Jerks of Grass

jerks_2KJerks of Grass
Jerks 2K: Live at Big Sound 2000
Cornmeal Records

Click to hear: “If You Ever Change Your Mind

Loved ones separated from us by great distances, time or death pay us surprise visits in our dreams. There we reunite with old friends or flames, get to hug a departed parent or play fetch with the long-lost family dog.

How wonderful would it be if we could have those dreams on demand, anytime we wanted to re-experience that joy? Having heard Jerks 2K, a live recording Jerks of Grass made at Big Sound studio in Westbrook 15 years ago, I now know the answer to that question, and it’s very wonderful indeed.

I first heard the Jerks in early 1999. The bluegrass quartet had two weekly gigs in those days: Tuesday nights at the Old Port Tavern and Thursdays at Bramhall Pub, back when that Congress Street haunt had a pool table and dart boards and cigarette smoke in the air. The OPT gig didn’t last long, but Bramhall became a scene — one that continues, minus the sports and smokes, today.

Before the turn of the century, the five fellas stood ’round a single microphone on a stand by the Bramhall’s front door. They’d lean in singly to sing, in unison to harmonize; step up to take a solo, then step back into place. And, man, could they rip!

Guitarist Jason Phelps, a verified virtuoso, pulled off stunning six-string feats with ease. Mandolin player Ron Gallant had been pickin’ and grimacin’ for nearly three decades by then — a band he played with in the ’70s opened for Bill Monroe at Portland City Hall — and had only gotten faster. Meanwhile, banjo player Carter Logan did his damnedest on every number to show ’em both who’s boss. (He used to call Phelps before gigs and goad him in a mock-threatening voice: “I’m gonna kick your ass tonight.”)

I wrote a column about the group for Casco Bay Weekly in the spring of ’99, and we got friendly during sessions between sets in the back parking lot. Through the haze of the years and all kinds of smoke I can still see that scene in my mind: earthy girls in flannel shirts and long dresses shuffling up front; their boyfriends, in Carhartt and Levi’s, grinning beneath their beards behind them. Schultzy’s checking IDs and collecting the three-buck cover while Sue, the bartender, stands exasperated but happy amid the crush of customers on what is, by far, the pub’s busiest night. Around the tables, greener players — who’ll go on to form the wave of local bluegrass bands that followed — are nodding, listening hard, waiting like minor leaguers for their chance to be called up and play a song or two with the Big Boys.

The Bramhall was sold in 2008 and closed for several years after that. I saw the Jerks less frequently at other places around town. They finally released an album in 2008, the excellent Come on Home, but by then the band had changed. Ronnie G. had split and formed a new group, Cumberland Crossing, with a less demanding gigging schedule. Bassist Tom Jacques was replaced by his pal Kris Day, of King Memphis fame, and fiddler John Farrell had died.

Though I could picture the classic Jerks line-up, I couldn’t hear them play and was resigned to the knowledge that I never would again. Then Charlie Gaylord, of Cornmeal Records, handed me this CD and, as I said, it was like a dream came true.

How surreal to hear Farrell’s fine tenor again on the first track, “If You Ever Change Your Mind.” Johnny’s sweet demeanor and Cheshire Cat smile masked a sadness that ended his life way too early. In retrospect, this gives his lead vocals on “Before I Met You” and “Lost in a Memory” another dimension of aching beauty, not unlike the tragic resonance Gram Parsons’ voice attained after his premature passing.

The second track here, an instrumental version of “Little Liza Jane,” is a shining example of the early Jerks’ prowess. The notes are rustic, but the energy is rock, and it’s this melding of precision and aggression that made them the best bluegrass band Maine’s ever birthed.

Carter, Jason and G. engage in cutting contests throughout these recordings, culminating in the Jerks’ jaw-dropping cover of Béla Fleck’s “Whitewater.” But there’s much more to appreciate in addition to the acoustic pyrotechnics, like Phelps’ husky, yet vaguely boyish lead vocals on songs such as “Caroline the Teenage Queen” and “Red Georgia Clay.” Farrell’s fiddle on the Old Western instrumental “Natchez Trace” (which your “smart” CD player will call “Nachos Tres,” an example of the group’s humor) calls to mind Jonathan Segel’s contributions to Camper Van Beethoven’s signature sound. Logan’s instrumental asides are liberally littered between the lyrics — you can almost hear him snickering with delight.

Jerks 2K is a delight — a precious souvenir for fans of old and a mind-blowing introduction for the uninitiated, all of whom can still catch the Jerks (in Logan’s latest incarnation of the band) at Bramhall on Thursday nights, making (and erasing) more memories every week.

— Chris Busby

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