Alaska Folk Festival guest artists the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band will soon show Juneau what they do best when they take the stage at 8 p.m. tonight, but before they’ve played note one they’ve already piqued public interest with their colorful backstory.
A few facts: One, frontman and banjo player Leroy Troy earned his chops under the tutelage of legendary country musician Roy Acuff, a jamming buddy of his dad’s. Two, the band is known for their comedic showmanship as well as their serious musicianship, an unusual combination for a folk fest guest artist. Three (for the Hollywood star-gazers out there), their previous gigs include not only the Grand Old Opry stage in Nashville and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., but also a pre-wedding party for Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton.
In short, this is a band with deep roots and a long reach.
“They are really the genuine article,” said Alaska Folk Festival Board President Greg McLaughlin.
Folk festival guest artists are selected in part for their position as “source” artists who have a direct connection to a specific musical tradition, as well as for their proficiency as musicians. Troy and his band emulate the performance style of Uncle Dave Macon, McLaughlin said, a musician who was famous for his blend of vaudeville-style showmanship and old-time banjo music. Macon, who died in 1952, was still alive when Earl Scruggs began making a name for himself as a bluegrass banjo player, but Macon “wasn’t particularly fond of all that fancy picking stuff,” McLaughlin said, and went in a different direction.
Troy got to know about Macon’s style through Acuff, a friend of his dad’s. Troy’s dad ran a bait shop with Acuff’s fiddler, Howdy Forrester, and the shop was a jam spot for Acuff and other musicians. As a kid hanging out with this crowd, Troy learned the “clawhammer” style of banjo playing, eventually incorporating the style and humor that Macon made famous.
“Leroy Troy is probably the greatest living exponent of that style,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said the band’s style, based on turn-of-the-century music, predates bluegrass, which developed in the 1930s.
“They are what eventually became bluegrass music, that’s the style that they play.”
McLaughlin first heard of the band while reading a Wikipedia article about the old-time tradition, which mentioned Leroy Troy. McLaughlin was curious and looked him up.
“I looked at some YouTube videos and I was just astounded,” he said. “He is just an incredible performer.”
When the time came to plan for a guest artist for the Folk Festival, McLaughlin suggested Troy’s band, and, after finding out more, the AFF board agreed they were a great pick.
McLaughlin said the rest of the band members, which includes fiddler Shadrach Cobb and dobro player Mike Webb, are extremely accomplished musicians who can play any style of music, and that the group might well play more modern bluegrass during their Juneau performances.
They will perform at 8 p.m. tonight and at 9 p.m. Sunday.
Troy, Cobb and Webb will also be leading workshops this weekend. Troy will lead a banjo workshop at 3 p.m. Saturday, Cobb will lead a fiddle workshop at noon Saturday, and Webb will lead a dobro workshop at 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
Band members Lester Armistead (jug and vocals), Mike Armistead (guitar and vocals) and Troy will also lead a workshop in jug band history at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in the Egan Room. The sixth member of the band is Ernie Sykes (bass).
For more on the band, visit www.tennesseemafiajugband.com. For more on the festival, visit akfolkfest.org.