.
In between songs, the band members joke with each other and the audience. “I think I overdressed for the occasion,” says VanSickle, who is wearing khaki work pants with holes at the knees, a look that displays the long underwear underneath. “Thermal underwear? C’mon, really?” he laughs. Mountain Sprout is anything but timid when it comes to self-deprecating humor, and bolstered by a good-natured humility — developed through years of playing on the streets, sleeping on couches and smoking behind trash bins — even the most vulgar of songs has a copacetic ring to it.
Most of their songs poke fun at the lives of rural Southerners and habits that most church-goin’ folk would frown upon. No topic is taboo for the band, which features songs about camel toes and incest as well as cocaine and meth. On the other end of the spectrum, “Into the Sun” is a semi-serious song that covers social topics like pollution, greed and corruption. Most tracks, however, are about drinking beer and smoking pot and just having a time that is good, though debatably innocent.
The stories behind Mountain Sprout’s music are Arkansan through-and-through, but none of the band is originally from the Natural State. VanSickle and Thiebaud relocated from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Redmond is from Tulsa, and Adam Waggs (guitar) grew up in Illinois. “We’ve always been Arkansan at heart,” says VanSickle who says he appreciates the slow pace of Eureka Springs.
The band’s newest album, “Refried: The Best of the Beans” is a compilation of the most well-received songs from the three previous albums, re-recorded to include Redmond, who replaced Melissa Carper on the upright, and to explore a new production concept. VanSickle says the goal was to record in a laid-back environment — somewhere between a studio and a bar. To accomplish this “front-porch feel,” the band partnered with David Singleton, and used a mobile studio to record the album from a cabin buried deep in the Ozarks. The CD release party is being held at George’s this Saturday.
Like any good string band, the melodies will get your feet tapping and your hands clapping; and the simple, witty lyrics make a good time even better.The stories behind the music come from the personal lives of the band and those of their friends, but there is also an element of fiction to the writing process. “We try to tell the truth, but sometimes the truth just don’t rhyme,” jokes Redmond. Regardless of how true to life the songs are, Arkansans (especially those from the Ozarks) will find something familiar in the songs — if not in the content then in the rhythm.
Of course, I couldn’t leave without asking about beard maintenance. VanSickle, who has the longest beard, said it has been two weeks since he’s trimmed, and though I’m skeptical about how truthful this statement was, it may cover mustache maintenance. For Blayne, it’s been a year. Redmond says he trims his beard quite often. Waggs on guitar, says he hasn’t cut his beard in “four or five years.”
With “Refried” complete, the good ol’ boys of Mountain Sprout are gearing up for a November tour with Splitlip Rayfield and the Legendary Shack Shakers. In addition to their annual 200 shows, the band is beginning work on a fresh album, which is projected for release in March 2012.