Perhaps only the Rolling Stones have been around longer than the Watermelon Mountain Jug Band, who are to our local music scene what the Stones are to rock and roll: enduring. Like the longtime British rock band, these makers of a unique musical sound have survived thanks to sheer stamina and an uncommon creative vibe among the band’s members, who’ve been together, almost all of them, from the start.
Chief among them is Barbara Piper, a longtime East Mountain resident who has been with the band since it was formed in 1975. It all started with a UNM Continuing Education class on how to play jug band instruments. Piper gathered a few classmates at Kelly’s Other Side bar and liquor store to jam on Monday nights. Those sessions eventually jelled into the Watermelon Mountain Jug Band.
That was also the year that Piper met another constant in her life, her husband, Ti. She had come west from Massachusetts and started a career as a teacher with Albuquerque Public Schools. She and Ti, the author of the enduring book, Fishing in New Mexico, soon crossed paths, though they have differing memories of the event.
“I think it was a car wash in Albuquerque, but he said it was at the Golden Inn,” she says. No matter, they were certainly together when they were married by a Moriarty magistrate the same year the band formed, which had started to play at the Golden Inn on North 14 near Golden, close to the juncture with NM 344. “We were for 18 months the house band,” she says of her time at the popular bar that burned down in 1982. “It was a really good, authentic roadhouse. It drew locals and people from the city. The food and drink was really good. Those were good times, and it was so sad to lose the inn.”
The music scene has changed since the band formed, Piper says. “The venues are different now than they used to be. The vibe is different. The old places used to be for families, like The Hungry Bear in town. Albuquerque was smaller and there were fewer bands. Today, it’s the microbreweries that are the good places to play.”
Though the music scene may be different, the songs remain the same. The band strives to stay true to the jug band sound. “We create the vibe, the feel, we try hard to make it fun,” Piper says. “We engage the audience—it’s interactive music for adults and children.”
Jug music is American music, rooted in the Deep South with tendrils that run through cultures and genres, across the big pond and back again. The sound is said to stem from New Orleans jazz and blues played by Black Americans in the South in the early 20th century, and jug bands were laying down sound recordings by the 1920s. The music is typified by the use of improvised or homemade musical instruments. A laundry washboard is the percussion; a large washtub is the bass; kazoos and slide whistles replace the brass of a bigger band. Inexpensive stringed instruments called kalamazoos—that serve as guitars, mandolins, and banjos—are commonly played as well. Central to the sound, of course, is the jug, in glass or stoneware.
By the 1940s, the genre waned in the United States, although it enjoyed a revival in 1950s England with some known quantities who were inspired by the sound, including John Lennon, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, and, yes, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. Likely you’ve also heard “Down on the Corner” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, a song that pays homage to the homemade quality of the jug band sound:
- Rooster hits the washboard and people just got to smile
- Blinky thumps the gut bass and solos for a while
- Poorboy twangs the rhythm out on his kalamazoo
- Willy goes into a dance and doubles on kazoo.
Through the years, the Watermelon Mountain Jug Band has seen few changes to its lineup. Estancia native Ben Perea, a retired band director at Valley High School in Albuquerque, came on board 30 years ago. A renowned banjo and guitar player, he earned a BA in Guitar from the University of New Mexico and is, says Piper, “Phenomenal; he is Nashville-quality.”
Patrick Houlihan, who has a Ph.D. in English and teaches at Central New Mexico College, plays jaw harp, kazoo, harmonica, guitar, and the jug. He also puts his writing skills to work composing some of the band’s original songs. Piper says he has the honor of being “the nicest person in the world.”
Gary Olseson, known as Gut-Bucket Gary, thumps the gut, or washtub, bass. Like the rest of his bandmates, he’s also an educator, retired from teaching math and, true to the notion that mathematicians can keep good time, is said to be a really good dancer.
Piper, who retired from teaching special education after 36 years, has percussion in her blood. Her dad was a drummer and she aspired to play them herself as a child. Today, she scratches out rhythm on the washboard, hits the high hat cymbals and wood blocks, and plays whistles. When not performing, she’s an adjunct instructor in the teacher education department at Santa Fe Community College, and she also does the band’s books.
After 41 years, the Watermelon Mountain Jug Band is still making a happy noise with what may seem like improbable instruments. But it is an American sound, one they apply to both traditional jug band songs and contemporary music. When you hear them play, you might hear Sting, Johnny Cash, or most any other artist interpreted in the old-time jug sound. And the audiences love it as much today as they did when the band first started making people get up and dance at the Golden Inn.
So what’s the band’s secret to their longtime success? “We have lots of fun making music,” Piper says. “Plus, I’m not married to anyone in the band,” she says with a hearty chuckle.
You can see the band’s schedule at watermelonmountainjugband.com
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