Two nights. Two venues. Two bands representing two different styles of music from two different eras. Taken in tandem, they offer one exceptional example of the diversity of our local music scene.
City Limit makes no secret of the fact that they’re a cover band, pure and simple. Like most cover bands, their aim is to appeal to people whose primary purpose is to get on the dance floor and rekindle some musical memories in the process. Their repertoire revolves around a certain familiarity factor.
“We play classic rock,” sax player Dave Eckman said, “Some ’70s, some ’80s, some rock, some disco. “We’re a high energy dance band for people who like classic rock. We pick songs people know, but we mix it up more than most cover bands.”
“We’re pretty diverse,” singer Clinton Young said. “We offer something for everyone, from the ’70s up until now. Anything from Steely Dan to KC and the Sunshine Band. It’s more of an upbeat, danceable thing. My dad was a musician and he used to say, ‘If you can’t pat your foot to it, don’t play it.’”
Aside from Young and Eckman, City Limit includes keyboard player Neil Gillespie, guitarist Roger Coleman, bassist/vocalist Michael Ragsdale and drummer John Baisden. Young calls then “top-flight musicians” and credits them for the chemistry they share on stage. The current incarnation of the band has been together two years, having morphed out of two earlier outfits, Kilroy and Split Decision. Eckman and Gillespie also play in the popular local blues band Mighty Blue.
“We’re professional musicians,” Eckman said. “Neil and I actually play music for a living.”
Being a cover band makes the choice of material all the more essential. To paraphrase a certain saying, familiarity breeds content and contentment alike. Even so, their choices aren’t always obvious. Eckman singles out these songs from their setlist: Bob Seger’s “Mainstreet,” Lowdown” by Boz Scaggs, “The Heat Is On” by Glenn Frey, R.E.M.’s “The One You Love,” “Brick House” by the Commodores, and, natch, “Play That Funky Music White Boy” by Wild Cherry. The latter tune seems to be a perennial favorite as far as cover bands are concerned. Indeed, it’s performed almost as often as the national anthem.
Nevertheless, Young maintains that a great deal of effort goes into choosing their material. “It’s done by committee,” he says. “We’ll mull it over before we chew on it, and then we’ll chew on it and spit a few out.”
Another variation on vintage
For their part, the Knox County Jug Stompers take the term oldies to an entirely new level.
The band specializes in music circa the ’20s and ’30s, mostly jug band blues, country blues, fiddle tunes, banjo tunes, blues and rags — the kind of thing that was once heard on old Victrola record players well back in the day. They cite Doc Watson, the Memphis Jug Band, Bo Carter, Uncle Dave Macon, Roane Mountain Hilltoppers, Charlie Acuff and Louie Bluie as primary influences, and while they’re not exactly household names, those that trace their roots back far enough may be able to claim a connection.
The band — Drew Fisher (banjo/ harmonica/ kazoo/ jug and vocals), April Fisher (washtub bass and vocals), Chris Bratta (percussion/washboard), Stirling Walsh (banjolele and vocals), Buck Hoffman (guitar and vocals), and (Ken Bronson fiddle) — was formed in 2010 and have since notched up wins in the International Biscuit Festival song competition 3 years running. Two years ago, they opened for Dom Flemons at the Knoxville Stomp. Their most recent album, “Rags, Stomps, and Biscuits,” was released in 2015.
“I grew up in a town north of Knox County,” Drew Fisher recalls. “My grandparents would watch the Grand Old Opry with me and they’d take me to the Museum of Appalachia where we’d see shows by Doc Watson, Grandpa Jones and John Hartford ... I’d sit on a hay bale and watch while they just blew me away.”
As Fisher grew up, his interests began leaning more towards rock and heavy metal. Nevertheless, those old-time influences didn’t desert him entirely.
“My dad was into the Grateful Dead,” Fisher recalls. “And that spawned an interest in bands like Old and in the Way, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, David Grisman, all the Dead’s early offshoots. That spiked my interest in that earlier style of music. I became fascinated by string bands, the kind that played with jugs, kazoos, washboards, washtubs — all that early mountain music.”
It was that style of music that became indelibly infused in the Jug Stompers’ sound. “We do the standards, but we try to keep it fresh,” Fisher insists. “As a result, we attract a broad audience — one that includes older folks, younger folks, and those that tend to appreciate authentic roots music. It prods certain memories for the older audiences, taking them back to another time and place, but it also gets a good reaction from kids as well. I once had some parents who came up to me once while I was shopping at Target. They told me their son was so impressed after seeing the band that he decided he wanted to take fiddle lessons.”
Not surprisingly, the group seems to have found a niche in nostalgia. In these trying times, there’s nothing like a little country comfort to provide some reassurance.
“The music has that back porch feel,” Fisher explains. “When people listen to the Jug Stompers, it creates the feeling that you’re sitting around with friends and family, and enjoying a good time together.”