There’s something to be said for a homegrown band that plays music distinctly connected to its environs. Traditional trappings and a sense of time and place create an indelible combination that underscores the authenticity.
One such band is The Early Morning String Dusters, a group whose origins date back 40 years ago to 1979, when a group of young musicians from Blount County convened for a series of informal jams at the Louisville home of Rusty Roseberry. The friends included Roseberry himself on bass, Oscar Tedford on guitar and Sam Carey on mandolin. Within a year, the circle had expanded to include banjo player Tim Byess and fiddler Bo Carey.
“Being single and in our 20s, we could play until daybreak if the spirit moved us,” Carey recalled. “Sam and I grew up idolizing and playing the music of Homer and Jethro, the country/comedy duo who got their start on ‘Mid Day Merry Go Round’ on Knoxville’s WNOX radio, and later recorded for Chet Atkins in Nashville. As the sun rose one morning, Sam mentioned that Homer and Jethro were originally known as ‘The String Dusters.’ Since we were the only band still playing at 6 a.m., the inspiration came about for the name ‘The Early Morning String Dusters.’”
Not surprisingly then, one of the group’s first paying gigs was an early morning breakfast concert for some University of Tennessee students in Morrell Hall Cafeteria.
An array of bookings soon followed, most of which found a fine fit — among them, a barn-raising in Tellico Plains, a concert at the 1982 World’s Fair, a bachelorette party (the band decided to turn down a request to play topless), a featured performance on an episode of the locally produced “Heartland” series, and an opening slot for Lee Greenwood at former Rep. Jimmy Duncan’s annual barbecue at the Civic Coliseum.
Roseberry and Tim Byess left the fold in the late ‘80s, citing conflicts with their day jobs. In their place, the group recruited Bill Rasnick on banjo and Mark Jones on mandolin. Carey then switched to upright bass. Although Tedford is the primary lead singer, all five musicians contribute to the vocal harmonies, and it’s this core quintet that’s remained intact for the past 30 years.
“What we did not know when they joined was that Rasnick and Jones possessed a flair for comedy,” Carey said. “That made them the perfect complement to the rest of us cutups.”
As time went by, the band added various comedic elements to their performances, including such sound effects as train whistles, a dinner bell, bird calls and even an occasional obituary for a famous television character.
“We plug every product and service imaginable, from Rice Krispies to Martha White Flour to Cas Walker’s Thumpin’ Good watermelons,” Carey said. “Throwback themes remind the audience of bygone days while watching the ‘Beverly Hillbillies,’ moonshine smuggling on Thunder Road and a visit to ‘Petticoat Junction.’ We also encourage audience participation. The crowd reactions often find folks singing along, occasionally dancing to the fast numbers and responding to the many jokes with reaction that can range from belly laughs to groans to mere silence.”
Despite the fact that The Early Morning String Dusters have yet to release an actual album, they have gained a reputation of sorts as East Tennessee’s premier party band, and typically they’re booked for weddings, birthdays and corporate events. That’s not to say they haven’t been featured in some high-profile public performances as well. The list of venues where they’ve appeared include The Bijou Theater in Knoxville, Dollywood, the Mount LeConte Lodge, the Bob Dylan Birthday Bash and the International Food Festival in Lenoir City. In addition, the band performs a Celtic tribute show in Knoxville every year on the Tuesday before St. Patrick’s Day.
“My brothers and I were influenced by our Irish-American grandfather and great uncles who formed a string band almost a century ago,” Carey said. “They passed on some of their songs and instruments to the next couple of generations, along with a decided love of the music.”
Early on, the band’s other influences came to include the Kingston Trio, Bob Wills, Glen Campbell, Don Gibson, Patty Page, Johnny Cash and Little Jimmy Dickens. However as Carey notes, the band’s penchant for mixing comedy with their music can be traced to the duo that originally inspired their name.
“We identify most with the parodies championed by Homer and Jethro in the past century,” he said. “Although we’ve written original material, our preference is to parody famous tunes and change the lyrics in the hopes of eliciting smiles and chuckles from our listeners. That might involve our Early Morning String Duster audiences discovering Uncle Jed Clampett in a biker bar or the Western swing classic ‘San Antonio Rose’ transformed into a tourist trap saga titled ‘The Rose of Pigeon Forge.’”