BLUE HILL — Some 1,200-plus miles separate Louisville, Ky. and the Blue Hill Peninsula, but that geographic distance has been bridged in recent years through music.
Specifically, by the Loose Cannon Jug Band. The five-man band performs tunes in the greater Blue Hill area, some of them dating to the early days of jug band music as well as others from the 21st century with a decidedly Downeast flavor and feel. The band is among the acts performing as part of Blue Hill’s Last Night celebration on New Year’s Eve.
The band got its start when Blue Hill resident Scott Howell and Nicolas Lindholm of Penobscot were working on a carpentry job together and found themselves making music together on their snack and lunch breaks. The playing progressed to the point where Howell made a declaration.
“He said, ‘You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to be a jug band,’” Lindholm recalled. His response to Howell, he recalled, was, “Cool, what’s a jug band?”
For those who find themselves in the same boat Lindholm did, a quick primer: jug band music developed in the early decades of the 20th century in places like Memphis, Tenn., and Louisville. Music historian Samuel Charters wrote in 1963 that the “characteristic sound of the jug band was the sound of the jug, low and hoarse below the higher pitch of the violin.”
The jug — usually made of stoneware, but sometimes of glass — was used because it was common, cheap, easy to transport and because it was similar to earlier blown instruments from Africa, according to Charters. The particular sound of a given jug band depended in part on where it hailed from, but Charters said some “mingled with the classic jazz styles” of the 1920s while others could play “intensely moving blues.”
The bands had names such as Cannon’s Jug Stompers and The Dixieland Jug Blowers.
The style of music faded out of fashion as the century progressed, enjoying a revival of sorts in the 1960s and ’70s. The jug bands of that time period, according to both Lindholm and Charters, had a different sound than their predecessors — some were folksy while others had a decidedly hillbilly feel.
An example of the latter can be found in “The Muppet Show” of the late 1970s, which featured several performances by a jug band. Underscoring the hillbilly nature, Lindholm noted, three of the traditionally toothless Muppets — wearing overalls, straw hats and plaid shirts — had one tooth each.
Lindholm said he and Howell started listening to the original kind of jug band music, however, and found it to be “amazingly rich.” As The Loose Cannon Jug Band grew — roster additions included Brooksville’s Dan Huisjen and David Stearns and Chris Strehan, both of Blue Hill — it was that tradition it adhered to.
Though different than what they were accustomed to, band members said they very much enjoy the genre for various reasons. Lindholm took piano lessons as a child and taught himself guitar in college, but by the time he reached his early 30s he found he did not have much time for music as he was raising a family.
When he and Howell later connected, he said, it was a welcome opportunity to bring music back into his life. Lindholm said he finds the genre to be inspiring.
“It’s really emotional music,” he said. “It’s down, dirty and gritty, but it can also be full of joy and soul.”
Stearns said he played church and classical music on the violin when he was growing up, so joining a jug band “was a new musical direction for me.”
The spontaneous and often impromptu nature of jug band tunes took some getting used to for Stearns, given his musical background, but he enjoys both that and the chance to play with a group of musicians.
Like his band mates, Stearns — whose day job is teaching social studies and serving as dean of curriculum at George Stevens Academy — plays more than one instrument. While most of his time in the jug band is spent on the fiddle (he said he still says violin out of habit), he also picks up the washboard from time to time, which he plays using gloves with metal-covered fingertips.
“When there was a song I felt I didn’t want to play violin on, or where we needed percussion, I played the washboard,” said Stearns, explaining how he came to play a second instrument in the band.
Howell plays everything from guitar to jug to harmonica while Huisjen plays the concertina, toy piano or tambourine. The two of them and Lindholm on guitar also sing, while Stearns and Strehan offer backing vocals (Strehan also plays the washtub bass).
The Loose Cannon Jug Band has been performing as a group for about six years now, and in November of 2014 they made a trip across Penobscot Bay to Hearstudios in Camden to record an 11-track album — their first — called “Mudflat Laundromat.”
The CD features a mix of classic jug band songs from the 1920s and ’30s as well as several songs written by Lindholm that he imagines jug bands would have sung if they had been in Maine during the music’s heyday.
The tracks run the gamut from fun to mournful, with the title track as an example of the former. In “Mudflat Laundromat,” the listener is encouraged to bring his or her laundry down to the mudflats, “where every salty dog is a real cool cat,” in part because you never know what you might see:
And the old crab laughed
The barnacles cheered
When the razor clam
Shaved his beard
And the mussels came
To show their strength
And the long boats
Hauled in all their length
And the clam warden
He just turns his back
To what happens
At the Mudflat Laundromat
It is not a 24-7 operation, though, and Lindholm warns listeners that “all the fun is over when the tide comes back / So get down to the Mudflat Laundromat.”
“Clamdigger’s Waltz,” another song from the CD, strikes a different, darker chord. In it the listener hears of a clam digger whose girl has left him “out in the muck / Dead out of luck / Doin’ the clamdigger’s waltz.”
The Loose Cannon Jug Band makes appearances around the peninsula and greater Blue Hill area throughout the year, often at places like the monthly coffeehouse at the Penobscot United Methodist Church.
The band’s next performance is New Year’s Eve in Blue Hill as part of the Last Night celebration. They will take the stage at 7 p.m. at the American Legion Hall (13 Tenney Hill Road, across from the Congregational Church).
For information about future performances, find and follow “The Loose Cannon Jug Band” on Facebook.
* Scott “The Original Loose Cannon” Howell sings and plays guitar, jug, harmonica, washboard and kazoo.
* Dan “Earthquake” Huisjen sings and plays concertina, toy piano, tambourine and handclaps.
* Nicolas “Mr. Sunshine” Lindholm sings and plays guitar, toy piano and handclaps.
* David “Professor Bigfoot” Stearns plays fiddle and washboard and provides backing vocals.
* Chris “Pops” Strehan, aka “Grampy” or “Gramps,” plays washtub bass and provides backing vocals.
The Loose Cannon Jug Band will take the stage at 7 p.m. on Dec. 31 at Blue Hill’s Duffy-Wescott Post 85 American Legion Hall (13 Tenney Hill Road) in Blue Hill, across from the Congregational Church.
If you haven’t had a chance to catch The Loose Cannons live, or simply want to be able to hear their music whenever you want, you’re in luck as the band released a CD this year called “Mudflat Laundromat.” To get a copy of the CD, send $13 ($10 for the CD, $3 for shipping) to The Loose Cannon Jug Band, P.O. Box 504, Blue Hill, ME 04614.