The Bumper Jacksons are a six-piece Washington DC-based roots music band that mixes jazz, blues, and country. They’ve been honored multiple times as the Mid-Atlantic’s “Artist of the Year” & “Best Traditional Band” at the Washington Area Music Awards. They’ve released three studio albums: Sweet Mama, Sweet Daddy, Come In (2014), Too Big World (2015), and I’ve Never Met A Stranger (2017). As lead singer and clarinetist Jess Eliot Myhre discussed with me, they have plans to release a studio and possibly also a live album this year. In a wide-ranging conversation,Jess and I mulled over politics and music, the music scene in DC and urban development, and the band’s upcoming projects.
AH: Growing up, my local public radio station had an Americana format, but they called it “folk,” yet Iris DeMent and Emmylou Harris were also considered “country” artists. How do you handle categorizing and labeling your music?
JEM: Well, the term “folk” would be a pretty accurate term for what our band does. But when people hear the word “folk,” they think of Pete Seeger. It ends up not being a helpful description to a larger audience, even though what folk really means is a tradition that is expanding and evolving. It’s an accurate word to describe our music, but it ends up being a label that we don’t use.
AH: Your songs sometimes address the political. What do you think of the role of politics in Americana and roots music?
JEM: I think artists should speak about whatever they want to speak about to the extent that it’s authentic to them. I have been really enjoying my band stepping into a space where we are a little more political now. We don’t shy away from it if it feels important to us. My fundamental job as a musician is not to spread a political message. I wouldn’t call myself a political artist. I focus much more on “calling in” versus “calling out” when I choose to say something, to introduce a song. We kind of paint with a broad brush in terms of what we say politically, especially because there’s six of us in the band.
Chris Ousley (the guitar player) and I, are the main ones who speak and introduce things, and everybody in our band generally tends to lean progressive. But it’s important to me that we honor everyone in the group when I speak about things. I’m not afraid to be political or potentially alienate some fans necessarily if a moment feels important to me or authentic to me to talk about something but I’m also not under the delusion that me saying something on a stage is going to change someone’s mind. [Laughs]
When we talk about political things on stage, we generally tend to call for more compassion or more willingness to listen to people that you wouldn’t otherwise agree with or excitement, or excitement about the next generation.
We’ll bring up, for example, the students in Parkland, FL, how they’ve become super politically active and they’re really learning how to organize and learning how to talk to the media, that being really exciting to me. The song “White Horse” really is for the next generation. We’ll talk about that, but I don’t sense that Americana music or American roots music as a whole somehow needs to be more political than it is. I think of it from the perspective of an individual artist who will do what they do if they see fit, I suppose.
AH: You are a very diverse band. You’re racially diverse, you have members of different ages, one who’s a veteran, and I imagine that there are differences in opinion amongst you. Does that bring in different influences to the music?
JEM: Oh absolutely, that’s one of the things that makes our band quite unique. We play traditional music, or American roots music, from different genres, from different musical backgrounds.
For example, Dave, the pedal steel player, came from a country and a singer-songwriter and a western swing world; our bass player and our trumpet player, they studied jazz in school; our drummer came from a world of funk and soul and hip hop; I’m coming from more of a place of traditional jazz; and Chris is coming from old-time bluegrass.
We all come from completely different musical genres but also how we learned the music. Both our bass and trumpet player studied music performance and have their master’s in either performance or education. Chris, the guitar player, he doesn’t even read music, he learns everything by ear; same with our drummer, he doesn’t read music at all. We have all learned just doing or having or a few lessons or going to a workshop here and there but we don’t really have any formal training.
AH: Who are some of your jazz influences?
JEM: Well, vocally, I really love Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday. When I was in high school, I got turned on to Madeleine Peru and Eva Cassidy there were kind of my gateway drugs, as it were, into the older stuff, because they do a lot of jazz standards. They sing in ways that are influenced by the earlier vocalists. I love Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, but it’s almost always vocalists from that era that have really influenced me. Even with my clarinet playing, I play my clarinet very vocally. I love Dinah Washington, Doris Day. But Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday are my favorite, my two really big ones. The way that I choose to phrase and be playful with my voice definitely comes from listening to a lot of them.
AH: Who influences the band instrumentally?
JEM: Oh, everybody comes to the table with very different influences. Our bass player really loves Oliver Wood from the Wood Brothers, his bass playing, the Wood Brothers are great.
Chris, for his guitar, listens to both Chuck Berry and Freddy Green.
AH: On your first album, you covered Tom Waits’ “Clap Hands,” and you nailed his weirdness.
JEM: We get so much weird. [Laughs.l Tom Waits is one of my favorite songwriters. He’s a big influence on my songwriting.
AH: Has Djanjo Reinhardt seeped into your style?
JEM: Chris’ll play the jazz changes. I know he listens some to Djanjo Reinhardt, but I would say that traditional jazz, New Orleans jazz, is really a much bigger influence in what we do than that French jazz manouche.
AH: We have had so many clubs open up in DC in the last few years–and development in the area– what are you thoughts on this?
JEM: I love that question! I never get that question! I feel very torn about things like the new developments down in southwest and down near the waterfront, because the development is beautiful, it’s exciting to have the Anthem, Pearl Street Warehouse, Union Stage. It’s exciting to have these new spots, and it’s cool that a lot–not all of it, most of the stores and restaurants are very expensive–but the outdoor areas, there’s tons of free public, spaces, those play spaces that are water-based for the kids.
There is a lot of space that is open to the public and free, but a lot of people were kicked out of that area in order to build that, and I know the city sold it to the developer for a dollar, just criminal.
I feel torn, because it’s exciting have all of this new stuff, but it does cater to a wealthier audience. I don’t know so much around Iota closing. I don’t really know why that happened. In general it’s exciting for a city to have a lot of venues that are competing against each other. I think it makes for a really thriving music scene and that people have ton of of options in terms of going out to hear and support live music.
The more music does well, and the more bands are doing well, and the more venues are doing well, the more likely it is for people to have on their radar, I want to go out to hear live music tonight, if that’s a thriving scene. I get excited about that.
AH: In addition to that, Songbyrd has also opened.
JEM: The venues we just named are at very different levels and support live music of people that are touring at very different levels. Songbyrd is much more DIY and for local bands that are either just getting off the ground or bangin’ around and having fun sounding good, but don’t have aspirations to try and really tour or anything.
Pearl Street Warehouse has a slew of great Americana acts that tour either regionally or nationally.
And Anthem is larger and on a totally different level. That, I think, is great for the musical ecosystem, to have a lot of different spaces that support music at different levels.
AH: And there’s no relationship between the size of the venue and the quality of the music. In the popular imagination, people equate size with quality, but it’s just not the case. At small intimate shows, you really feel connected to the performer and the rest of the audience.
JEM: I totally agree. I’ve tried to convince both my parents and my partner’s parents that going out to support smaller bands, you’ll often be super pleasantly surprised. I also love slightly more intimate venues. Oftentimes, just the sound is better; it’s an easier room to mix. I really like seeing music in a room that’s not bigger than the Hamilton. The Hamilton the capacity’s 500. That’s a great size, I love that size. Even if you’re up-an-coming hometown band, you can play those spots. They’ll give you a shot. But then you can also see famous people on those stages. I’ve seen Lake Street Dive at the Hamilton, and they killed it, it was an excellent show.
AH: Is there a new album in the works for the Bumper Jacksons?
JEM: Yes, there is a new studio album in the works. We might also release Live From Wolf Trap, but we’re definitely going to be in the studio this spring, and we’re planning on doing a late 2019 release of a whole new complete record.
AH: Thank you for talking with us! And good luck!